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Creighton guard Khyri Thomas to remain in 2018 NBA Draft

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With leading scorer Marcus Foster out of eligibility, the biggest question for the Creighton Bluejays at the end of the 2017-18 season was what would junior guard Khyri Thomas do. Not only did Thomas establish himself as one of the top perimeter defenders in the country during his three seasons at Creighton, but he also made significant strides offensively.

Sunday afternoon Thomas, who originally entered his name into the 2018 NBA Draft without an agent, announced that he has decided to forego his final season of collegiate eligibility.

Thomas, who averaged 15.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game last season, has a good chance of being Creighton’s second first-round draft pick in as many years (Justin Patton in 2017). Making improvements offensively in each of his three seasons under Greg McDermott and his staff, Thomas shot 53.8 percent from the field, 41.1 percent from three and 78.8 percent from the foul line in 2017-18.

Being able to point to the development of Thomas and Patton, who redshirted before playing his way into the 2017 NBA Draft lottery, certainly won’t hurt Creighton’s efforts on the recruiting trail moving forward.

As for next year’s team, losing Thomas is a big deal given his impact on both ends of the court. Returnees such as Mitchell Ballock, Davion Mintz and Ty-Shon Alexander will have even more responsibility on their shoulders, and it should also be noted that the team’s leading returning scorer (forward Martin Krampelj) is working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in mid-January.

Losing three starters (Foster, Thomas and Toby Hegner) and a solid reserve in Ronnie Harrell Jr. (transferred to Denver) will be tough to absorb. But it gives the remaining Bluejays the opportunity to step forward, and if the last two seasons are any indication someone may be ready to make a major jump for Greg McDermott’s team.

Creighton point guard Watson Jr. to return for senior season

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Creighton’s chances of moving up the Big East standings and returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 improved a great deal Thursday, as starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. announced that he will be returning for his senior season. Watson, who began his college career at Boston University, entered his name into the NBA Draft pool without hiring an agent but decided that another year in Omaha would be best for him.

Watson was one of the most impactful transfers in the country last season, as his play at the point was a major factor in the Bluejays winning 20 games and going 9-9 in conference play after being picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll. Watson averaged 14.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game last season, earning second team All-Big East honors.

With Watson’s return the Bluejays will welcome back three of their top four scorers from last season, with center Geoffrey Groselle being the lone departure. Head coach Greg McDermott adds a talented shooting guard in Marcus Foster, who sat out last season after transferring in from Kansas State. With Watson and Foster working together, Creighton will have a formidable perimeter tandem leading the way in 2016-17 with the likes of forward Cole Huff and guard Isaiah Zierden also being key contributors.

In addition to what Watson can provide in games he’ll also serve as a good mentor for Kaleb Joseph, who will have to sit out next season after transferring in from Syracuse. Joseph, who will have two seasons of eligibility remaining, fell out of the rotation as a sophomore so the year in residency should benefit him as he works towards grabbing the reins in 2017-18.

h/t ESPN.com

Hot-shooting No. 3 Villanova takes down Creighton 83-58

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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Kris Jenkins scored 22 points, Jalen Brunson had 16 and No. 3 Villanova rolled past Creighton 83-58 on Wednesday night.

Josh Hart added 13 points and nine rebounds for the Wildcats (19-3, 9-1 Big East), who have won 11 of 12. With senior center Daniel Ochefu missing his second straight game with a concussion, Villanova relied on its pinpoint outside shooting. The Wildcats shot 16 for 29 (55 percent) from 3-point range with Brunson and Jenkins each shooting 4 for 6.

On the hunt for their third straight Big East title, Villanova remained a game up on Xavier for first place.

Playing just outside his native Philadelphia, Maurice Watson Jr. led Creighton (14-9, 5-5) with 16 points and five assists. The Bluejays have lost three straight for the first time this season.

The 16 3s were the most Creighton has ever given up and the most Villanova has made this season.

Creighton, the league’s top shooting team, attempted 25 3-pointers but only made eight against the Wildcats, who own the conference’s top-ranked defense.

