Key Returners: Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas, Toby Hegner
Key Losses: Mo Watson, Justin Patton (NBA Draft), Isaiah Zierden, Cole Huff
Key Newcomers: Jacob Epperson, Manny Suarez, Kaleb Joseph (Syracuse transfer), Mitchell Ballock, Ty-Shon Alexander
Postseason Projection: 7-10 seed
Outlook: Greg McDermott deserves a ton of credit for keeping the Jays' ship on course last year after their most valuable player, Mo Watson, went down with a season ending ACL injury at Xavier in mid-January. Creighton stumbled in the two games immediately following the Xavier tilt, but managed to grind their way through a rigorous Big East slate - they finished with a respectable 10-8 conference record and a Big East Conference Tournament title game appearance, earning them a 6-seed in the Big Dance. And while an opening round loss to Rhode Island surely left a sour taste in the Jays' mouth all summer, there's plenty of evidence to indicate that Creighton will be right back in the thick of the Big East standings in 2017-18.
After a head-scratching start to his collegiate basketball career at Kansas State, Marcus Foster got himself a fresh start in his new home of Omaha, NE. In his first full season in a Creighton uniform, Foster became only the 2nd player in program history to be unanimously selected to the Big East All Conference 1st team (shhh, no need to mention that they've only been in the Big East for four seasons). His deep range combined with a chiseled upper-body and an explosive first step gives him the ability to score from anywhere on the floor against just about any defender in the country.
However, his inflated per game stats masked some of his inefficient tendencies and questionable shot-selection on the offensive end of the floor. Foster knocked down 18 of his first 35 treys to start the year before slowly regressing all the way down to a 34% 3-point shooter on a whopping 211 attempts over the course of the season. Add in another 310 shots from inside the arc and it's no surprise that Foster was the 2nd highest usage player in the entire Big East - again, much of that was a byproduct of Watson's absence. From his early days at Kansas State, it's hard to tell whether his sub 30% 3-point shooting clip during conference play last season was an anomaly or closer to a harsh reality:
An argument could be made that Foster's shooting woes were highly correlated with him adjusting to life without Watson. Without Watson's reliable penetration, Foster was forced to create more of his own looks in 1-v-1 situations and take tough, highly contested shots in the half-court.
Foster would love nothing more than for a light bulb to go off in the head of rising sophomore point guard Davion Mintz, who struggled when he was abruptly called upon to run the show after Watson went down. His 28.2% turnover rate was 2nd-worst on the team, and he never proved to be a viable scoring or 3-point shooting threat either (shot 39% and 35% from inside and outside the arc, respectively). Despite starting 12 of the final 14 games, Mintz rarely played more than 20 minutes a contest as McDermott often handed the primary ball handling responsibilities to Khyri Thomas. If Mintz is unable to make significant strides on the offensive end, McDermott may turn to Syracuse transfer Kaleb Joseph or rising junior Ronnie Harrell. Both Joseph and Harrell are similar case studies in that their production at the college level, at least to date, has not lived up to the recruiting luster both had entering college.
Formerly a borderline top-50 prospect, many forget that Joseph was the primary point guard for a forgettable Syracuse team that failed to make the Big Dance back in 2014-15. He put up impressive assist numbers playing for a fast-paced Orange squad, but like Mintz, struggled taking care of the basketball. If Joseph can't tighten up the ball handling screws quickly, McDermott has one more ace up his sleeve with Harrell, who may be worth tinkering with at the lead guard position. Despite standing 6'7 and playing a decent amount of 4 over the past two seasons, Harrell does have some experience running the point, both in recent episodes at Creighton and more notably, his high school days in Denver. He remains one of McDermott's highest ranking recruits since taking over Creighton, but much like Joseph's past, has not been able to translate talent into actual production.
If all else fails, the jack-of-all-trades, Khyri Thomas, could step into the lead ball handling and playmaking role for the Jays this season. Outside of blocking shots, there isn't much Thomas can't do on the basketball floor. Thomas was often asked to guard the opponent's best perimeter playmaker as well as run the point during the "post-Watson era". However, it was the monumental leap he made as a shooter and scorer that almost no one saw coming, given his shooting splits as a freshman were borderline embarrassing (38%/20%/31% from 2pt/3pt/FT).
On the interior, a trio of forwards will have major shoes to fill with Justin Patton and Zach Hanson no longer in the picture. Senior Toby Hegner and incoming Australian Jacob Epperson, from renowned high school powerhouse La Lumiere, have similar makeups - at 6'11, both are highly skilled bigs with the ability to step away from the paint and knock down perimeter jumps shots. However, neither are renowned for their strength or physicality, which will put the onus on Martin Krampelj and Manny Suarez to carry the rebounding and rim protecting burdens. Suarez comes in from the heralded D2 power Adelphi where he stuffed the stat sheet with a cool 17 points and 9 boards a game. Per McDermott's comments this offseason, the versatile lefty will be thrust into the core rotation right away and may very well secure himself a spot in the starting lineup by the time the season tips.
Krampelj flew under the radar all season playing behind the uber-talented Patton and had his season cut short with an ACL injury in December (he did retain his eligibility via a medical hardship). McDermott will badly need a full season of good health from him and Hegner, both of whom are coming off significant surgeries and are likely to get a ton of minutes for a front court that is lacking in real depth.
Bottom Line: Most of Creighton's concerns revolve around an unproven frontline, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The Jays are coming off back-to-back seasons in which they ranked in the top-50 in overall adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, much of which can be attributed to the presence of guys like Patton, Hanson and Geoffrey Groselle. But ultimately, this team will live and die with the play of their senior alpha Marcus Foster. While his historical stats indicate he's been somewhat of a roller coaster efficiency-wise, the Wichita Falls, TX, native will need to be much more consistent this year if Creighton wants to contend in the upper-half of the Big East.