Cole Huff was thinking about his options and pondering his next move when his phone started buzzing.
An upbeat East Coast point guard was texting him about the possibility of playing together at Creighton. About how they’d mesh on the court. How they could spearhead a post-Doug McDermott resurgence. How the program’s culture suited them.
Huff didn’t know much about Maurice Watson — beyond their text chats, a few highlight clips and some box scores. Huff wasn’t too familiar with his potential Bluejay teammates, either.
That’s the reality of a layered and condensed transfer process, though. Huff’s first priority wasn’t to find new buddies. He wanted a specific landing spot, where he could play a certain style, where a positional need was evident and where coaches weren’t already plotting to lure one or two recruits who could infringe on his minutes.
He picked Creighton after about a week. But even when he stepped on campus, he wasn’t entirely sure how the next three years would unfold.
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“There’s uncertainty everywhere, especially with a new situation,” Huff said.
And that’s what is remarkable about the Bluejays’ current team dynamic.
Huff, Watson and junior Marcus Foster — three transfers relatively unfamiliar with the CU environment — could have upset the balance. The delicate blending of personalities could have been contaminated by three newcomers who weren’t able to use a lengthy recruiting process to integrate themselves with their teammates.
Instead, Creighton is back in the preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2012-13 largely because of this talented trio. Huff, Watson and Foster are starters, play-makers and leaders. They’ll likely sit atop opponents’ scouting reports each week. They’ll be the ones everyone looks to in crunch time.
And up next is Kaleb Joseph, who joined CU from Syracuse. The 6-foot-3 guard is sitting out this season, but he’s already emerging as a potential tone-setter in practice, able to aggressively push tempo and jump-start the offense for his teammates.
“It used to be that you either transferred because you didn’t have a choice — you got kicked off the team — or you figured out you weren’t good enough to play there,” coach Greg McDermott said. “And now, good players transfer.”
McDermott has said he’d like to keep at least one scholarship available for the spring, in case another promising transfer expresses interest in Creighton.
“It’s happening a lot now,” he said. “If you don’t have your eye on that, you’re a fool. Obviously it’s been good to us.”
Coaches had a pretty clear picture of who they were bringing in, McDermott said. They’d pursued Foster and Joseph out of high school. Huff and Watson were game-changers their previous programs didn’t want to lose.
But how would their personalities blend in?
Foster wondered about this. He left Kansas State and picked Creighton because of the relationships he built with the CU coaches. He committed without visiting.
So when he arrived, Foster clung closely to Huff and Watson early on, picking their brains about their first seasons with the Bluejays. It didn’t take long for him to get comfortable.
“When I got here, everybody, they opened up to me immediately — and you don’t see that at most places,” Foster said. “This team, everybody likes each other, wants to hang around each other. You don’t see that everywhere. It’s good to have that on your team.”
The NCAA-required year off for transfers is critical to the assimilation process, according to a couple of Big East coaches.
Good players tend to respect good players, Xavier coach Chris Mack said. So by the time the transfers are eligible, they’ve already sacrificed, stayed committed and proven themselves.
Matt Stainbrook and Remy Abell both started for two years at Xavier. RaShid Gaston, a 6-foot-9 forward, is expected to play a key role for the Musketeers this season.
“Any time you can add talent level to your program, as long as they’re the type of character guy that you want in the locker room, I think that (personality) piece sort of works itself out,” Mack said.
Villanova’s Jay Wright has watched the transformation of Eric Paschall over the past year — how the sophomore transfer has fused himself into the fabric of the team.
“That’s why I think sitting out for a transfer is really important, as long as he doesn’t lose any eligibility,” Wright said. “Because academically, he gets to fit in. You get to learn everything about him. He gets to learn your system before he plays. … I think it’s perfect the way it’s set up.”
It’s not always seamless, though.
Foster enjoyed getting the scout team assignments each week, mimicking Big East stars to help prepare his teammates. But the urge to get out and play never left him. It was tough at times, he said. Plus, Foster missed a few weeks with a knee injury.
Huff and Watson also had injuries to tend to while redshirting. Plus, they sat out the year prior to Foster’s arrival — when Creighton won just four Big East games and finished with a losing record overall.
“I was trying to lead but I wasn’t playing,” Watson said. “I broke my foot. It was hard to get the guys to follow me then. … It was the roughest year of my life.”
But he’s better for it, Watson said. His main focus was to work hard. He earned the trust of his teammates in the process. Huff and Foster, too.
Now they just want to achieve some of the lofty goals they visualized when they chose to transfer to Creighton.
“I knew I wanted to play for Coach Mac, but I wanted the team chemistry to be here, too,” Foster said. “Once I got here, and saw how everything was, how easy it was for us to fit in. That’s why I’m so comfortable here and excited to play with these guys.”
* * *
Maurice Watson, G, 5-10, Sr.
He is Creighton’s tone-setter and top playmaker. Watson’s long-range shot has improved, and he hopes his decision-making has, too. He’ll be one of the nation’s best point guards.
Marcus Foster, G, 6-3, Jr.
He has shot-making ability, able to attack the rim or abruptly rise up for a jump shot. CU hopes Foster can be a force on defense, too.
Cole Huff, F, 6-8, Sr.
He played through pain last season and still averaged 11.3 points per game. He’s also CU’s top returning rebounder (5.1 per game). Huff’s not quite healthy yet, but he’ll play a key role regardless.
Zach Hanson, C, 6-9, Sr.
Hanson has been rehabbing throughout the preseason, working to return to the lineup after offseason knee surgery. Creighton will need his 245-pound frame inside.
Justin Patton, C, 7-0, RFr.
Patton’s length will aid CU defensively, and his offensive versatility will be difficult for opposing centers to match up with. But he’ll still have to adjust to Division I physicality.
Khyri Thomas, G, 6-3, So.
The summer was an important one for Thomas, who gained confidence on the offensive end of the floor. He averaged 6.2 points per game last year, but that figure should grow.
Isaiah Zierden, G, 6-3, Sr.
He’s back from offseason shoulder surgery, and showing no ill effects. Zierden made 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers and led the team in steals (44) last season.
Toby Hegner, F, 6-10, Jr.
Of Hegner’s 56 made field goals last season, 42 were 3-pointers. CU will work to get him shots again this season, but he’ll also be asked to battle down low with the Jays’ lack of proven depth in the frontcourt.
Ronnie Harrell, F, 6-7, So.
Coaches and teammates have been commending Harrell for adjusting his mentality over the summer. He’s been active on the glass in practice — a possible path to an increased role.
Martin Krampelj, F, 6-9, RFr.
He had to recover from a season-ending knee injury, but Krampelj has actually built considerable leg strength since then. The Slovenia native will bring toughness and athleticism inside.
Kobe Paras, G, 6-6, Fr.
A late-summer addition, Paras has integrated himself well already. He’s a highlight-reel dunker and a potential mismatch on the wing. But there are a few veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
Davion Mintz, G, 6-3, Fr.
He’ll likely see some playing time as the backup point guard. Mintz averaged 20.7 points as a high school senior in North Carolina, so he has potential to be more than just a distributor.
Tyler Clement, G, 6-1, Jr.
Clement appeared in 31 games last season. And he’ll again be a reliable option off the bench when called upon. He could most certainly run the offense in a pinch.
Jordan Scurry, G, 6-2, Fr.
The walk-on guard from Massachusetts brings good size and a smooth shot to the Jays’ perimeter. Keep an eye on his development.
Kaleb Joseph, G, 6-3, Jr.
The transfer from Syracuse must sit out this season. Joseph’s been unafraid to attack the paint in practice. He’ll be looking to make the most of his redshirt year.