After Creighton opened a four-point lead midway through the first half on consecutive 3-pointers from Watson and Toby Hegner, Villanova reeled off the next 10 points to take the lead for good. The Wildcats closed the half on a 13-4 run to go up 45-32. The spurt was highlighted by five points apiece from Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges.

The Wildcats went ahead 60-38 with 15 minutes left. They led by as many as 31 points and closed the game on a 63-34 run.

Booth added 10 points for Villanova and Ryan Arcidiacono and Bridges chipped in nine apiece.

Creighton center Geoffrey Groselle didn’t start because of an ankle injury but came off the bench and scored six points.

TIP-INS

Creighton: The Bluejays have lost four straight to Villanova but their last win over the Wildcats was a memorable one as they eclipsed 100 points in a 101-80 triumph on Feb. 16, 2014. . Creighton dropped to 22-131 all-time against nationally ranked opponents, including a 1-5 mark this season. The Bluejays have never beaten a team ranked in the top three.

Villanova: The Wildcats have won 37 straight games at the Pavilion, its campus gym. . Villanova made all 12 of its free throws in the first half. . Villanova’s all-time leading scorer, Kerry Kittles, was sitting courtside for the game.

UP NEXT

Creighton: Hosts DePaul on Saturday

Villanova: Visits No. 11 Providence on Saturday

This version corrects that the 16 3s were the most Villanova made this season.

Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton take care of No. 18 Butler

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With No. 4 Villanova still the class of the Big East, three teams are tied for second in the conference with matching 5-2 league records. No. 5 Xavier and Georgetown were both fancied as contenders before the season began, so their presence in that glut comes as no surprise (even with the Hoyas’ issues in non-conference play). The third team with a 5-2 record: the Creighton Bluejays, who Saturday night took care of No. 18 Butler 72-64 in Omaha.

Greg McDermott’s team had incredibly bad luck in tight games a season ago, with nine of their losses coming by five points or less. But their fortunes have changed for the better in 2015-16, and a big reason why is the presence of redshirt junior point guard Maurice Watson Jr.

Watson, who sat out last season after transferring in from Boston University, was the catalyst for Creighton Saturday night. He accounted for 18 points and five assists in the second half, taking advantage of Butler’s perimeter defense in many ball-screen situations. Of the 43 second half points Creighton scored Watson played a role in 30 of them, and he was responsible (either by scoring or assisting) for ten of the Bluejays’ 11 made field goals.

Not mentioned among the best point guards in the Big East when the season began, game by game Watson’s proving that he belongs in the conversation. And that’s made a Creighton team that has other improved players, including center Geoffrey Groselle and shooting guard Isaiah Zierden, one capable of making a noticeable leap up the Big East standings.

Saturday night Creighton managed to take care of a Butler squad that, at 2-5 in conference play, seems to be searching for its identity at this point in the season. During non-conference play the offense was clicking at a rate higher than many anticipated. But things have slowed down on that end of the floor for Chris Holtmann’s team, and they’ve struggled in dealing with that. The Bulldogs have the experience, but can they get things going in the right direction? That’s the question that needs answering at this point in time.

There are no such doubts for Creighton, with roles seemingly well-defined and a team brimming with confidence. The Bluejays will have other opportunities to add to their NCAA tournament résumé, with four of their final six games coming on the road.

The key is getting to the point where those games, which include road tilts at Providence and Xavier, can help seal a return to the NCAA tournament. Thanks in large part to Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton took an important step in that direction Saturday night.

BIG EAST CONFERENCE RESET: Can anyone dethrone Villanova?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big East.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Dunn, Providence

This decision was made somewhat difficult by the combination of Dunn missing some games due to illness and other players excelling in non-conference play. But it’s hard to overlook his influence on a team that enters Big East play ranked 12th in the AP poll after being projected as a bubble team in the preseason. Dunn’s averaging 16.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.3 steals per game for the Friars, and his turnovers (2.9) are down more than one per game from last season’s average (4.2).

