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2020-21 Big East Men’s Basketball Preview: Creighton Bluejays

Remember when they were destined to be a preseason Final Four team this year? That might still be the case.

Big East Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Team: Creighton Bluejays

2019-20 Record: 24-7, 13-7 Big East

2019-20 Big East Finish: Three-way tie for first place, with tiebreakers giving them the #1 seed in the Big East tournament.

Final 2018-19 KenPom Ranking: #12

Postseason? If you recall, on the Coronavirus Day of Reckoning for college basketball, Creighton was in the middle of playing St John’s as major conferences began cancelling their postseason tournaments. As the world crumbled around Madison Square Garden, there stood two teams in a mostly empty stadium. In Titanic Band fashion, both teams knew the battle for the season was over. Neither knew the full effect the pandemic would cause on our world, but it’s hard to focus solely on a tournament game when the canary in the coalmine has been shrieking for a day straight.

St. John’s led at halftime of the final pre-Covid game of the year, 38-35. That makes Creighton the national runner-up. Congratulations.

If you’re some sort of weirdo that prefers to listen to what Bracket Matrix says, the Jays were aimed at a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Key Departures: Some guy named Jordan Scurry graduated. Hope he’s doing well. Also Kelvin Jones, who was supposed to be the Bluejays’ interior presence after the season-ending leg injury of Jacob Epperson, but the offense worked so much better with a combination of Christian Bishop, Denzel Mahoney and Damien Jefferson as the “center” that Jones only played a quarter of the minutes.

The gigantic departure is Ty-Shon Alexander. He was the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria of this team. I’ll dive in more during the Outlook section, but Alexander’s decision to forego his senior year to enter the NBA draft raises some questions for a Bluejay squad that had Final Four aspirations.

Key Returners: While Ty-Shon was the fulcrum of the team, he was also one of a three-headed monster guard group that includes Mitch Ballock and Marcus Zegarowski. With Markus Howard out of the picture, Zegs will take the throne as the best scorer in the Big East, while also being an excellent distributor. Ballock will retain his role as a bullseye shooter, but he’ll likely be asked to do more driving to fill the Alexander void.

Creighton’s entire system spits on your concepts of positions, but for the sake of communication Christian Bishop, Denzel Mahoney and Damien Jefferson return as forwards. Bishop is the only one who truly can’t be described as a “stretch” forward, but has excellent speed and footwork to get decent interior looks.

There’s also Shareef Mitchell, a sophomore point guard who really couldn’t get in much of a rhythm last year with who he was playing behind. He should get more of an opportunity to shine and I’ll never assume that a Creighton guard can’t develop into an offensive force, but there wasn’t a whole lot I saw out of him last year that overly impressed me.

Key Additions: I don’t know if he’s truly an “addition”, but 6’11” Jacob Epperson returns this year after missing the entirety of last year with a gnarly leg injury that he suffered before the season got going. All signs seem to indicate that he’ll be good to start the beginning of the year, but it’s still not certain how he’ll be handled given his sporadic minutes during his first two years. For whatever it’s worth to you, Creighton lists him as a junior after he played in the 2017-18 season, missed most of 2018-19 but did receive a medical redshirt, and then missed all of last season.

They also add Memphis transfer Antwann Jones, who bounced from Memphis shortly after realizing that Penny Hardaway was dishing out checks to James Wiseman. It’s a smart move and he brings a little more length to the wing position at 6’6”. His offensive numbers won’t wow you, but he shot 34% from three in his rookie campaign, so a lineup with Jones and Epperson could be used when Bishop needs a spell.

There are additional freshmen coming in, giving the Bluejays the #31 recruiting class in the country according to 247 Sports and fourth best in the Big East. There’s Rati Andronikashvili (6’4”, 185 lb., #70), whose name I had to copy/paste from the roster page as well as Ryan Kalkbrenner (7’0”, 235 lb., #124), whose name I also had to copy/paste from the roster page. I know nothing else about them, but I am presuming that Kalkbrenner will hit at least one three-pointer in every game this season because he is a 7-footer that plays for Creighton.

Coach: Greg McDermott, entering his eleventh season at Creighton, 20th as a Division 1 head coach, and 27th as a collegiate head coach. He now has an increased likelihood of outlasting his former rival in Gregg Marshall. Not something I would have anticipated in April of 2015. McDermott has a record of 231-116 with the Bluejays and 380-247 overall in Division 1.

Outlook: Going into the second half of Big East play last year, Creighton had the outlook of at best an average year for results. Following a thorough evisceration by San Diego State early in the year, they found themselves ranked 66 on KenPom’s rankings, which they were able to crawl up to 46 at the end of non-conference play, then up to 38 after a 2-3 start in the league. Then everything clicked at once and they became a dominant force that would go 11-2 the rest of the way.

