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Know Your Big East Opponent: Creighton

The Bluejays lost a few components from a rough season a year ago, but there is reason to think things are back on the upswing in Omaha.

James Milliken is Creighton's returning leading scorer.
James Milliken is Creighton's returning leading scorer.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Things were always going to be tough for Creighton last season. Doug McDermott had run out of eligibility and taken 80% of the starting lineup from a bitterly short NCAA Tournament run with him. Very little of the firepower that had gotten Creighton there remained, and it was hard to know what to expect. Things actually began very promisingly with an impressive early season win against Oklahoma vaulting Creighton to 23rd in the AP poll. However, a 9-game tailspin over the course of 35 disastrous December and January days obliterated the early hope of the season, and only a resilient, battling nature preserved the sense of pride for the program, as they went 4-6 down the stretch and took Georgetown down to the wire in the Big East Quarterfinal.

What Creighton did well last year as a team is very hard to find. Offensively, they were average almost across the board, save for a good .725 mark from the line. Defensively, they killed possessions well with their rebounding, but were awful at forcing turnovers and defending the perimeter. However, their calling card as a squad last year was their relentlessness. of the 15 games they lost to Big East opposition last season, 9 were single digit losses, four of which were to NCAA Tournament 6 seeds (Butler x2, Xavier, and Providence), once to a 4 seed (Georgetown), and once to a 1 seed (Villanova). Had some very minor things gone differently in those games last year, Creighton would have been a 20 win team with a solid resume. Instead, they didn't even go to the CBI.

Returning Players:

The top returning scorer will be guard James Milliken, who showed his ability to score in a variety of ways last season. His 9.6/2.6/1.8 came on a shooting line of .406/.385/.785, and he only figures to be a bigger part of the offense this season. Milliken showed he is ready to be the alpha dog for the Bluejays offense with his 22 points against DePaul in the first round of the Big East tournament, where he used nearly a quarter of the possessions available to him.

Right behind Milliken on the scoring list is fellow guard Isaiah Zierden, who had his second season at Creighton cut short by injury. A partially torn MCL sidelined him for the final 13 games of the season, but he had been a fairly effective scorer up to that point. He got 9.5/2.3/1.5 on a .396/.396/.900 shooting line in the 20 games he played. He struggled badly once conference play began, going on a 7-27 slump from outside, so he will be eager to prove he can perform against Big East opposition.

Down low, 7-footer Geoffrey Groselle played himself into a starting role as the season went on, due to his abilities to block shots, grab offensive rebounds, and foul slightly less frequently than Artino. Groselle's season really looked like it was taking off with his 15 and 7 against Xavier, but he was hampered the rest of way by his inability to not foul, splitting playing time with Artino and Zach Hanson for the reminder of the season.

Toby Hegner had a fairly successful first season for Creighton, taxing defenses with his 6'10" frame coupled with his willingness to step outside and take shot as well. Hegner was good for 6.7/3.4/0.8 with his shooting line coming in at .419/.360/.825. He faded, as most freshmen do, down the stretch, with his last double digit scoring performance coming on January 28, but he showed an ability to get baskets in the flow of the offense that will be big for Creighton this year.

Departing Players:

Devin Brooks was the first option off the bench for the 2014 squad and was called on to make the jump to a bigger role last year. Brooks suffered badly under the added weight of picking up more of the scoring load, with his assist and turnover rates remaining close to what they had been, but his overall effectiveness plummeting under the weight of a .350/.243/.733 shooting line.

A player who shone in the absence of other scoring options was Austin Chatman, who also is gone now. Chatman got 11.5/3.5/3.7 on .370/.310/.810, and his experience as a third year starter was vital to a team that was very short on meaningful experience.

Will Artino was mostly an auxillary option on offense, but was Creighton's most effective rebounder at both ends of the floor. He ended up getting 6.1/4.7/0.4, but struggled to keep himself out of foul trouble long enough to have as much impact on games as he could have.

One player Xavier fans will be glad to see the back of is former Cal wing Rick Kreklow, who rode an insane hot streak to becoming one of the most feared shooters in the Big East, with a .452 mark from three point range in conference play. Overall, his 7.5/3.1/1.5 may seem easy to replace, but he was Creighton's best spot-up shooter, and was key to their late season surge.

Avery Dingman is the final departure for Creighton, and brought most of his value on the defensive end where, despite his 6'6" stature, he was a solid shot blocker and rebounder. Dingman only got about 19 minutes a game, due largely to his offensive limitations.

Incoming Players:

The biggest incoming player is a member of the 2014 recruiting class. Ronnie Harrell redshirted last season, when he came in ranked 71st in the ESPN Top 100. Harrell is a 6-7 shooter who possesses a little bit of the ability to beat his man off the dribble. The comps to Kyle Korver speak to the fact that the long range shooting is what is going to set him apart though, not taking anyone off the dribble.

Justin Patton is probably the next best Bluejays recruit. A 6-10, 205 center, he's more of a floor spacer than a massive post presence. He can jump for someone his size, so he'll impact the game around the rim more than with any back to the basket or physical moves. Nevada transfer Cole Huff will add some of that menace down low. A 6-8, 215 forward, Huff averaged 12.4/5.4/.8 in 2014 and shot 40.3% from deep. He's a player. The other incoming transfer, 6-3 guard Maurice Watson Jr. posted an unheard of 49.9% assist rate for Boston U in 2014 on his way to averaging 13.3/7.1/3.6. His steal rate of 4.6% was also good for 27th in the nation. Those are impact players off the transfer wire. Malik Albert is another transfer that could see a good amount of time at guard.

If Albert, an NJCCA Division II All-American last year, doesn't take some time at point guard it will be because Marlon Stewart has. Stewart is a big body (6-3, 180) point guard who prefers to get in the lane and either finish or distribute from there. His jumper is adequate, but not excellent. 6-4 Khyri Thomas is a slasher who also struggles with his consistency from deep but can get to the rim and finish with authority at times. Martin Kramplej, a native of Slovenia, is the final member of the incoming class. Kramplej has been working on his strength but, at 6-9, 205, almost fits the stereotype of the European finesse big man.

Outlook:

Creighton took a blow last year when they lost the most famous player to come through the program. This year, they'll be trying to replace a lot of production yet again. Last year it was the inability to finish close games that kept them from a 20 win season and a possible bid to the NCAA tournament. This year it figures to be the assimilation of a great deal of new talent and the first steps toward rebuilding that keep them in the conference's lower half.