Top 25 Countdown: No. 18 Creighton Bluejays

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-6, 14-4 MVC (2nd); Lost in the Round of 32 to

Head Coach: Greg McDermott

Key Losses: Antoine Young

Newcomers: Isaiah Zierden, Andre Yates, Mogboluwaga Oginni

Projected Lineup:

G: Jahenns Manigat, Jr.
G: Austin Chatman, So.
F: Grant Gibbs, Sr.
F: Doug McDermott, Jr.
C: Gregory Echinique, Sr.
Bench: Ethan Wragge, Jr.; Will Artino, So.; Avery Dingman, So.; Josh Jones, Sr.

Outlook: Doug McDermott is a name that you are going to hear quite a bit about heading into the season.

After putting together an All-American caliber season as a sophomore, McDermott is just about as close as you can get to being a consensus Preseason First Team All-American. We had him on the first team. So did every other publication that I’ve seen that’s worth paying attention to. When you throw in the fact that McDermott plays for a program that resides outside of the six power conferences and that he averaged 22.9 points as a sophomore, the assumption for those that have never seen him play will likely be that he is a gunner.

And while McDermott does take a lot of shots, he’s anything but a “gunner”. In fact, McDermott is one of the most efficient scorers in the country, a statement that both the stat-nerds and basketball gurus will agree on. What makes McDermott so efficient, in the Kenpom sense of the word, is that he makes a lot of threes (48.6% on 111 threes last year), hits 63.2% of his twos, knocks down his free throws and doesn’t turn the ball over. But McDermott’s efficiency goes beyond simple excel spreadsheets; I’m not sure that anyone has managed to put together a stat for it yet, but I’d be willing to be that McDermott averages the fewest number of dribbles-per-point in the country. When he’s hitting threes, they are off of a catch-and-shoot. When he’s scoring around the basket, it’s usually because he’s sealed off his man to the point that all he needs to do is turn and lay the ball it.

It’s remarkable to watch, but it is also a microcosm of what Creighton does offensively. The Bluejays are a delight to watch on that end of the floor. They spread the floor, they move the ball well, they not only make the extra pass but they make the right pass, they don’t turn the ball over and they seemingly never miss an open look. You want an awesome stat? I got an awesome stat: Creighton made 287 threes last season, and 276 of them came off of an assist.

The biggest reason for that was Grant Gibbs. A 6-foot-5 wing, Gibbs led the MVC in assists last season. He’s not overly quick or explosive, but he’s crafty and has terrific vision. A good word to describe his game is patient; he never seems to be in a rush and always makes the right play. He’s got a bit of “old-man” game, and it works with this group. Gibbs’ ability to create becomes that much more important with the graduation of Antoine Young, who was Creighton’s point guard last season, chipping in with 4.5 assists-per-game.

Who joins Gibbs on the perimeter will be interesting to see play out. Creighton has four other guards returning from last season’s rotation: senior Josh Jones, junior Jahenns Manigat and sophomores Austin Chatman and Avery Dingman. Chatman — who, like Young, is a small, quick, penetrating guard — looks like the guy that will take over at the point with Manigat, who started last season and shot 46.8% from three, alongside him. Jones is the biggest of the bunch, and he, like Dingman, will likely see extended minutes off the bench. Whether Chatman, or any of the other guards, can grow into the point guard role will be one of the most interesting subplots this year for the Bluejays.

Joining McDermott up front will be Gregory Echenique, a Rutgers transfer that plays on Venezuela’s national team. Echenique is a lumbering, 6-foot-9, 275 pound center that does for Creighton what centers are expected to do: scores around the rim, blocks some shots, gets some rebounds and bangs with other bigs. He also just may have the biggest head in the country. Ethan Wragge, a 6-foot-7 sharpshooter, is the name to know off the bench, while 6-foot-11 sophomore Will Artino will see time off the bench.

Predictions?: You notice how I didn’t once mention Creighton’s defense above. That’s because it was borderline non-existent last season. The Bluejays finished the season ranked 178th in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom. They don’t force turnovers — in fact, Creighton was one of the three worst teams in the country in turnover percentage — or block shots, and they’re ranked 200 or below in defensive effective field goal percentage and defensive three-point percentage. In other words, they don’t have play-makers that can force the end of a possession and they struggle when it comes to forcing teams to miss shots. About the only thing Creighton does well defensively is box out; they were ninth in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.

I know that’s a lot of numbers to throw at you, but the point is that the Bluejays have a cap this season if they don’t improve defensively. It has been a point of emphasis for the team during the preseason, but it has also been a point of emphasis for the team in preseasons past. The problem is that this group is made up of small guards in the back court and land warriors in the front court. I really like this group and this program, but until they prove they can get stops, I have a tough time seeing them make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.