Team: Creighton Bluejays
2020-21 Record: 22-9, 14-6 Big East
2020-21 Big East Finish: Second by way of winning percentage, with three more wins than first place Villanova but two more losses.
Final 2020-21 KenPom Ranking: #22
Postseason? Yep, earned a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Bluejays prevailed over UC Santa Barbara in the first round and Ohio in the second before getting clonked in the head by 18 against Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
Key Departures: Well, buckle up, because we got some names to talk about.
Creighton has lost their top five scorers from last season. Marcus Zegarowski opted to leave school after his junior season to turn pro, while Denzel Mahoney, Damien Jefferson, and Mitch Ballock all elected to forego their COVID-bonus seasons of eligibility completely. That leaves Christian Bishop out of the top five scorers last season, and he turned his 11.0 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a junior into a spot on Chris Beard’s new roster at Texas.
Just those five guys ending their Creighton careers accounts for the Bluejays losing 79% of their points, 63% of their rebounds, and 76% of their assists from last season.... and that’s not everyone that they lost. Don’t get me wrong, Antwann Jones (transferred to Louisiana) was an every night rotation guy for the Jays at about 11 minutes a game.... but ultimately he isn’t having much more of an impact on those percentages that you read a couple of seconds ago.
Key Returners: Creighton returns no one who averaged more than 15 minutes a game last season. Ryan Kalkbrenner (5.9 points, 3.5 rebounds) is your leading returning scorer and rebounder, but he played less than 14 minutes a game off the bench. Shereef Mitchell appeared in 30 games, started twice, and got 14.4 minutes of run on average..... but only chipped in 3.3 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game. I guess we can count Alex O’Connell (3.4 points, 2.2 rebounds) here, but let’s not pretend that his 9.7 minutes per game in 24 outings was making a big impact on the roster a year ago.
Key Additions: Get ready to watch the kids play, Bluejays fans. Creighton has the #5 recruiting class in the country coming in, which is the best group in the Big East. They have five total freshmen, four of which are top 75 prospects. Arthur Kaluma (6’8”, 205 lb.) is the top line guy at #46 in the country per 247 Sports. Ryan Nembhard (6’1”, 165 lb.) comes in at #65, and he’s quickly followed by Mason Miller (6’9”, 180 lb.) at #70 and Trey Alexander (6’4”, 185 lb.) at #72. Heck, we could even include shooting guard John Christofilis (6’4”, 170 lb.) as a key addition here because he’s a top 150 prospect, and well, Creighton only has five guys on the roster who played even a single minute last season.
Ryan Hawkins is a Division 2 up-transfer. He averaged 22.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists at Northwest Missouri State, and he will be spending his COVID-bonus year with the Bluejays. Same goes for KeyShawn Feazell, who spent three years at Mississippi State and one at McNeese State. He averaged 13.1 points and a Southland Conference best 9.9 rebounds per game last year.
Finally, we have to mention Rati Andronikashvili here. Officially, he’s not an addition to the program, as he was on the roster a year ago. However, Andronikashvili, who was the highest rated recruit (#77) this century for the Bluejays before the 2021 class signed up, missed the entire year with an injury. I think we can safely say that everyone hopes that he’s able to get onto the court this season.
Coach: Greg McDermott, entering his 12th season in charge at Creighton and 21st at the Division 1 level. He has a record of 249-123 with the Bluejays and 529-318 overall when you mix in his seven seasons coaching in Division 2.
Outlook: Um, probably bad?
Before I go any further, I want to make sure that Creighton fans out there understand this: I recognize that y’all had the best back-to-back seasons in most people’s memory that don’t involve the current head coach’s son, and when you consider the fact that you got to see the team’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1974, you can definitely argue that these past two years were the best two.
Okay? We good here?
Because there is a very real chance that Creighton is going to be god awful this season.
To a certain extent, and a very real extent at that, the Bluejays’ entire hopes for the 2021-22 season depend on their four top 75 freshmen being able to play at least 20 good contributing minutes a night. Not some of them, not two of them, not one of them. They are going to need all four of them to do that. Creighton has no one — AND THE ROCK MEANS NO ONE — who played major minutes for last year’s “best season in memory” team. They have guys who were on the team and know what practices were like, sure. They don’t have anyone who was a reliable go-to guy from that team. They have no reliable facilitator coming back. They have no reliable rebounders coming back. They have — and this one should be a major issue given how Greg McDermott loves to operate — no reliable shooters coming back.
The four top 75 freshmen coming in are, according to 247 Sports, the four best prospects to sign with the Bluejays since the turn of the century. The fifth best prospect is Rati Andronikashvili, who will be a redshirt freshman this season and is a total question mark after his injury that cost him all of last season. Arthur Kaluma is probably going to have to immediately start on this team and might have to be The Guy right out of the gate. Ryan Nembhard is probably going to have to be the starting point guard, unless McDermott really thinks that handing Shereef Mitchell the ball for 30 minutes a night — and thus doubling his career minutes per game — is a great plan.
I can keep going here. I think you get the point.
Maybe Ryan Kalkbrenner learned a lot while winning a FIBA U19 World Cup gold medal with Team USA and he can become a guy that the Jays can rely on in the interior. Maybe Creighton’s schedule gives them the runway to hammer out roles on the team with no one coming back as The Guy. They have just one high major opponent in their eight games in November, which includes the Paradise Jam, and the HM team in question is Nebraska coming off a 7-20 season. Their first December opponent? Iowa State, in Omaha, coming off a 2-22 season where they didn’t win a Big 12 game and got Steve Prohm fired. That’s nine straight eminently winnable games before they have to travel to Sioux Falls to face BYU and then return home for Arizona State three days later to wrap up non-con action.
Maybe those nine games are enough to get things up to speed. Maybe this is the right schedule for a team that may as well dress like Jim Carrey in Batman Forever given how many question marks are all over this roster. Maybe the two guys on COVID-bonus years who have either 1) never played in D1 and 2) never contributed at the high major level can make an impact right away. Maybe Nembhard is ready to run a high major Division 1 team right away. Maybe Greg McDermott is one of the best coaches in the Big East and he knows what buttons to push to get this flying right. Maybe I’m just being a Negative Nancy who is admittedly not ultra-plugged in to the capabilities of these freshmen.
Or maybe relying on four top 75 guys to have to immediately come in and carry your team to a respectable season is not a good plan, and this all goes horribly for the Bluejays.