#19 Creighton 2019-20 Preview

-Matt Cox

Key Returners: Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Marcus Zegarowski, Davion Mintz, Jacob Epperson, Damien Jefferson, Christian Bishop
Key Losses:
Martin Krampelj, Kaleb Joseph
Key Newcomers: Denzel Mahoney, Kelvin Jones, Jalen Windham, Shereef Mitchell


Outlook: It was a season of ebbs and flows for Greg McDermott last year. Creighton had two separate 4-game losing streaks during conference play, but a sizzling hot finish helped the Jays check in with a respectable 9-9 Big East record. Had they made some noise in the in the conference tournament, McDermott would’ve put his dancing shoes on for the third year in a row, but Creighton ran into an even hotter Xavier squad in the opening round of the Big East championship. All in all, it was a pedestrian year by Creighton standards – a testament to how highly McDermott has lifted this program – but both the near-term and long-term time horizons look rather promising in Omaha.

The flame that fueled last year’s late surge was freshman point guard Marcus Zegarowski. While veteran Davion Mintz was the man most pegged to dominate the ball handling duties last season, Zegarowski’s playmaking quickly debunked those projections. After Damien Jefferson injured his foot against Marquette on January 9th, Zegarowski was thrust into the starting lineup and seized his opportunity with unwavering confidence. The Massachusetts native would never look back and remained a fixture in the top-5 of the core rotation for the remainder of the season. Zegarowski missed three games in the middle of February with a hand injury (all of which the Jays lost), but McDermott didn’t hesitate to reinsert him into the lineup once he was fully healed. Creighton would go on to win five of its final six conference games before racking up two more victories in the NIT over Memphis and Loyola under Zegarowski’s masterful offensive direction.

While Mintz’ steadying presence makes him a reliable offensive facilitator, Zegarowski’s unrivaled passing and playmaking lifts the Jays’ offense to new heights. His handle and vision are next level good and he consistently creates high quality shots for his teammates. By solidifying the point guard position, Zegarowski will unlock the full potential of what is undoubtedly the strength of the 2019-20 roster: the wing corps. Mintz is a serviceable complementary filler on the perimeter, capable of playing on and off the ball, but it’s Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitch Ballock, and SEMO import Denzel Mahoney who pack the real scoring punch.

Alexander’s initial explosion last year was cooled by a mini sophomore slump during conference play, but he still had plenty of jaw-dropping moments throughout the season. Much like Zegarowski and Jefferson, Alexander was banged up during the latter half of Big East action, which likely explains the dips in both his scoring production and efficiency. Still, few guards in the country evolved more demonstrably in the shot-making department than Alexander did last year, and he promptly asserted himself as the driving force of the Jays’ race car-paced transition attack.

With all the offensive ammo back on the perimeter, putting points on the board shouldn’t be an issue. It’s the other side of the ball that will ultimately determine the destiny of the 2019-20 campaign.

So, how confident am I in Creighton’s defensive prognosis, you ask?

Yeahhhhhhh, I’m beyond torn on this front…

When I initially skimmed the roster, my immediate reaction was something along the lines of, “soooo who exactly is supposed to protect the rim and rebound? Jacob Epperson? Is that it? Anyone else? Anybody out there?”

While the scarcity of big bodies up front may lead you to question the Jays’ interior fortitude, I’m cautiously optimistic they can get the job done. Losing Martin Krampelj will certainly sting, but the return of a *fully healthy* (knocks on wood) Epperson and Christian Bishop, along with the addition of Idaho State grad transfer Kelvin Jones, should keep the frontline sturdy enough and here’s why:

  • Style & System: Greg McDermott is wise enough to know that he doesn’t need a robust frontline for his run-and-gun, spread-out style of play. Last season, Bishop effectively platooned with Krampejl and Epperson at the 5 while Ballock was typically slotted as the de-facto small-ball 4. Thus, this ‘super small ball’ look won’t be all that different than what Creighton leaned on last season.

  • Perimeter Positional Size: The size and versatility on the perimeter should help compensate for the paper thin interior depth. Mintz, Alexander, Ballock, Mahoney and Damien Jefferson all stand roughly 6’5 and Zegarowski is no shrimp himself at 6’2. This means the outer perimeter shell of the Jays’ defense will be highly switchable, which will come in handy whenever they need to scramble and recover off double teams in the post.

  • Lady Luck: Creighton was not the beneficiary of fortuitous bounces last season, as the Jays were repeatedly torched by the 3-ball. In Big East play, opponents rained in 38% from downtown, a clip that only 30 teams in America sustained for the entire season. Quite simply, I’m betting on some regression to the mean here.

  • History: Guess what folks – some of the lineup rotations we will witness this season should look eerily familiar to some of the lineup combinations McDermott used back in 2018 when Ballock and Epperson were both freshmen. Per kenpom.com, here were the three most frequently used lineups during the final 5-game stretch of the 2017-18 season:

As seen in the bottom two rows above, McDermott has already shown some degree of confidence utilizing Epperson as the lone true big on the floor. Epperson’s health remains a wildcard, but McDermott was willing to play Bishop at the 5 last season and the arrival of Jones adds another minutes eater to the interior depth chart. Point being, there are contingency plans in place in case Epperson suffers another serious setback.

Bottom Line: Perhaps I got too carried away with a longwinded case for why the Blue Jays’ defense will be ‘average’, but at the end of the day, we’re not talking about Cincinnati or Texas Tech. This is Creighton. Since the dawn of time, the Jays have made their pay with prolific offenses that carve up opponents with exceptional spacing, pristine cutting and precise shooting. For Creighton to contend for a Big East title, the defense doesn’t need to be great - it just needs to be good enough.

I’m a bit nervous about Epperson spending the bulk of his offseason rehabbing, but he showed no signs of rust when he was abruptly inserted into the lineup back in 2018 late in the season and with Bishop and Jones still in the mix as viable insurance plans, I think Creighton will ultimately field a top-75 defensive unit while the offense remains highly explosive, per usual.