Five years ago this week, Greg McDermott and his Creighton University men’s basketball team won its first Paradise Jam tournament championship.
That three-wins-in-four-days run to the title kicked off a season-long surge that helped the Blue Jays finish with a 25-win season and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in three years.
Now, McDermott and Creighton — with a whole different cast of players — are back at the UVI Sports and Fitness Center for this year’s Paradise Jam, and hoping to repeat the success that began with the Blue Jays’ 2016 tournament title.
“We’ve talked about our experiences here the last time, and obviously we would like to try to get back to that point,” winning the Paradise Jam title again, McDermott said Thursday. “We know it’s going to be a tall order, but we’re taking it one day at a time with this young team. It’s really important that we have a pretty simplistic approach with as many new guys as we have.”
Creighton (3-0), which plays in the Big East Conference, faces Ivy League program Brown (3-1) in a first-round matchup at 4:15 p.m. today at the Sports and Fitness Center.
Paradise Jam opens with Bradley (1-2) of the Missouri Valley playing Colorado State (3-0) of the Mountain West Conference at 2 p.m., followed by Northeastern (1-2) of the Colonial Athletic Association taking on Duquesne (1-2) of the Atlantic 10 Conference at 6:45 p.m., and Southern Illinois (1-1) of the Missouri Valley Conference facing Colorado (3-0) of the Pac-12 Conference at 9 p.m.
The Blue Jays are one of two past Paradise Jam champions in the eight-team field, along with Colorado, which won the 2017 tournament that was played in Lynchburg, Va., after hurricanes Irma and Maria heavily damaged the U.S. Virgin Islands, forcing organizers Basketball Travelers Inc. to move the tournament stateside.
McDermott still remembers Creighton’s run in the 2016 Paradise Jam, with high-scoring wins over Washington State (103-77) and North Carolina State (112-94), before beating Mississippi 86-77 in the championship game.
“We had a great crowd here, which was awesome, and the locals have supported this incredibly well,” said McDermott, now in his 12th season leading the Blue Jays. “We had a blast with our fans and the local people here, and were anxious to come back.”
That Paradise Jam title kicked off a 14-game winning streak for Creighton, which ended with an 80-70 loss to then-No. 1 Villanova on Dec. 31, 2016. The Blue Jays went on to finish the season 25-8 and earn their fourth NCAA berth in seven years with McDermott.
“Anytime you beat three quality teams in [four] days like that, it’s really good for you,” McDermott said. “It gives you some confidence, and that was obviously the case that season.”
However, that 2016-2017 Creighton team had experience on its side — of the 16 players on the roster, half were upperclassmen (four juniors, led by Kansas State transfer and Paradise Jam MVP Marcus Foster; and four seniors).
This year’s version of the Blue Jays is significantly different, with only four upperclassmen — seniors Keyshawn Feazel, Alex O’Connell and Ryan Hawkins; and junior Shereef Mitchell. The rest are either freshmen (eight players) or sophomores (three players).
“We’re really young, and we’re really new,” McDermott said. “But I really like them. They’re an enjoyable group, and they’re a lot of fun to coach. We’re getting a little bit better every day, but we’re going to be challenged in all of these games, beginning with Brown.”