When the Creighton men's basketball team took the Ryan Center floor last Saturday for their first practice of the upcoming season, the most notable difference from a season ago was the absence of a certain 6-foot-9, 260-pound, bearded Venezuelan controlling the paint.
Gregory Echenique has since exhausted his NCAA eligibility and moved on to the professional ranks in Germany. While 6-foot-11 junior Will Artino is the odds-on favorite to get the majority of Echenique's minutes, and redshirt sophomore Geoff Groselle looks to carve out more time after limited minutes as a freshman, there's a new face looking to break into the mix, 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman Zach Hanson.
"Zach Hanson has done some good things. I think of the three freshman, he's probably the most ready," said Creighton coach, Greg McDermott. "Part of it is he's just physically a little more advanced than Toby (Hegner) and Darian (Harris)."
Doug McDermott has also been impressed by the true freshman.
"I really like Zach Hanson, big guy from South Dakota," said the two-time All-American. "He's a real strong kid for a freshman. He's got probably the best seal I've ever seen out of anyone. He's so strong with his lower body and he knows how to get it off quick."
Hanson's name was also the first out of senior Grant Gibbs's mouth when the sixth-year senior answered which newcomers have shown well in the early practices.
"I like Zach Hanson a lot. He's doing really good," said Gibbs. "He's got a lot to learn still, but he's got a great frame, really, really physical."
Although Echenique's departure is the most obvious, Creighton also lost a couple guards from a season ago. Josh Jones was forced to end his basketball career early last season due to health concerns, while reserve guards Andre Yates and Nevin Johnson opted to transfer following the season. Coach McDermott's staff addressed those holes by adding a pair of junior college guards. Devin Brooks, formerly of Iowa Western, and James Milliken, who last played at Cowley County, will provide depth at the point and wing, respectively. Both have impressed Gibbs in pre-season pickup games and early practices.
"Devin Brooks has been really good. He's got a bigger learning curve, but, I mean, his talent is undeniable," Gibbs said. "James Milliken's been really good too, shooting the ball, fitting in. At this point, it's just them finding their niche on the team, their role, and kind of accepting it, and all of us helping them do it as well."
Brooks put his "undeniable" talent on display, going head to head with incumbent starter Austin Chatman, who led the Bluejays in minutes played a year ago. The two point guards have developed a friendly rivalry.
"Devin brings his Harlem, New York stuff and Austin, he's not having it every day," said Doug McDermott. "It's cool, though. We're going to need that. We're going to be playing guards like that. Devin brings a different dimension to our team."
Gibbs expanded on the new element Brooks brings.
"Devin's got another gear. He's really strong. He's got like the biggest hands I've ever seen," Gibbs said. "But he's got a different gear when he gets it. It's not as much shifty, it's like powerful getting to the rim."
Creighton's coach anticipates that Brooks's ability to drive will better prepare Chatman for defending opponents in the Big East, and Chatman's experience and knowledge of the system will help the New Yorker adjust to the Bluejay offense.
"I think it will be a huge benefit because Devin probably gets to the basket better than anybody on our team," said McDermott. "For us to have to defend that everyday, and for Austin to have to play against that is going to do nothing but make him better. On the other side, for Devin to have Austin, a guy that's been through it and played significant minutes for us in his first two years to kind of guide him through the process of learning how to play the point guard position in our system, is a huge advantage to Devin as well."
Freshman Darian Harris, of Arkansas, and Toby Hegner, of Wisconsin, round out the group of five scholarship players joining the Bluejays. Gibbs complemented the play of Harris, while Hegner's progression has been slowed by an apparent head injury picked up in the opening practice. Four freshman walk-ons also joined the roster, but are not expected to have much of an impact in the Bluejays' inaugural season in the Big East.
It's still too early for the Bluejays to set their sights on conference play, however. For now, focusing on getting better daily is the key.
"Right now we are just preparing ourselves. I could care less who we are going to play. That will come when conference season rolls around and that time comes," said the Bluejays head coach. "From now until early November, we're worried about trying to get us to be the best we can be, and try to iron out some of the things we need to improve upon. Try to get some of the new guys we are going to have to rely on; ready to play and make sure they have a good grasp of what we're doing and how we're doing it. Hopefully, our veterans can help with that process."
Hanson, JUCOs Impress in Early Practices
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