North Texas-Creighton Preview
OMAHA, Neb. (AP)
Creighton matched its record for wins last season and won a game in the NCAA tournament.
Coach Greg McDermott believes he has the makings of a team ready to reach a regional semifinal for the first time in program history, and he wasn't afraid to make his goal public.
"We're certainly not going to hide from (our expectations)," he said. "At the same time we understand there is a target on our back and we have a lot of work to do between now and then if we expect to have an opportunity to have that happen."
The 16th-ranked Bluejays and preseason All-American Doug McDermott - the coach's son - begin that quest against visiting North Texas on Friday night.
The younger McDermott, Creighton's first-ever first-team All-American in 2011-12 and now a national player of the year candidate, is among four returning starters.
In all, nine of the top 10 players are back from the team that went 29-6, finished second to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and won the league tournament. The Bluejays beat Alabama before losing to North Carolina in the NCAA tournament.
Janhenns Manigat said the coach's confidence about the Bluejays' potential has rubbed off on the players.
"He understands he needs to challenge us," Manigat said. "Saying something like that really just helps us and lets us know how good a team we could be. We could even go farther than the Sweet 16."
Grant Gibbs agreed, saying his coach set the goal too low.
"I know it sounds lofty, but I think everybody's goal this time of year should be to compete for a national championship," Gibbs said. "If you're not shooting for that, what are you playing for? We get to the Sweet 16, then what are we going to do?"
The Bluejays were second in the nation in field-goal shooting, third in 3-point shooting and ninth in scoring. Their prolific offense covered a host of defensive deficiencies. Creighton was 222nd in field-goal defense, 242nd in scoring defense and 313th in steals.
Greg McDermott said the team can't count on being "off the charts" again offensively.
Doug McDermott, the junior forward, is bidding to become the greatest player ever in a program that produced Paul Silas, Kyle Korver and first-round NBA picks Benoit Benjamin and Bob Portman. He will become the school's all-time leading scorer in his third year if he produces at or near the rate he did last season, when his 22.9-point average was third nationally.
"We have a lot of expectations on ourselves," Doug McDermott said. "We know we can go far. You see Butler, VCU, teams like that make it to the Final Four and even the national championship game. We're not thinking that far ahead, but we know we're capable of doing what those teams have done in the past."
Greg McDermott said everything is in place for Creighton to elevate itself from a winning mid-major to an elite mid-major. He pointed to Gonzaga and Xavier as models because both have sustained success.
The support for Creighton is equal to if not greater than that of any mid-major. The Bluejays ranked sixth in the nation in attendance last season with an average of 16,665 at the NBA-style CenturyLink Center.
The coach said there remains one key difference between Creighton and programs such as Gonzaga, Xavier, VCU and Butler that have made it to the Sweet 16 or further.
"When you get to that second weekend in the NCAA tournament, things change," he said. "I think you become much more known nationally when that happens because you're down to just a few games that second weekend and (media) have to have something to talk about, so they tell your story. We've fallen short of that. We've had several opportunities. I hope sooner or later we'll kick that door down."
North Texas hopes to break through in the Sun Belt after losing to Western Kentucky in last season's conference title game, though it will attempt to do so with a new coach after being tabbed as one of the preseason favorites.
Tony Benford takes over after serving as associate head coach to Buzz Williams at Marquette for the last three seasons. He's replacing Johnny Jones, who parlayed an 18-14 regular season into a head coaching job at his alma mater of LSU.
Benford inherits a roster featuring Tony Mitchell, the conference's preseason player of the year and reigning freshman of the year. The 6-foot-8 Mitchell, who averaged team highs of 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds, likely will have the tough task of guarding McDermott on Friday.
The Bluejays and Mean Green have split eight all-time matchups, though this will be the first meeting since 1977.