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'Everybody bought in' for the Jays last season. What does Creighton basketball have for an encore?
BASKETBALL

'Everybody bought in' for the Jays last season. What does Creighton basketball have for an encore?

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'Everybody bought in' for the Jays last season. What does Creighton basketball have for an encore?

Last season, Creighton had multiple big-game wins. A No. 7 final ranking. A share of the Big East regular season title. Said senior Damien Jefferson: “We all were a star in our role.”

Sophomore Antwann Jones remembers watching Creighton take the court before an NIT game two seasons ago.

Easy win coming, he thought.

Jones was wrapping up his first year at Memphis. Creighton was young and still developing.

“I saw them warm up and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, we fittin’ to blow these dudes out,’” Jones said.

But then he saw how the Jays played.

“I realized how they executed really well, and how you can be successful if you play the game the right way,” Jones said.

Creighton’s guys brought a collaborative approach that Jones couldn’t help but admire — CU finished with 17 assists on 31 made shots that night. The Jays knew the intricacies of their pace-and-space system and how to operate individually within it. They hustled. They moved without the ball. They kept it simple. They didn’t fold at the face of adversity, either — Memphis cut a 17-point deficit to two, but ultimately lost 79-67.

Jones transferred to Creighton last year and watched from the sidelines as the Bluejays used that same formula in a landmark 2019-20 season full of achievements.

Multiple big-game wins. A No. 7 final ranking. A share of the Big East regular-season title.

Said senior Damien Jefferson: “We all were a star in our role.”

Each guy had to sacrifice something — maybe it was less playing time than he desired, or fewer shot attempts than he would have preferred. But then his internal focus immediately shifted toward maximizing the opportunities he did have, instead of stewing over the ones he didn’t.

From Jones’ perspective, there was nothing overly complicated about it. Coaches plead for a team-first mentality from the day you start playing this sport. The Jays wholeheartedly embraced that concept.

“(The coaches) gave us tasks that they thought everybody could do and we did it to the best of our abilities so we had the opportunity to win games,” Jones said. “That’s what I saw unfold. Everybody bought in.”

Now Creighton hopes to do it again.

The puzzle pieces will be a little different this year. Two-way standout Ty-Shon Alexander is a pro now. But four starters return, plus 2020 Big East sixth man of the year Denzel Mahoney and improved sophomore reserve Shereef Mitchell. Jones is eligible, junior Jacob Epperson is healthy and freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner is picking things up quickly.

But how the group meshes together and sorts out roles remains to be seen.

“It might take games to figure it out — but I feel like we’ll be good,” Jefferson said. “We’re mixing guys around and getting different lineups in practice. We’re just excited to play, man, and show everybody what we’ve been working on.”

It’s uncertain when that season debut will take place. CU announced Thursday that it’s pausing team activities following multiple COVID-19 positive test results. The first three scheduled games this week are canceled.

At this point, the 2020-21 season opener is set for Dec. 1 against UNO.

All the Jays are ready.

To build off last year’s momentum. To apply the offseason lessons. To have fun again in a competitive setting. To pursue new milestones.

Creighton enters this winter ranked higher than ever to open a season at No. 11. It could compete for a second straight league title. It could make that much-anticipated deep run in March.

But each one of the Jays has to find his niche first.

This is exactly why Jones chose to transfer here. He thinks he can bring something different, while still blending into Creighton’s we-before-me culture.

“(The coaches) are 100% clear with what they need me to do and how they need me to do it,” Jones said. “I’m fitting into the system really well. I have a couple things I need to learn, but just playing hard will be my No. 1 thing. If you play hard and be a great teammate, everything will work out.”


Meet the 2020-21 Creighton men's basketball team

Omaha World-Herald: Local Sports

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