All of a sudden, Seton Hall was not the clear best team in the conference (remember, Villanova was 7-4 on February 9) and basketball writers across the globe were frothing at the mouth thinking of the offseason content they could get out of a terrifying Bluejay offense with 7 upperclassmen eating 90% of the team’s minutes. The preseason dark horse Final Four contender articles were writing themselves and the spotlight was going to be focused on their star player. Ty-Shon Alexander was groomed to take the college basketball world by storm as a star in all facets of the game. Sadly for Big East fans, but gladly for his future prospects, he decided to enter into the NBA Draft. Creighton will still be an excellent team without him, but his absence significantly lowers their ceiling.

In the 4 matchups between the Bluejays and the combination of Seton Hall and Marquette, the Omaha scholars went 4-0 and won by an average of 11.75 points. Winning all those games is not entirely surprising, but the margin is staggering because of the common factor that bridges those teams together, which is an elite scorer. Markus Howard and Myles Powell shot a putrid 32.2% from the floor and 39.0% eFG% in those games because Ty-Shon Alexander was told to have sole focus on them during defensive possessions. It was the greatest defense I have ever seen be placed on Markus Howard by one man. Other teams like Maryland, Indiana, and St John’s at times had been able to stop him with a full team effort to do so, but Greg McDermott being able to trust a player with that gargantuan assignment made a huge difference for the team.

Basketball is so guard-centric that Creighton was able to get away with playing 6’7” Christian Bishop at the 5 position for absurdly long stretches because Ty-Shon was able to stop any penetration by lead guards meant to get the ball in a big man’s hands. The first Marquette/Creighton matchup in Omaha was a perfect example of this, as Theo John/Ed Morrow/Jayce Johnson combined for 9 shot attempts. The ability to at least limit the amount of damage done on the interior allows them to unleash absolute mayhem on the offensive end, where a smaller big can move around the court more to create space, even if they can’t shoot.

This is, of course, something that Creighton can’t automatically do in 2020-21, because there’s no Ty-Shon Alexander any more.

The loss of Alexander won’t turn Creighton into a bad offensive team by any stretch. We are well aware of the onslaught of guards that this program has been able to churn out. But Shareef Mitchell, an unproven point guard, is poised to take a good portion of the minutes left by a sure-handed wing who could shoot from anywhere and drive the ball effectively. Last year’s offense was by far the best it’s been since the Doug McDermott era because of the lineup flexibility that Ty-Shon was able to provide. Jacob Epperson is due to come back from injury, but he was likely to be used more as an additional defensive fortifier when he was needed. Now he’ll probably be splitting more time with Bishop since the rest of the lineup doesn’t really pop out as plus defenders.

It sounds like I’m super down on Creighton, but they’re still going to be damn fun to watch. Marcus Zegarowski will be in a fun battle with Collin Gillespie for Big East Player of the Year. Of the three 2020 starting guards, Zegs is the best all around scorer with a wicked finishing ability at the rim. As the lead distributor he should be able to keep the offense humming too. Creighton still has Mitch Ballock as well. The King of Unfortunate Spoonerisms in the Brady Heslip Category of “I just assume every three that they chuck up is going in,” which is all that he needs to do.

I’ve barely mentioned them, but Damien Jefferson and Denzel Mahoney are tremendous supplemental scorers. Mahoney transferred from Southeast Missouri State and was second semester-eligible. With Jefferson set in as a starter and Denzel being of a similar skillset, he wasn’t supposed to make that much of a minutes splash. Equipped with his rec specs, though, he came out firing from the start. There were times where he took away more open shots from better shooters, but he provided gritty play and above average scoring ability.

Jefferson will likely end up with more minutes between the two. He’s much tougher around the rim, having made 73% of his shots at the rim last year, though definitely the worst perimeter shooter out of all the wings.

This is still a loaded Creighton squad with at least 5 incredibly talented scorers. Dropping from a top 3 offense in the country to somewhere around the top 10 is hardly a nit worth picking, but their ceiling is going to be set on how much they’re able to improve on the 78th ranked defense per from last year. If you’re looking for a sign of how much confidence Coach McDermott has in that, look to see the kinds of minutes Jacob Epperson gets a year and a half after his last collegiate action where he averaged 9.1 minutes per game before injury ended his season. If Greg opts for getting as much size in the interior as he can to plug the gaps left by the saloon-door guards, Epperson will get a bunch of playing time. If he thinks the defense can get enough stops to go balls-to-the-wall on offense, it’ll be a lot of Christian Bishop and a lot of triple digit games.