Ahead of Saturday’s UE-Creighton game in Omaha, Bluejays coach Greg McDermott took some time to talk about the Aces, as well as his own team, which is 11-1 and ranked as high as 12th in the country by the USA Today coaches poll.
Saturday represents both UE and Creighton’s Missouri Valley Conference opener.
What makes it so a lower-rated UE so often plays Creighton close? “It starts with the job that Marty (Simmons) does. They’re as well a coached team as any team in our conference. They understand who they are. They run their offense very precisely and don’t turn it over much, so as a result, they get a lot of shots at the basket. And then defensively they make up for what they maybe don’t have in size with their intensity and toughness, and I think that’s all a reflection of the guy on the end of bench.”
Who other than Doug McDermott (23.1 points/6.8 rebounds per game) do you see as a threat on Saturday? “You don’t win 29 games in a season if you’re a one-man show. Obviously, Doug’s a very talented basketball player and has worked hard to get to where he is today. We’ve got some talent around Doug. Gregory Echenique is very talented on both ends of the floor. He can score the basketball and is one of the better defensive players on the block in the league. Austin Chatman has stepped in great at the point guard position in Antoine Young’s position a year ago. He’s got a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, and he’s shooting the ball well from a percentage point both from the 2 and the 3. Jahenns Manigat led the league in 3-point shooting last year in conference play, and he got off to a little bit of a slow start because of an injury. And Grant Gibbs is leading our league in assists and just makes great decisions on the floor. Then we’ve got guys coming off the bench.”
How do you game plan for Colt Ryan given what he did in Omaha last year (43 points in an overtime Aces loss)? “I don’t think anybody could have guarded him that night. Several of those shots were, as I went back and looked at that game this week, were shots that you’re OK with an opponent taking because they’re challenged — they’re on the move. But Colt got in a zone, and we couldn’t do anything to get him out of it. We’ll try to keep fresh bodies on him the best we can and change the looks, but he’s a very talented basketball player who’s difficult to guard one on one.”
When you watch UE, do you think they have the capability to win against any of these highly regarded opponents? “I don’t think there’s any question. They were right there — five-point game at Butler with eight or nine minutes to go. The Notre Dame game was competitive. Murray State, they had them down early. Colorado State is extremely talented and going to win a lot of games this year. It’s very difficult to go on the road in college basketball and win, and obviously Marty’s got a plan and believes in their ability to compete against those types of teams. They start four seniors, and anytime you have a group of guys who have been together that long — who understand the system — you’re talking about a dangerous team.”
What did you all focus on in practice during the break between non-conference and Missouri Valley play? “I think you’re just trying to iron out a few things that you saw in the non-conference portion of play. We can always do better defensively. I haven’t been totally pleased with our rebounding, especially the last couple of games. We have to get back to rebounding the basketball like we did a year ago. Those things are important. We gave the guys a few days off — practiced the 20th and the morning of the 21st after our game on the 19th and sent them home before bringing them back on Christmas night. Now it’s just about getting back in the flow — getting back in a routine. But we just have to be who we are. We don’t necessarily go out and have the ability to out-talent somebody with our athletic ability, so our execution really has to be a focal point.”
How do you think your team will react to playing without Josh Jones for the rest of the season? “I think it comes up, and I think guys see him in practice with a smile on his face. Given everything he’s been through, it’s maybe hard to complain about a tough practice or not wanting to be in practice when you’ve got a teammate who would give anything he could to put those shoes back on and play again knowing he can’t. I just think being around Josh and knowing how he’s handled this positively has been a good lesson for everyone.”