OMAHA — Creighton basketball is still here.
It’s understandable if you haven’t thought about them for the last two years, but the Bluejays are ready to make you remember them again. They never actually left, but they’re intent on being back.
When a place is home to one of the greatest careers in a generation, it’s hard not to see it as empty once that career is gone.
It’s going to be difficult, maybe even impossible, to separate Creighton basketball from Doug McDermott any time soon. And Creighton doesn’t really want to be separated from him, of course. He captured the attention of a nation and electrified the sport during his time in this city better known for college baseball than hoops.
Creighton, though, wants to be more than just Doug McDermott. The Bluejays have spent the first two years of the post-McBuckets era in a sort of purgatory. Forgotten by most, but building back toward relevance.
Now, as the Bluejays open the season as a top-25 team with one of the country’s best backcourts, they’re ready to reemerge.
“Putting Creighton back on the map,” senior point guard Maurice Watson told NBCSports.com. “I think it’s going to lead us in the future. I think this is going to turn into a basketball factory with the top talent we get here in the gym and the resources we have.
“To kind of start that off, start the rebuild back up, I think it’s going to be a lot for our legacies leaving college.”
The legacy McDermott left at Creighton is undeniable. He scored 3,150 points. He shot 55 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from 3-point range. A three-time All-American, McDermott was the consensus National Player of the Year in 2014. He led the Bluejays to wins in three-consecutive NCAA tournaments, a program first.
That type of player leaving town after graduation would be tough enough for any program, let alone one just a year into its transition from the Missouri Valley Conference to the revamped Big East. It added another layer of complication, though, given McDermott’s dad, Greg, is Creighton’s coach.
“Obviously it was a thrill to be able to coach him,” coach McDermott told NBCSports.com. “As much fun and enjoyable as it was then, the further you get removed from it, the more special it becomes, I think for both Doug and I.
“I’m watching his (NBA) career from afar and trying to keep pace with what he’s doing with his career, but my focus is on this program and trying to get us back to the NCAA tournament.”
Usually, it’s the son that needs to escape a father’s shadow, but it’s fair to wonder if that’s the reverse for the McDermotts. Greg’s first try at a high-major program featured four sub-.500 seasons in which his Iowa State teams never finished higher than eighth in the Big 12. His first season without Doug at Creighton, the Bluejays went 14-19.
“You’re going to have adversity wherever you’re at, whatever job you have,” Doug McDermott said to NBCSports.com. “We had it going there for awhile. You kind of expect a little bit of a fallback. I think he realized that.”
Doug wasn’t the only loss from that team as three other senior starters departed. That left an inexperienced group, some of whom were recruited with the idea they’d be challenging the likes of Wichita State, Northern Iowa and Indiana State for conference titles, not Villanova, Xavier and Georgetown.
“We moved to the Big East Doug’s senior year and that senior class we could have gone to any league in the country and been fine,” Greg said, “because of the experience we had on that team. That was a positive.
“The negative was all those guys who played behind those four seniors didn’t play a lot, and all of sudden they’re thrown into a role as seniors in the Big East the next year and they hadn’t really played a prominent starting role in our program. That was asking a lot.”
Creighton finished last that year in the Big East as the Bluejays transitioned to a Doug-less reality.
“We obviously knew when Doug left we needed to work harder,” senior Isaiah Zierden, who was a freshman during McDermott’s senior year, said “and figure out a way to fill that pretty big void.”
That 2014-15 season was a struggle, but appears to be a one-year blip. Instead going into a tailspin, Creighton steered out of the skid last year, missing the NCAA tournament but going 20-15 with four starters set to return and one enigmatic but talented incoming transfer ready to become eligible.
Marcus Foster wasn’t a particularly heralded recruit when he signed with Kansas State. He was judged as the country’s 40th-best shooting guard prospect by Rivals in 2013. He was a three-star recruit coming to a Big 12 that was welcoming the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
After averaging 15.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and shooting 39.5 percent from distance as a freshman, however, he found himself as a bonafide NBA prospect and a first-team preseason all-conference pick in 2014-15.
And things couldn’t have really have gone much worse from there.
Foster was benched and later suspended by coach Bruce Weber, saw his numbers tumble and was ultimately dismissed from the program.
“I just had my mind on other things,” Foster told NBCSports.com. “I was worried about trying to get to the NBA, trying to impress scouts, not coming to practice and working hard every day.”
Creighton is offering him a chance to reclaim not only his professional prospects but his public perception.
“That’s what we talked about when we recruited him,” McDermott said “We have to rebuild his reputation because he’s made some mistakes in the past and people are going to watch him with a real close eye.”
The 19-year-old who got the boot from Manhattan isn’t the 21-year-old who now resides three hours to the north, those around Foster at Creighton say. He’s someone with something to prove, beyond just that the season he put up as a freshman was no mirage.
“You have people around the world thinking something about you that’s not really true,” Watson said, “and thinking you are the person you aren’t. You’re a good person and people think you’re bad and that you’re a knucklehead when that really isn’t the case.
“When you’re on a stage like this, it’s all under a magnifying glass. That’s something he had to understand and I think he’s learned that now with a second chance.”
Foster spent a “humbling” year away from the game. Redshirting under NCAA transfer rules, he toiled in obscurity while his reputation remained in many minds tarnished.
