It’s been two years since the college basketball world has had a legitimate reason to turn their eyes toward Creighton, but with a 16-1 record and a couple top-15 wins in the bag, the Bluejays are officially done waiting for everyone else to wake up and realize this team is just as dangerous as the shoot-it-from-anywhere squad we saw in 2014.
A few years ago, Creighton entered the mainstream sports news cycle thanks to father-son, coach-player duo Greg and Doug McDermott. The latter gave the Bluejays four statistically amazing seasons, finishing fifth on the NCAA’s all-time scorer’s list and being named first-team All-America three seasons in a row. While the Bluejays proved their worth after earning their spot in the new Big East in 2012, they fell off hard after McDermott graduated, going 14-19 and 20-15 the last two seasons.
With a blossoming junior class intact and some promising rising studs, the Bluejays entered the season at No. 22 in the polls; through 17 games, they have a sterling résumé and what currently appears to be a very real shot at competing for a national championship. The Bluejays are now ranked No. 8 in the AP Poll, the highest in program history, and have dismantled every team they’ve faced, minus a 10-point New Year’s Eve loss to Villanova, which is currently sits atop the field as the No. 1 team in college basketball, per the pollsters. Creighton has scored wins against then-No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 12 Butler, and cruised past N.C. State, Ole Miss, and Seton Hall.
When watching the Bluejays, there’s a lot to take in because of how uniquely gifted their stars are—this goes a little further than saying each of their starting five possesses talent; rather, each player seems to be perfectly suited for their roles in head coach Greg McDermott’s high-octane offensive and defensive systems. It shows on the court, where the Bluejays have won all but two of their 16 victories by double-digits, and currently rank first in field goal percentage, 11th in assists, and 12th in points scored per game.
The natural starting point for introducing Creighton’s team is point guard Maurice Watson Jr. Watching the Philly native maneuver through the paint calls forth images of a young Kyrie Irving; while not quite the ankle-snapping ball-handler that Irving is, Watson’s deft footwork and sheer 0-60 speed serve as a death sentence for defenders in one-on-one or pick-and-roll situations:
Watson averages 13.6 points per game, and while he does so impressively, that’s not his main function on this team. The senior is the D-I leader in assists, averaging an insane nine per game, a full assist per game ahead of second-ranking Lonzo Ball. (Watson is also No. 10 in overall turnovers; seeing as they’re 16-1, you take the good with the bad.) With a sharp eye and fast trigger in the open court, the showrunner is just that on the break, where he either uses his own speed to blow past defenders or dishes to an open teammate. Most of the time, he’s feeding fellow back court standouts Marcus Foster and Khryi Thomas
Foster, a junior, serves as the team’s top scorer while Thomas, a sophomore, acts as a third or fourth option, but both add their own bit of explosiveness. Foster leads the team with 18.1 points per game, and doubles as the squad’s leading long-range specialist, draining 2.3 treys per game. Foster’s particularly useful because in addition to spreading the floor, he rocks a thick 210-pound frame that allows him to absorb contact and finish on the drive, which he does often.
Thomas has the talent to score more than his current rate of 12.6 points per game, and that time will come when he takes the reins in a couple years. For now, he stuffs the stat sheet elsewhere by rebounding and producing turnovers, though he proved against Wisconsin (18 points, four boards, and two steals) that he can deliver on the offensive end. While he’s not the highest flyer, Thomas is also solid at playing above the rim in transition.
This brings us to the front court, home to my favorite player on the team: Justin Patton. Patton is a 7-foot redshirt freshman center, and his game is fun as hell to watch, largely because it’s kind of it’s own thing. I enjoy watching Ethan Happ’s awkward ass work the paint for Wisconsin, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant muscle and scream his way through the competition, and Purdue’s manchild Caleb Swanigan bump motherfuckers around the paint. Hell, even Kennedy Meeks manages to do something smooth from time to time. But Patton really looks like something else entirely.
He boasts a slim, 215-pound frame, one that will likely never find itself raking in millions for being able to back down the game’s most vaunted fives. And that’s fine, because what he lacks in girth, he makes up for in his ability to affect the game from literally any spot on the floor. He’s consistently one of the first players streaking down the court on a turnover, and on the break, he’s as smooth as a guard and as destructive as the 7-footer he is.
Watch a Creighton game, and you’ll see Patton draining three-pointers, taking his man to the rack from the wing, or fucking opponents all the way up with some fine transition passing:
Seriously, look at this man cook a Butler boy alive and bank in an off-balance, fadeaway in front of God and the crowd and everyone:
When a center can thread a pass that pretty and drain shots at such angles, a team better know how to use him. Thankfully, Creighton does. Patton screens well, both to set up the back court and himself, and is the constant recipient of dump-off and lob passes thanks to his tendency to float toward the rim on opposite-side drives. He shoots a staggering 74.6 percent from the field, third overall in the nation, and puts in 14.0 points and 6.2 boards while averaging just 26.2 minutes and 8.4 shots per night. Come back next year for a potential conference, or even national, player of year candidate.
The remainder of the healthy Bluejay front court, filled out by redshirt senior starting forward Cole Huff and reserve forward Toby Hegner, aren’t the best rebounders you’ll come across; as a result, Creighton’s board numbers suffer. While they rarely hurt for possessions, the weakness proved to be key in their loss to the Wildcats, who out-rebounded the Bluejays 34-19 and shut down Thomas and Watson.
Defensively, well, Creighton is no Press Virginia. The team sits at 172nd in college basketball in terms of points allowed at 71.5 per night, which is to be expected from a team that runs like the Bluejays do. But Creighton makes up for it where it can: a fairly important defensive facet of the Bluejays’ game is that they are fantastic at not giving opposing squads extra opportunities, as they rank first in the Big East and 27th in the nation in opponent free throw attempts. It’s not something that’s noticeable right away (mainly because they’re consistently winning by comfortable margins), but come tournament time, that’ll play nicely for the squad.
If Creighton continues to play the way it has up to tournament time, the Bluejays will likely earn the tagline of being a “quietly great” team—this is because their conference games are not all nationally televised and they don’t command multiple beats from national outlets, and, honestly, next year seemed more likely to be their breakout season (I mistakenly picked Xavier to be the Big East’s second-best.)
Now, as happens every year, the cracks in the blue-blood programs have been properly illuminated and the serious mid-majors are flexing. The season has yet to hit the midway point, but something (their record and their roster) tells me Creighton’s not just puffing out its chest. The Bluejays, as they exist now, are for real, and they no longer need the coach’s son to earn their spot at the table.