When Greg McDermott brought Creighton to Las Vegas three years ago for Thanksgiving weekend, it was an opportunity for a talented team to develop chemistry, gain confidence and get a feel for playing on consecutive nights.
That team, led by McDermott’s son Doug, would win the 2012 Las Vegas Invitational, and then capture the 2012-13 Missouri Valley Conference regular season and conference tournament championships and advance to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Nobody affiliated with the Bluejays is expecting history to repeat itself this week as they return to town, this time to participate in the Main Event at the MGM Grand Garden. Creighton is in a different league, the Big East, and doesn’t have an All-American like Doug McDermott to lead the way.
“It will help us,” McDermott said of the trip, which has Creighton (2-1) facing Rutgers (3-1) at 9 p.m. today in the second half of the Heavyweight Division bracket. “We have the personnel to get back to the way we like to play, which is fast.
Clemson (3-0) and Massachusetts (3-0 tip off the event at 6:30 p.m.
Today’s Main Event starts a busy week for college basketball in Las Vegas. In addition to the evening doubleheader, the Main Event also has a Lightweight Division with Texas-San Antonio playing Central Arkansas and Howard facing Texas Southern, beginning at noon.
After the Main Event concludes Wednesday, the Las Vegas Invitational makes its annual visit to Orleans Arena on Thursday. The tournament, founded in 2003, was recently sold to Fox Sports. West Virginia meets Richmond and San Diego State faces California in two nationally televised games on Fox Sports 1. The finals and consolation game are Friday.
The women will also be well-represented this week. On Friday, the South Point holds its annual two-day Thanksgiving Shootout featuring three nationally ranked teams in the USA Today coaches’ poll — No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 14 Ohio State and No. 21 California. On Saturday, UNLV hosts George Mason, Drake and Tulsa in the two-day Lady Rebel Round-Up at Cox Pavilion.
But holiday play starts today at the MGM and for Creighton it’s another opportunity to bond. In August, the team played in Italy, and McDermott said it helped his program, which has just two seniors, build chemistry on and off the court.
“It was exactly what we needed,” McDermott said of the trip on which Creighton won all three of its games. “The competition wasn’t the best but having the 10 extra days to practice were great and to be together as a group was tremendous. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The Bluejays are coming off a 14-19 season and were tied for ninth in the Big East at 4-14. Creighton was picked ninth out of 10 teams in the this year’s Big East preseason coaches’ poll. But McDermott said he believes his team is better than that and is looking forward to getting the chance to prove it when conference play tips off New Year’s Eve at St. John’s.
“This team has more experience,” McDermott said. “I also think we have more depth than we had last year. We’re probably nine, 10 guys deep and it’s an unselfish group.”
Part of the experience comes from junior point guard Maurice Watson Jr., who transferred from Boston University and is averaging 13.7 points and 4.7 assists three games into the season. McDermott believes Watson can be a difference-maker in Creighton’s resurgence.
“He’s a dynamic player who makes us go,” McDermott said. “He has a great feel for the game and we saw some of what he can do when we were in Italy. He played extremely well for us over there.”
While last season was humbling, McDermott and his players are not living in the past. A win tonight against the Scarlet Knights and another Wednesday against either UMass or Clemson will give the Bluejays added confidence and momentum heading into December.
“A year ago, we were coming off an incredible season and lost four seniors,” McDermott said. “We had a lot of near-misses — we lost nine games in the last minute. We weren’t good finishers.
“I think we have a group that will close games out better and will compete to the end. I like the direction we’re headed and I know we’re better than where we were picked (to finish).”