About three weeks ago, Creighton hosted Butler in a game that was essentially over before it started. Creighton won the affair 75-64, but it was never really that close; the Bluejays scorched the nets for 47 points in the first half, and star point guard Mo Watson had 21 points and seven dimes on the evening.
How times have changed. Creighton will square off against Butler once again on Tuesday night, but it will do so without Watson, who tore his ACL against Xavier on Jan. 16. The Bluejays pride themselves on depth – at their apex, they were a nine-deep, run-and-gun juggernaut that could outscore any blueblood.But its depth didn’t extend to the point guard spot. With Watson in the lineup, it didn’t have to. He played heavy minutes and rarely, if ever, showed signs of fatigue despite playing at such a frantic pace. Life without Watson has been difficult – Creighton is 2-2 without its starting point guard (if you include Xavier, a game which Creighton won despite Watson’s early injury), and suffered consecutive defeats against Marquette and Georgetown – the Bluejays rebounded on Saturday against DePaul, but it’s hard to know what to make of them sans Watson.
Creighton is still figuring that out, too. Greg McDermott has used two different starting lineups post-Watson. The first included Isaiah Zierden, a 46.4 percent 3-point shooter on the season that is averaging less than an assist per game. The second included Davion Mintz, a freshman point guard who had an encouraging 17-point, eight-assist outing against Marquette, but has been inconsistent ever since.
Zierden and Mintz are both talented. But neither of them will give you 80 percent of the production Watson did. In order to fill that void, Creighton must turn to two guys that have been in the starting lineup all season long.
The most important statistic from Saturday’s win against DePaul: starting guards Marcus Foster and Kyhri Thomas combined to dish out 11 assists. Pre-Watson injury, Foster was the closest thing in college basketball to Malik Monk – an unapologetic gunner who could swing a game in a pinch with his electric 3-point shooting. Thomas was Creighton’s secondary ball-handler, an expert in attacking cracks in the defense usually created by Watson’s penetration.
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Thomas will never be Watson. But he can be more like Watson. Creighton has used the point guard by committee approach in the past few games, which is perfectly understandable given its lack of an obvious replacement.
Thomas was so good in the role he was in – while not as shiny as Watson or Foster, he did everything at a high level. Perhaps most telling: as a 6-3 guard, Thomas is averaging 5.7 rebounds per game. He’s also Creighton’s best playmaker with Watson sidelined, and indecisiveness and unclear role allocation plagued the Bluejays in their last two losses. It might be in McDermott’s best interest to just hand the keys to Thomas and see what he can do with them. If he’s even in Watson’s zip code as a point guard, the Bluejays will be a good team.
Let’s be clear: Creighton has very good players not named Watson. But they have a tough time showing their ability without a dynamic playmaker in the fold. Justin Patton is the prototypical modern big man, capable of anchoring a defense, scoring on the low block and stepping out behind the 3-point line when the time calls for it. Cole Huff is an ace 3-and-D guy, able to guard multiple positions while hitting 46.3 percent of his triples. Foster is an elite scorer.
If Thomas is entrusted with the lead guard reins and plays well, this can still be a top-20 team. A clear pecking order is important in college basketball. Just ask Duke. Creighton had as good of role allocation as anyone before Watson’s injury; it’s part of the reason why the Bluejays were so dangerous.
Creighton’s ceiling is undeniably lower than it once was, but if Thomas can be a slightly watered-down version of Watson and McDermott slots Zierden or another good shooter into the Thomas role, this team isn’t doomed. Reinventing yourself on the fly is hard, but there is plenty of talent to work with on this roster. McDermott earned well-deserved praise for the team’s hot start, but now is when he can really prove his worth.