Several spots ‘up for grabs’ as Creighton plans to tinker with lineups early in season

Several spots ‘up for grabs’ as Creighton plans to tinker with lineups early in season
Creighton’s Mitch Ballock shoots in front of DePaul’s Max Strus at CenturyLink last season. The Jays tip off the 2018-2019 season Tuesday at home against Western Illinois. (CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Don’t get too attached to the lineup groupings and substitution patterns that Creighton unveils in its season opener Tuesday night.

Nothing’s permanent.

That’s about the only thing of which coach Greg McDermott seems convinced.

He’s still open to tweaking the starting five. He’s still trying to determine whether some guys’ strengths are accentuated (or muted) with specific teammates on the court. He’s still wondering how deep this team can be — nine, 10 or 11? He’s still looking for the best ways to utilize that depth.

“We’ll throw some different combinations out there,” McDermott said before Monday’s practice. “We’ll certainly be doing a lot of evaluations these first couple games just to kind of see how it goes.”

The Jays didn’t face this challenge at the start of the past two seasons — at least not to this degree.

Sure, they had to define a few reserve roles. But the best lineup appeared to be identified well before the real games began.

Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas, Cole Huff and Justin Patton started nearly every game together in the 2016-17 campaign. Davion Mintz took over at point guard for the injured Maurice Watson midway through. Isaiah Zierden, Toby Hegner and Zach Hanson contributed off the bench.

Foster, Thomas and Mintz were the mainstays last year. Injuries to Martin Krampelj, Ronnie Harrell and Hegner at various points in the year forced McDermott to disrupt his deployment of reserves. But when the Jays were at full strength, Harrell was the first man off the bench — followed by CU’s promising freshmen.

“We’ve had some veteran guys that when healthy, you knew that unless something crazy happened, they weren’t losing their spot,” McDermott said of the past two seasons. “This year, some of those spots have all been up for grabs.”

Consider, too, that Krampelj and sophomore Jacob Epperson have missed large portions of practice time with injuries this preseason, hindering Creighton’s ability to experiment. And the newcomers — particularly center Samson Froling — continue to push for regular roles.

“We have a lot to evaluate,” McDermott said.

That process will extend beyond Tuesday’s season opener against Western Illinois. The Jays are set to host East Tennessee State on Sunday before next week’s Gavitt Games matchup against Ohio State.

The players don’t seem to mind the idea of continued mixing and matching early on.

Actually, the concept fits well within their collaborative mentality, according to sophomore Mitch Ballock.

It’s possible Creighton eventually finds that it must identify clear go-to options to successfully navigate the decisive moments of in-conference battles.

But for now?

The Jays are embracing the idea of their lineup puzzle getting assembled on the fly.

“It could be where it’s a different guy each night,” Ballock said. “I like that a lot — granted, we had a great team last year because our (top) talent was through the roof. But we could have a group (this season) where we rely more on each other, not just ourselves to be the guy. I think that’ll help us.”

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