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The new face of the new Big East
The first thing you should notice about this new weekly column about the new Big East is the new dateline.
East Coasters might wonder: What exactly should a fan of the old Big East — home to Patrick Ewing and Pearl Washington, to a gritty, hard-nosed type of basketball — know about this salt-of-the-earth place called Omaha?
Thing 1: It’s home to really good steaks.
Thing 2: It’s home to a really rich financier named Warren Buffett.
Thing 3: It’s home to really good basketball, to the player who might be the best college basketball player this season (Doug McDermott), and to fans who value basketball enough to rank Creighton University sixth in the nation in home attendance last year.
When the remodeled Big East conference begins to search for a basketball identity on the first day of the college basketball season on Nov. 8, perhaps the most jarring adjustment is that half the teams in the Big East are in the Midwest.
Creighton is just east of the geographic center of the United States — trust me, I looked it up — so I suppose that, by the very broadest definition of geography, it’s in the east.
But in a different sense — in the sense of how they play basketball — Creighton is located much further east than any of these old-guard Big East schools.
Just watch these kids play, spreading the floor and using non-stop ball screens and attacking from the perimeter with deadly shooting and always looking for the extra pass. This isn’t grind-it-out Big East basketball. This is the finesse game you’re more likely to see in Europe.
Some think Creighton’s Euroball approach won’t play well in the traditionally rough-and-tumble Big East. When anyone doubts head coach Greg McDermott’s ability to make the transition, they point to his team’s lack of physical defense as well as the relative weakness of Creighton’s former conference, the Missouri Valley.
But there’s nothing traditional about this new Big East, a conference still searching for its basketball identity.
“Basketball is basketball,” said sixth-year senior Grant Gibbs, a versatile wing who is the glue that holds this team together. “It’s a different style of play we’re bringing to this league. We just have to make adjustments to counteract the athleticism and strength that we’ll see on a daily basis.”
The main arguments against Creighton thriving in the first season of the new Big East are, in truth, fallacies. One is that Creighton is a team that values offense over defense (It has had one of the nation’s most efficient offenses for two years straight). But this forgets McDermott’s history as a defense-focused coach.
The second fallacy is that Creighton is used to soft competition in the Missouri Valley Conference. Sure, the Big East is a step up, but this argument ignores so, so much.
The Valley is one of the most difficult conferences in the nation to get road wins. Creighton beat Wichita State twice last year before Wichita State went to the Final Four. And the physical, defense-first brand of basketball played in the Valley is very similar to … well, to the old Big East.
It also ignores this: The top tier of the new Big East has far more questions than answers — and Creighton looks like the closest thing it has to a certainty.
Georgetown, which tied for first in last year’s Big East, lost the most versatile player in college basketball, Otto Porter, to the NBA, then lost his replacement, Greg Whittington, to an ACL tear. But the Hoyas gained big man Josh Smith, a transfer from UCLA who is eligible to play immediately, and still have the best perimeter attack in the conference with Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera.
Marquette, which shared the Big East regular-season title with Georgetown and Louisville and made an Elite Eight run, lost its top three players in minutes played. But it's still coached by Buzz Williams, and no one’s better at milking close wins out of a team than Williams.
St. John’s might be the most talented and deep team in the conference, and ought to be rid of the distractions that derailed last season. Xavier has dynamic point guard Semaj Christon, who might be the biggest NBA talent in the conference. Villanova has the most cerebral coach in the conference in Jay Wright, and stellar sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono.
Butler, a team that would have been in this conversation any other year, had the new Big East’s biggest offseason loss when boy genius Brad Stevens jetted to the Boston Celtics.
Which brings us back to Creighton, the team from the Midwest who is my pick to win the first season of the new Big East.
The main reason is obviously Doug McDermott. McDermott isn’t the player in college basketball with the most NBA potential, but he’s still a first-round talent. And forget Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker — the nifty, experienced, sharp-shooting McDermott might just be the best college basketball player this season.
The scary thing is that his father-slash-coach thinks he got even better in the offseason — in defense, in ball-handling, in his already quick release.
“If I could take what he did last year, I’d take that right now,” Greg McDermott told me the other day. “But being with him every day, there’s no question he’s getting that shot off quicker.”
That’s something that ought to put a scare into not just other Big East schools but anyone who pulls a Creighton draw in March.
Ditto for the fact that several Creighton players told me not being ranked in the top 25 to start the season is a slight they’ll remember all year.
Doug McDermott came back for his senior season in an age in which anyone with an early shot at the NBA usually takes it. It was a surprise, not just to Creighton fans but to teammates, to Doug’s father, and even to Doug.
“I went back and forth a lot, because it’s the biggest decision I’ve had to make in my life,” he told me. “It could all be so different right now. It’s crazy how it all happened. I went back and forth and at the end of the day I stuck with my heart and followed my gut. It’s not about the money. It’s just about the experience and having another year of college.”
For Doug McDermott, that experience will mean hanging in the dorms with friends. It will mean playing NBA2K14 and Grand Theft Auto 5 with teammates. It will mean taking Creighton into a brand-new conference. And it will mean proving that this team’s European brand of basketball can play well not just in the Midwest but in the brand-new Big East.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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