The No. 7 Creighton Bluejays will have to rally together to overcome the loss of their senior playmaker.
The Creighton Bluejays are having their best season ever.
The team is 18-1 and ranked seventh in this week’s AP Top 25 Poll. Their record is the school’s best 19-game start. Their ranking is the highest in program history.
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Few teams have been able to contain the Bluejays. Creighton has played in only four single-digit decisions. Their lone loss was an 80-70 decision to the Villanova Wildcats, the defending national champions and current No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.
However, the Bluejays attack took a huge hit on Monday afternoon. Senior guard Maurice Watson, Jr. landed awkwardly after a layup attempt in a road game against conference foe Xavier. The incident happened with 6:55 remaining in the first half of the 72-67 victory.
The Creighton athletic department and head coach Greg McDermott confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that Watson tore his left ACL. Watson will miss the remainder of the season. As he is a fifth-year senior, this injury marks the end of his college basketball career.
It's been a fun ride. really devastated but it's about the get back & my chase to my dreams and back on the court starts now! #jayspic.twitter.com/TssBFgyUmT
The Bluejays lose a senior leader and their top playmaker. He was undoubtably the most valuable Bluejay of the last two seasons. The Omaha World-Herald posted a per 40 minute statistic that emphasized his importance to the team.
Creighton outscored opponents 95-74 with Watson on the court on a per 40 minute basis. Without him, Creighton outscored them by a smaller margin: 81-77.
The 5-foot-10 Philadelphia native was proficient at using his speed and agility to slash to the basket. Watson averaged a team-high 8.4 two-point attempts per game, and shot 51.6 percent on those shots.
He was also great at setting up his teammates, averaging a nation-leading 8.4 assists per game. His scoring and assists helped him produce a team-high 16.7 points per game on the season.
Watson could even knock down an occasional three when needed. He only averaged 1.7 three-point attempts per game this season. But he was able to make those at a 46.9 percent clip.
Maurice Watson completes a career spanning four seasons split between two schools (Creighton and Boston University). He played in 119 total games, averaging 12.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 1.6 steals.
The team still has to push forward, despite the major loss. Creighton has 12 conference games left, followed by the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
There won’t be many easy games moving forward, either. They play in the nation’s third-best conference, according to Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin rankings.
Even with the gauntlet ahead, Watson is confident his team can still win games without him. He said as much in his Tuesday press conference alongside coach McDermott.
“I’m not worried at all about if we’ll win games, if the guys will be ready. I’ve been in the trenches with these guys for three years now. Some of them one, some of them two. But we all got the same fight in us. The same fight I have, I’ll make sure the guys have the same thing”.
Watson’s confidence is not misplaced. Creighton does have a number of productive pieces that can keep the show going.
Freshman center and Omaha native Justin Patton is the second-most valuable Bluejay. He’s averaging 13.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game, and leads the team in win shares (3.0) and PER (29.8).
He’s also third in the nation in effective field goal percentage at 74.2 percent. Patton seems to be well on his way to earning Big East Rookie of the Year honors.
Transfers Cole Huff and Marcus Foster are also key parts of the Bluejay offense. Their scoring abilities will be needed even more without Watson running the floor.
Huff, arriving from Nevada last season, averages 9.2 points and 3.9 rebounds per game this year. He’s deadly beyond the arc, shooting 46.6 percent from three on the season.
Foster has become Creighton’s top scorer after two years at Kansas State and a redshirt season. He averages a team-high 18.1 points per game, shooting 60.4 percent on two-pointers and 35.6 percent from three.
While the scoring is in good hands, it’s the playmaking that takes a major hit with Watson gone. McDermott said on the Tuesday that he wasn’t sure who would be the starting point guard moving forward. He plans to experiment until he finds a rotation that works.
There are no sure-fire answers on Creighton’s roster to their new question. But there are several players that are capable candidates.
Sophomore Khyri Thomas — an Omaha native like Patton — could be a worthwhile choice. He’s averaging 11.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He’s also second on the team in win shares (2.9), PER (22.6), and assists per game (2.6).
While he has played all 19 games (starting 18 of them) as a 2-guard, he might be able to slide into that playmaker role for Creighton.
There’s also Isaiah Zierden. The senior was second on the team in assists last season with 2.2 per game. He has seen his playing time reduced due to offseason shoulder surgery and the ascendance of Thomas.
Zierden went from averaging 31.7 minutes per game last season to 19.5 this year.
His playmaking has taken a hit as well. Zierden went from a 2.2:0.9 assist-turnover ratio in 2015-16 to 0.7:0.7 this year. He will probably still move into a starting role for the forseeable future. His 42.9-percent three-point shooting makes him a perimeter threat.
Perhaps more playing time will also help him improve his assist-turnover ratio.
Then there’s freshman Davion Mintz. Mintz has played sparingly this season, averaging 5.8 minutes per game in 13 appearances. Instead, he was being groomed in practice by Watson to be a major part of the offense in the future.
Watson will continue to be with the team, so the mentorship will continue. Mintz may have to move into a sizable playmaking role sooner than expected because of the injury.
Maurice Watson, Jr. was a crucial part of Creighton Bluejays basketball over the last two seasons. He helped the program reach new heights. His contributions will be remembered and missed.
However, the team has to move forward. They have to take a “next man up” approach to the scoring and playmaking production that was lost. Luckily, there are players on the roster that could potentially fill at least a fraction of those roles.