Big East Summer Q&A: Creighton Bluejays

Eric Francis

The Bluejays won an impressive 28 games in 2012-13.

We're going to put this as nicely as possible: If you don't know who Doug McDermott and the Creighton Bluejays are by now, it's time to familiarize yourself (and maybe follow college basketball a little).

Creighton, one of the few crown jewels of the vastly underrated Missouri Valley Conference, is making the move to the Big East along with Butler and Xavier. But the Bluejays arrival may be a little different from the others in 2013-14.

Coming off a magical 28-win campaign in which head coach Greg McDermott's team earned its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance (including a second round win over Cincinnati), Creighton is geared up and ready to make some serious noise in the 10-team Big East this year.

Many are picking McDermott, the All-American, coach's son and self-imposed walk-on, to be the league's most dynamic player. Some are even picking his formerly mid-major team to win the conference.

Either way, Creighton is certainly in the conversation as the inaugural season of the new Big East looms. We're excited to welcome Max Univers (@polyfro), co-founder and writer for the Creighton site White and Blue Review (@whitebluereview), to give us an idea of how Creighton may fare in the Big East.

Rumble In The Garden: Explain where the Bluejays fit in the national hierarchy - imagine you're talking to a hoops newbie who knows Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina exist, but the person doesn't watch the tournament or really know conferences' reputation. Who is Creighton? Think: "What is our team known for?" or "Why might someone have heard of the team?"

Max Univers: Over the last two decades, Creighton has generally been a Top 50 or Top 75 team by most metrics. Certainly, they're not in the top echelon of teams like a Duke or Kentucky, but considering there's 320+ teams, to consistently be among the Top 50 shows a program that has enjoyed a great deal of success. They've appeared in 18 NCAA Tournaments, with half of those coming in the last 15 years.

CU has had a number of star players over the years go on to great success in the pros, bringing notoriety to the program and school after they left the school -- to someone that watches sports but isn't a die-hard college hoops fan, my guess is if they've heard of Creighton, it's because of players like Bob Gibson (a two-sport star for the Jays in the 1950s), Paul Silas (starred for CU in the '60s before winning three rings in the NBA) and more recently, Kyle Korver (an All-American at CU in the early 2000s before a decade-long NBA career as a three-point specialist).

Particularly on the east coast, fans might recall Creighton as the place where NY Knicks great Willis Reed got his start in college coaching; Reed was the Jays' coach from 1981-1985 and recruited future #1 draft pick Benoit Benjamin to CU. And of course, Doug McDermott is making quite a name for himself, and the school, currently.

RITG: Add a fun fact about the school or the program - something that would impress a person who is loosely familiar with the school.

MU: Creighton has spent the past decade playing in front of 17,000 fans in an NBA-style arena for its home games, routinely selling out and finishing in the top ten nationally in attendance. CU Hoops is a tough ticket. They have nearly 13,000 season ticket holders, which is more people than the arena capacity of many schools in the Big East. That's impressive enough on it's own, but even moreso considering CU has an undergraduate enrollment of just over 4,000.

RITG: How do you feel about the new Big East - being in the conference, worries about the future? What are you most excited about/ to see? What worries you?

MU: The MVC was very good to Creighton -- it's an underrated league in many sports, especially men's basketball, and CU enjoyed great rivalries with several schools over the years. But fans have been enthralled with the possibility of joining the Big East ever since news leaked in December that the Catholic 7 were breaking away from the old Big East.

Aside from the increased profile and competition on the floor, Creighton fans are excited to join a league with nine other schools who share a similar culture and goals. With their huge attendance, great facilities, history of success and donor base, Creighton really feels they can not only compete but succeed in the Big East.

One thing that worries me is if the Big East stumbles out of the gate, national pundits will be quick to pounce and slap the "overrated" or worse, the dreaded mid-major tag on the league. That's tough to shed once it's been applied. The league needs to have success immediately, get four or five teams into the dance, and then have those teams do some damage once they're there. Establishing a reputation as a top-tier basketball league in Year One is paramount.

RITG: Which other Big East team are you most excited to see in action next year?

MU: Marquette, without a doubt, with Xavier close behind. Creighton and Marquette have played a whopping 76 times over the years but not since the late 90s. In the 1960s and 70s when CU was an independent, they had a fierce rivalry, and played some spirited battles against Al McGuire's teams. More recently, CU played Xavier several years in a row with both teams winning in close, hard-fought games. They don't have as much history with the other schools, but CU is looking forward to building rivalries and history with them.

Creighton's fortunes -- good or bad -- will ride on how well their post players can establish themselves (or merely hold their own) in the Big East. -Max, White and Blue Review

RITG: What does next season look like? Who leaves the program? Who is new? Who returns? Who is expected to be the on-court leader(s)?

MU: Expectations are to finish first in the Big East and earn an NCAA Tournament berth in 2013-14. With Grant Gibbs' being granted a sixth year of eligibility, CU brings every key contributor except center Gregory Echenique back from a year ago. Echenique was a superior post defender who completely befuddled Tyler Zeller in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and did the same to Duke's Mason Plumlee this past March; he covered up a lot of defensive mistakes by other players and will be very tough to replace.

McDermott and Gibbs are the team leaders, and the presence of those two seniors in the lineup should give their newcomers -- and the coaching staff's recruiting focus -- a year to acclimate to the rigors of the Big East.

RITG: In 100 words or less, explain your last season (or last three).

MU: Dana Altman spent 16 years at Creighton, going 327-176, before leaving for Oregon after the 2009-2010 season. His successor, Greg McDermott, didn't exactly inherit a program in disarray or one with a bare cupboard. Gregory Echenique, Antoine Young and Josh Jones -- key contributors to the 2011-12 NCAA Tournament team that defeated Alabama -- were Altman recruits, for example. McDermott has taken what Altman built over 16 years and grown it, winning games in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.

RITG: What's the big concern about next season?

MU: The biggest concern about next season is Creighton's interior defense. Doug McDermott's going to score 20 or more almost every single night. Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman are capable guards will can distribute the ball, score when needed, and are underrated defenders. Ethan Wragge remains a deadly, if streaky, sharpshooter from long range.

But without Echenique, they don't have a proven, battle-tested big man who can take an opponent's big man out of his element. That thankless task falls to Will Artino, a foul-prone player with better offensive skills but a smaller frame, and Geoffrey Groselle, a redshirt sophomore who has a similar frame but zero experience.

I suspect that Creighton's fortunes -- good or bad -- will ride on how well their post players can establish themselves (or merely hold their own) in the Big East.

RITG: Bonus question: Give a reason to visit the area around the school's campus/ arena.

MU: CenturyLink Center is located along Omaha's riverfront, adjacent to both the Old Market and North Downtown entertainment districts, as well as Creighton's campus. On gamedays, fans fill the surrounding bars and restaurants both before and after the game -- from sports bars to steakhouses to pretty much everything in between, there's a place for whatever you're in the mood for, all within walking distance of the arena.

We appreciate Max's insights into Creighton's history and what to expect as the Bluejays transition into the Big East. It sounds like Omaha's CenturyLink Center could become one of the league's best homecourts.

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