Creighton primed for return to glory years

If Greg McDermott were still at Iowa State, he would be sweating the upcoming Big 12 season and wondering where the Cyclones will be playing future conference games.

But McDermott got out before ISU lost any patience with him and landed about as well as any coach could while going from a power-six conference to one at least perceived as lesser in stature.

Now, just two seasons removed from McDermott’s exit from Ames, he is on the verge of taking Creighton back to where it belongs -- at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference and a real player in the NCAA tournament.

If you’re looking for a legit sleeper outside the likely preseason Top 25, then look no further than Omaha, Neb.

The fans at Creighton and Wichita State consistently support their programs more than any others in the Valley. The two administrations have a recent history of taking care of their coaches and ensuring that they have competitive salaries.

And the result is the Bluejays and Shockers should be battling for first every step of the way in the Valley this season.

McDermott had plenty of success in the Valley at Northern Iowa before going to Iowa State, but he probably didn’t have a team with this much potential.

“This is as good as I’ve felt in a long time,’’ he said.

After all, few Division I programs can claim they had a pair of stars represent their native countries this offseason. Creighton is one of them.

McDermott’s son, Doug, was Team USA’s best shooter at the FIBA U-19 World Championships in Latvia in July. McDermott was third in scoring at 11.3 ppg and made a team-high 13 3s.

Meanwhile, one-time Rutgers big man Gregory Echenique was instrumental in Venezuela’s performance at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Argentina. Echenique was second on the team in rebounds. Keep in mind Echenique was playing with and against professionals and McDermott was with fellow college-age players.

The Bluejays also went to the Bahamas last month for exhibition games. Echenique couldn’t go since he was with the Venezuelan national team, but the rest of the squad got invaluable experience and much-needed minutes, notably from 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman Will Artino.

“The combination of experience that Doug and Greg got, as well as our trip to the Bahamas, was so positive for our program,’’ McDermott said. “More than anything else, this has been such a terrific thing for them to represent their country. It did so much for their confidence. I’m not sure they could capture it any other way. They played against great competition.’’

Echenique was eligible at the end of the first semester last season and provided an immediate impact for the Bluejays, averaging 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Combine Echenique inside with McDermott on the perimeter and Antoine Young at the point and Creighton has as formidable a threesome as any team in the Valley.

With those three leading the way in 2011, the Bluejays ended up reaching the CBI finals before losing a best-of-three series to former Creighton coach Dana Altman at Oregon.

McDermott said Echenique fit in perfectly during the March portion of the schedule once the Bluejays were in postseason mode. He said the extra few weeks of play benefited Echenique more than any other player.

“He got comfortable in our system and his teammates understood what he could do,’’ McDermott said. “He was the best center in our conference and he’s primed to have a great season.’’

The Bluejays also have Gonzaga transfer and Iowa native Grant Gibbs eligible this season, a player who McDermott expects to be a significant contributor.

McDermott made attempts to upgrade the schedule, but it remains to be seen if the games will give the team the power-rating pop necessary to garner an at-large bid if the MVC tourney isn't won. Creighton plays road games at UAB, San Diego State and Tulsa, a neutral-site game against Iowa (Des Moines) and home games against Nebraska and Northwestern. It'll be the first time since 1939 that the Bluejays host a pair of Big Ten schools in the same season.

After a remarkable run of seven NCAA tournament appearances in a nine-year stretch from 1999 to 2007, Creighton hasn't been back to the Big Dance since. Will this be the year? All associated with the program seem to think so.

“We have experience and we have depth,’’ McDermott said.

That's a good start. Toss in international experience and what you've got is a real national sleeper that no big boy will want to face come March.