ALL-BIG EAST FIRST TEAM

  • Kris Dunn, Providence
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
  • Josh Hart, Villanova
  • Ben Bentil, Providence
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette

[2015 REVIEW: Best Dunks | Best Games]

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. The Big East is one of the nation’s best leagues: The preseason conversations regarding the best conference in college basketball centered on the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten, but through non-conference play the Big East has stepped forward into that discussion. Xavier’s been one of the most impressive teams in the country to this point, two-time defending champion Villanova’s lone defeats came against two Top 10 teams in Oklahoma and Virginia, and Butler is 10-1. Joining those contenders has been 12-1 Providence, and both Marquette and Seton Hall are off to good starts as well.
  2. Xavier’s depth and talent make it Villanova’s biggest threat: The biggest question for the Musketeers entering the season was how they’d fill the hole left by the graduation of Dee Davis at the point. Would Edmond Sumner be ready to take the reins after redshirting last season? To this point Sumner has indeed been the answer Chris Mack needed at the point, giving the Musketeers an athletic finisher who continues to improve as a floor general. And he’s surrounded with a host of experienced options, including Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds, who can put points on the board. That makes Xavier the team best equipped to challenge reigning Big East champ Villanova.
  3. To look at Providence as “Kris Dunn and some other dudes” would be a big mistake: While Dunn was a preseason favorite for National Player of the Year honors, many didn’t know what to make of the rest of Ed Cooley’s team. Heading into their conference opener against Butler the Friars are ranked in the top ten, and this has been no one-man operation. Sophomore Ben Bentil has been one of the nation’s most improved players, Rodney Bullock’s given them another quality front court option, and role players such as Junior Lomomba have been productive as well. Will the Friars be a top ten team throughout league play? That remains to be seen, but this has been an impressive group worthy of Big East contender status.

[CONFERENCE RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | American]

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Villanova’s perimeter shooting: For a team loaded with quality guards, the Wildcats’ shooting in non-conference play was a surprise. Jay Wright’s team is shooting just 31.1 percent from three on the season, with nearly 52 percent of their field goal attempts being three-pointers. Josh Hart (39 percent) and Ryan Arcidiacono (37 percent) have been the best of the bunch, and they’ll need players such as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Kris Jenkins to raise their perimeter accuracy moving forward.
  2. Does Georgetown have what it takes to rebound: With two of their first three losses coming against very good Maryland and Duke teams, not too many worried about the Hoyas’ 1-3 start after a five-game win streak made John Thompson III’s team appear to be okay. But after dropping games to Monmouth and UNC Asheville and escaping with a win at Charlotte, there are some significant issues to be addressed. Paul White’s struggled with health, and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera hasn’t been the player many envisioned him being when he changed course and decided to return for his senior year. Can they turn things around and be the contender many expected them to be?
  3. Marquette, Seton Hall looking to make NCAA tournament push: Both the Golden Eagles and Pirates put together quality records in non-conference play, which sets them up for run at NCAA tournament bids as conference play begins. And the strength of the Big East can help both in the quality wins department, with Seton Hall’s best win coming against Wichita State and Marquette’s being at the expense of Arizona State. Marquette’s Henry Ellenson has been one of the nation’s best freshmen, but their tournament hopes may hinge on the development of their perimeter rotation. As for the Pirates, this sophomore-laden group will lean on Isaiah Whitehead and Desi Rodriguez as they look for their first tournament bid since 2006.
Xavier's Edmond Sumner (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Xavier’s Edmond Sumner (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

[NEW PODCAST | NEW TOP 25]

