Photo via CBS Sports
March 11 and 12, 2020.
These were two days the sports world will never forget. On Wednesday March 11, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the suspension of the NBA season. The conference commissioners were canceling their conference tournaments in college basketball and President Donald Trump canceled all travel between the United States and Europe as the coronavirus broke out across the world.
The next morning was the nail in the coffin for sports everywhere the next two months as nearly every league suspended play throughout the day. That morning, the top-seeded Creighton Blue Jays took on the eighth-seeded St. John’s Red Storm in an empty Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. The game itself was meaningless as everyone was waiting for the game to be inevitably called off, which it did at halftime. It marked one of the last sporting events to be taken place before sports were put on hold as the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled.
While it absolutely had to happen, it was a devastating blow as contending teams lost their chance to compete for the championship and some players lost their best or only chance to play in the grand event of March Madness. Creighton was an example as they shared the Big East regular season championship with Villanova and was projected to be a three or four seed in the upcoming tournament. However, the pandemic ruined our chance to see how far they could go.
Creighton had previously been a solid mid-major program as an Independent and a member of the Missouri Valley Conference before their promotion to the Big East for the 2013-14 season. Before their time in the Big East, they won 19 conference regular season titles, 12 conference tournaments and made the NCAA Tournament 14 times, making it as far as the Sweet 16 three times. Current Oregon head coach Dana Altman led them to 11-consecutive 20-win seasons between 1998-99 and 2008-09 but could not get past the second round.
Current head coach Greg McDermott took over the program before the 2010-11 season began and has led them to five tournament appearances during his nine full seasons as head coach before the pandemic cut his 10th season with the team short. Under McDermott, the Blue Jays, once again, could not get past the round of 32 and the men’s basketball program has not reached the Sweet 16 since 1974 under coach Eddie Sutton.
Creighton was projected to be a second seed in one of Andy Katz’s final projections for the tournament before the pandemic, meaning Creighton was favored to get to the Sweet 16 and possibly, their first Elite 8 in school history. Statistically, Creighton looked like a legit contender as they were tied for 21st in points per game (PPG) with 78.3, tied for eighth with Gonzaga in three-point percentage (3P%) with .386 and tied for 16th in assists per game (APG) with 15.8. While their rebounds per game (RPG) average was nothing special, (tied for 201st with 34.8) and were tied for 84th in free-throw percentage (FT%), they had the shooting, playmaking and team chemistry to reach the second weekend of the tournament.
Their leading scorer, Ty-Shon Alexander (16.9 PPG), left the team for the NBA Draft but they returned five of their top-six leading scorers for this season. Creighton’s second-leader scorer, Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 PPG), returns for another chance at March Madness glory. The third-leading scorer, Denzel Mahoney (12.0 PPG), has taken Alexander’s role as the wingmate of Zegarowski in the backcourt. Coming into Dec. 14’s action, both players are averaging 15 points per game. Christian Bishop returns as the man in the paint and so far has produced 13.6 PPG and 5.6 RPG. While it isn’t overly impressive, it is enough for a team which emphasizes perimeter shooting.
They currently sit ninth in the AP Poll and have shown they can compete with the best teams but still have some work to do. They took on the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 8 and went toe-to-toe with the fifth-ranked Big 12 powerhouse, losing 73-72. Mahoney and Zegarowski scored 19 and 16 points respectively but lost the game in the final seconds as Zegarowski missed the game-tying free throw with 1.1 seconds left. Creighton missed nine free throws, finishing 9-18 from the line.
Creighton has returned most of their pieces from their Big East regular season winning team last year and their game at Kansas, along with their 98-74 win over in-state rival Nebraska, shows they are a force to be reckoned with in the big picture of this college basketball season. As long as the tournament is still a full-go, Creighton will have the opportunity to win a spot in the second weekend of the tournament for the fourth time in school history and their first Elite 8. If they want to get there, they need to work on making their free throws when needed and continue to shoot well from the field on a game-by-game basis.