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Ott’s Thoughts: Creighton 79, Northern State 67

I spent last night’s exhibition game surrounded by children.

I always love Creighton’s exhibition games, but not usually because of the basketball. Frankly, that’s always a bit of a disappointment, considering an exhibition’s status as a revenue-earning dress rehearsal. Nope, I like the exhibitions because I get to see all the familiar faces at the Qwest Center; the tenders at the Bud Bar, the usuals in Section 123, Jerry the Usher.

Well, it seems that Section 123 can add about a half dozen new members to its ranks, considering all the newborns new to the area last night.

[Cue intentional transition to the new basketball team in 3 … 2 … 1 …]

And it was a newcomer, a fresh faced coach’s son, who left an impression on Creighton fans during the team’s only exhibition game of the fall. Doug McDermott, a recruit the Bluejays initially missed on and one who seemed destine to destroy CU while playing for Northern Iowa, made his Creighton debut 90 seconds into the game. Twenty minutes of playing time later, D-Mac had scored 18 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, blocked a shot, and looked as smooth around the rim as some of his fellow teammates looked rigid.

My mom, thrown a bit by the lack of last names on the backs of the Bluejays’ jerseys, kept referring to him as the “young kid.” But I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that McDermott played more like an experienced upperclassman, at least offensively. The box score doesn’t show just how collected McDermott’s motions and actions were on offense, especially in the paint. He’s not the strongest guy in the league (but don’t worry, Creighton fans, the Jays will be able to suit that guy up in about a month or so), but what he lacks in muscle he makes up for with his mind. McDermott knew where to be and how to finish.

McDermott made a positive impression during his freshman debut (Adam Streur/WBR)

McDermott made a positive impression during his freshman debut (Adam Streur/WBR)

But I’ll try to reign in my excitement, considering the exhibition status of last night’s 12-point win against Northern State. Who knows exactly how well the freshman will play as the season progresses? I’ll tell you one thing: if Ethan Wragge continues to set what has to be a record pace for fouls-per-minutes-played, McDermott will definitely get his fair share of playing time early in games. Wragge started at one forward spot last night and promptly fouled twice during the first 90 seconds of the game. He ended the night with 5 points in 12 minutes, including hitting his only 3-point attempt of the evening, but he committed twice as many turnovers as D-Mac in half as much playing time.

But Wragge wasn’t the only returner to struggle. Doug McDermott mentioned it during the post-game radio interview (that’s right; with the new coaching regime comes player interviews by T. Scott Marr and Nick Bahe, last night’s color analyst!): the freshmen are adjusting to collegiate basketball, sure, but the returners are having to erase much of what they learned from Dana Altman and his staff and replace the information with new sets, new strategies, and a new coaching style by Greg McDermott and his staff.

So, should we be concerned that Kaleb Korver constantly looked a step behind on defense? Or that Josh Jones and Darryl Ashford had a hard time picking up from exactly what direction their screens and picks were coming? Probably not. Remember, it is an exhibition.

But that didn’t stop Antoine Young from showcasing what could be the talents that give him the potential to be the best all-around point guard at CU since the Ankeny Bulldog. In 34 minutes of playing time, the junior from Bellevue West went for 16 points, dished 6 assists against only 3 turnovers, and snagged a steal. Last season, Young played 34 minutes or more just three times: during an overtime win at Southern Illinois, a home win against Nebraska, and Creighton’s season-ending loss to Missouri State in the CIT. Creighton fans should get used to seeing the steady point guard on the court more often than not, what with just inexperienced freshman Jahenns Manigat and redshirt freshman walk-on Taylor Stormberg behind him. Plus, if last night’s substitutions were any indication, it isn’t a given that Manigat will be the back-up point guard; he played with Young, at the off guard spot, more than he ran the offense himself.

Young probably would have had close to 10 assists, had Kenny Lawson finished in the paint and Korver knocked down a few more 3-pointers, per their usual selves. Lawson, shaking off the effects of a recent illness, took awhile to get going; he missed all four of his first-half shot attempts. But he rallied for 10 points in the second stanza to add to his 5 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in 20 minutes of playing time on the night. Korver made just 1 of 6 3-point attempts, but tracked down some loose ball rebounds and played 26 minutes, the second-highest individual minute total for any Bluejay.

As a whole, the game highlighted what seem to be the same trouble spots as in recent years. The rebounding wasn’t great, especially on the defensive end (CU allowed NSU 17 offensive rebounds). The defensive rotations weren’t crisp. And outside shots weren’t falling (CU went just 4-16 from 3-point range, 25%). Not exactly inspiring, but also not surprising; it tends to happen that way in exhibition games.

It may seem cliché, but if there was one clear takeaway from last night, it is that things are different now, both aesthetically (new uniforms, new and flashier scoreboard videos) and fundamentally (new sets, new rotations, new expectations). My dad, with whom I’ve been watching Creighton games for more than 20 years, always says that one of his favorite reasons for having season tickets is watching guys develop during their time at Creighton. That kind of development takes on new meaning this season. Creighton fans will see a transformation, perhaps, among players from the Altman regime as they adjust to their new roles under McDermott. And the group of newcomers, led by D-Mac, will begin to get better as the weeks burn away and conference play gets closer.

Sure, the process will produce some bumps in the road. Growing pains, right? But if exhibitions are good for anything, it is stoking the optimism of what might be. The children grow up. They improve. And they establish an identity. They’ve got to start somewhere.

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