“I’m glad it happened,” Foster said.” I feel like everybody in life has to face adversity, and I feel like that was my adversity I have to face. I learned a whole bunch from that experience my sophomore year which is going to make me a better person this year.
“I think more people want to see what I’m going to do. Am I going to turn it around? Am I going to stay the same?”
Now comes his reintroduction to college basketball, with a pint-sized running mate hell bent on finding super-sized success.
“If you’re told you can’t do something long enough,” McDermott said, “you develop a chip on your shoulder.”
If there’s a chip on Maurice Watson’s shoulder, it very well may have been filled by now with heaps of bravado. A 5-foot-10 point guard who went to Boston University out of high school before transferring to Creighton, Watson does not lack for confidence.
“That’s who Maurice is,” McDermott said. “He’s been told all his life he’s not good enough, not tall enough, not quick enough, can’t finish in the Big East.
“And he’s constantly proved people wrong.”
He did it at Boston, ranking third in the country with 7.1 assists per game as a sophomore. He did it as a junior in the Big East, averaging 14.1 points and 6.5 assists per game last year for Creighton.
“Never in my life have I played with someone like Maurice,” Foster said. “He can get to the hole, he can shoot a pull up and he shoots threes now, and he can get his teammates open whenever he wants to.
“One of the best guards in the Big East.”
Watson’s confidence isn’t limited to his own exploits.
“We really want to go to the Final Four,” Watson said. “It’s a goal that’s realistic if you put the work in. You challenge your team to do something and you see everybody responding by being in the gym and having better practices.
“We’re going to shoot for the stars here. This is my last season so I want to go out with a bang. I haven’t made the (NCAA) tournament yet, and I think that’s going to change this year so why not make a run when that happens.”
If that run comes together, it figures to do so largely on the strength of the Watson-Foster backcourt, which is among the highest-regarded in the country.
“I think we can be the best one,” Watson said.
Watson is the floor general, Foster his second in command.
“He knows I’m going to be the leader of the team still,” Watson said, “get everybody shots, and I tell him I’ll make it easier for him as well. He’s kind of still not trying to do too much, still trying to let me run the team.
“He hasn’t done a lot with the ball. He’s been cutting and curling and popping and kind of letting me find him and learning how to play off me, which is good for him because I’ve already played and he has to come in and get his swag back.”
Said Foster, “We’re like best friends. We hang out all the time. When you see him, you’re going to see me. The connection’s already there on the court because we have it off the court.”
Both are capable – and prefer – playing at a breakneck speed, which will undoubtedly put pressure on Big East defenses.
“Maurice is one of the better passers I’ve ever coached,” McDermott said. “He’s able to find Marcus wherever he is on the floor. It’s a very good combination.”
It’s a dangerous combo in the halfcourt, too.
“We complement each other a lot because he can get (into the teeth of the defense),” Foster said, “and I can catch-and-shoot and knock down threes. It’s going to be hard for my defender, he’s either going to help and give up a three or not help and give up a layup from him.
“That’s why we’re going to be so hard to guard.”
Creighton’s strength may be in that backcourt duo, but the reason they’re a preseason top-25 team and a darkhorse to challenge Villanova and Xavier in the Big East is the rest of their depth. While they’re battling some injury issues, Creighton has starters Zierden, Cole Huff and Khyri Thomas back along with Watson and Foster. Top-50 recruit Justin Patton, a 7-footer from Omaha, is ready to contribute after redshirting last year.
“We had a rough year a few years ago,” McDermott said, “and we wanted to try and recover and rebound from that as fast as we possibly could.”
Creighton’s recruiting, as seen by Patton and four-star 2017 commit Mitchell Ballock, has quickly adapted to the Big East. Watson and Foster are the first wave of transfer reinforcements, and Kaleb Joseph, who will sit out this year after coming over from Syracuse, is the next.
Simply, it looks like Creighton is once again a program the nation can’t ignore.
“Creighton is used to winning and that’s just how it is,” Watson said. “They’re used to winning. That’s the tradition. That’s what you want to keep going.”
Even as Creighton’s success has dipped the last two years, they’ve routinely filled the 17,000-seat CenturyLink Center near capacity. The appetite for a winner could very well be met this year.
“(Fans) are so hungry for that,” Foster said. “I feel like they’re even hungrier this year because we have a team that’s going to be considered one of the best teams to ever play here. I think they’re definitely itching.”
Even with all the success Doug McDermott’s teams had and Kyle Korver’s before him and Paul Silas’ before him, the Bluejays have not played in an NCAA tournament Sweet 16.
“That’s our goal,” McDermott said, “not only get in the tournament, but have success in the tournament and go somewhere no Creighton team has ever gone.”
Even if the Bluejays don’t have a transcendent player, that goal seems in play as the season is set to open.
“They’re very talented,” Doug McDermott said, “and very capable of making a run. I think (Greg McDermott) has done a great job and continuing to recruit well. I think the future is really bright.”
Late last week the Bluejays took to their $13-million practice facility, opened months after Doug’s graduation, for practice. On the far side of the gym, is a massive banner featuring Doug’s likeness in a Chicago Bulls uniform, larger than life, suspended above the floor.
The Bluejays went through drills, competed against each other and ran sprints with spirited vigor, an effort to elevate themselves back to that level.