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Missouri Valley Preview: Improvement on defense could lead to a big season for Creighton

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Doug and Greg McDermott (Getty Images)

To motivate his players to work to improve defensively this summer, all Creighton coach Greg McDermott had to do was recite their statistics from the previous season.

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In almost every category, the Bluejays were among the bottom third in the nation.

They were 242nd out of 338 Division I teams in scoring defense (69.7 ppg). They were 222nd in field goal percentage defense (.441). And they were 286th in blocked shots (2.3 per game) and 313th in steals (4.8 per game).

"We weren't happy about it," senior forward Ethan Wragge conceded. "We don't want the reputation for just outscoring people. If we're going to become a successful team, we need to make strides on defensive end."

If Creighton is going to improve defensively this season, it will have be with a roster far better suited to generating consecutive baskets than consecutive stops. The Bluejays won 29 games and reached the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament last March because an offense featuring All-American Doug McDermott and an array of skilled complementary players scored more efficiently than any other team in the nation.

Shooting over 50 percent from the field as a team helped cover up the fact that the Bluejays often lacked the length, lateral quickness or athleticism on the perimeter to extend the defense and force turnovers or even merely to stay in front of opposing guards off the dribble. Even with Valley defensive player of the year Gregory Echenique in the paint, Creighton's best defensive attributes were its ability to control the glass and keep opposing teams off the foul line.

"We have a smart group of guys," Greg McDermott said. "They understand where we were very successful and where our weakness was. I don't think it's as bad as maybe some people have made it out to be, but we're going to work hard to improve it and the guys have bought into that. They understand that because we weren't built with a lot of great individual defenders, we have to be a great team defensive team."

What McDermott asked his players to do during the summer to maximize their limited athleticism was more plyometrics drills. He'll also have them watch more film than in the past before and after practice to get a better idea of how they can improve their rotations on help defense when a teammate is beaten off the dribble.

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Gregory Echenique (Getty Images)

McDermott played mostly simple man-to-man last season, but he anticipates switching up his defensive looks this season more frequently in an effort to keep opponents off balance and uncomfortable.

That could mean trapping ball screens or post entry passes in an effort to force more turnovers. Or perhaps he'll opt to play more zone, especially after the Bluejays were so successful when they surprised Alabama with it in the second half of their NCAA tournament victory over the Crimson Tide last March.

There are things we can do to try to disrupt an opponent's offense without putting us in position where we're very vulnerable," McDermott said. "Because of our makeup and who we are, we're not going to be a team that blocks a bunch of shots or forces a bunch of turnovers. That's not how we're built. We've got to take away easy baskets. If we can do that, I think that will have an impact."

Even a slight uptick defensively would be enormous for Creighton because the Bluejays once again figure to be one of the nation's elite scoring teams.

Doug McDermott, the nation's leading returning scorer, has added an improved ability to finish at the rim off the dribble to an offensive arsenal that already included an array of low post moves and a smooth outside shooting stroke. Echenique, who played for Venezuela's national team during Olympic qualifying this offseason, has shed weight and improved his back-to-the-basket scoring. And shooters like Wragge, Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat spent hours every week keeping their shooting strokes sharp.

Maybe the biggest question facing Creighton is whether sophomore Austin Chatman can replace point guard Antoine Young, the Bluejays' lone departed starter. Chatman is a better perimeter shooter than Young and may even be quicker off the dribble, but Young averaged 12.2 points per game for Creighton last season and was adept at getting in the lane in late-shot clock scenarios.

"Antoine was able to go get a shot with or without a ball screen," McDermott said. "That's something we'll have to account for early in the season. Austin understands the role Antoine played and he's spent the time necessary to prepare him for this opportunity."

Creighton players have complete confident in their new point guard — and in the team's ability to put up points in a hurry and even overcome a double-digit deficit when necessary. The Bluejays also realize that just a slight uptick defensively could have huge ramifications in March.

"This is the best our team has looked in the preseason," Wragge said. "We know if we can make some strides defensively, we'll have a very high ceiling."

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