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: On Monday’s podcast, my colleague Rob Dauster said that he believed that Villanova was the fourth-best team in the conference, that their issues shooting the ball combined with their question marks in the front court left them susceptible to being picked off. Jay Wright’s club has their issues, but they also have a total of four losses in Big East play the last two years.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: On paper, Marquette looks like the real deal. They have a slew of highly-regarded guards surrounding a pair of NBA-caliber big men in Henry Ellenson and Luke Fischer. And as good as they’ve looked in bursts this season, their best wins are over a depleted LSU, Arizona State and a Wisconsin team that has already lost five games. They were also embarrassed on their home floor by Iowa and lost to Belmont in Milwaukee. I want to believe in Marquette, but they need to beat one of the top four teams in the league for me to get there fully.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Georgetown has been by far the most disappointing team in the Big East and one of the most disappointing teams in the country. They have top 20 talent on the roster, but they’ve lost at home to Radford, UNC Asheville and Monmouth, the latter of which was a blowout. Given who his father is, it’s going to be very hard for the program to jettison John Thompson III, but if he can’t turn this thing around, he’s going to be a name that pops up on hot seat lists.

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Xavier: Chris Mack’s team, which reached the Sweet 16 a season ago, has everything a team needs to not only reach that point but go further. And if Edmond Sumner continues to develop at the point, Houston is possible.
  • 2. Villanova: The Wildcats do have to shoot better from the perimeter than they have, and with players such as Arcidiacono, Brunson and Hart they’re capable of turning things around on that front. But do they have enough in the post to play deep into March?
  • 3. Butler: The Bulldogs don’t defend as well as they did in years past, but they’re better offensively thanks to the presence of two playmakers in Tyler Lewis and Roosevelt Jones.
  • 4. Providence: Dunn and Bentil have been excellent, but Ed Cooley’s had many other contributors step forward as well. And their play with Dunn out of the lineup can only help the confidence of those supplementary players moving forward.
  • 5. Marquette: The Golden Eagles’ best wins have come over teams likely to land on the bubble (Arizona State, LSU, Wisconsin). They’ve got an extremely talented front court tandem in Ellenson and Fischer, but the key moving forward: the guards keeping the turnovers (19.6 percent turnover rate) to a minimum.

NIT teams

  • 6. Seton Hall: The progress made by Desi Rodriguez has been huge for the Pirates, who have wins over Ole Miss and Wichita State on their résumé. Kevin Willard’s team will go as far as their sophomore class, led by Rodriguez, Isaiah Whitehead and Angel Delgado, can lead them.
  • 7. Georgetown: The Hoyas have NCAA tournament talent, but they haven’t played to that level on a consistent basis thus far. The biggest issues have been on the offensive end, but they need to be better on the glass as well (7th in defensive rebounding percentage).
  • 8. Creighton: With Maurice Watson Jr. on the leading a balanced offensive attack, the Bluejays could surprise some people in league play. But in order to do so, they’ll need to improve defensively (last in field goal percentage defense, ninth in three-point percentage defense).

Autobid or bust

  • 9. DePaul: The Blue Demons did manage to knock off a ranked George Washington squad, but they’re unlikely to make a major move up the Big East pecking order.
  • 10. St. John’s: This is a rebuilding year for the Red Storm, who still hope to add Marcus LoVett Jr. at some point in the near future. That being said, they compete and are capable of pulling off some upsets in league play.

Creighton guard Isaiah Zierden to miss remainder of the season with a knee injury

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A knee injury has ended Isaiah Zierden’s season for the second consecutive year.

The Creighton redshirt sophomore guard suffered partially torn medial collateral ligament and patella injury in his right knee during Wednesday night’s narrow loss to Butler. The team announced the injury on Friday afternoon.

Last March, Zierden suffered an MCL injury in the same knee, which kept him out of the final seven games of the 2013-14 campaign.

The 6-foot-2 Zierden, who has started seven of 20 games, is the team’s second-leading scorer at 9.5 points per contest. He’s also been the Bluejays most reliable 3-point threat with 44 triples on the season, shooting at just under 40 percent.

The Creighton perimeter will finish the season down a guard, relying on more minutes from Devin Brooks and James Milliken, playing alongside Austin Chatman.

Creighton, which began the season with a come-from-behind win over No. 18 Oklahoma in November, has seen a sophomore slump in its second season as a Big East member. The Bluejays have lost their first seven conference games, three of which came on their home floor. Creighton continues the season on Sunday at No. 4 Villanova.