Their first taste of Creighton basketball left "what-have-we-gotten-ourselves-into" looks on the faces of Geoff Groselle and Nevin Johnson.
It came last July, when the Bluejays gathered for the first of 10 practices before a trip to the Bahamas to play four exhibition games. The coaches put the players through a demanding two-hour workout that was as taxing mentally as it was physically.
"I had a lot of confidence in high school," Johnson said, "but those practices we had before the Bahamas made me second-guess myself."
Groselle, a 7-foot center from Plano, Texas, also sparred with self-doubt.
"I remember that first practice, and while I wasn't completely out of my element, I had this weird feeling," Groselle said. "High school basketball is so much different than this. I just needed a year to get ready for college basketball."
He got it. Both he and Johnson redshirted last season. The past six months were filled with heavy lifting and limited rewards. Johnson and Groselle spent more time running the plays of opposing teams than their own.
They'll get their chance in the coming months to put themselves in the mix for playing time on a team in which competition for minutes next season will be intense. Creighton returns all but Antoine Young from its regular 10-man rotation and will welcome a couple of freshmen in June who likely will have a chance to contend for spots in the rotation.
"Our guys can do the math," coach Greg McDermott said. "We have nine guys back, and we're adding two redshirts and two freshmen that want to play.
"It all has a way of sorting itself out in practice, but bottom line, we were a deep team last season and we plan on being an even deeper team next season."
Groselle and Johnson plan on being part of that depth.
"One of the reasons our team is so good is that we have so many players at each position," Johnson said. "Every day in practice, we have to work hard just to compete against each other.
"I'm ready to be one of those guys competing for a spot."
A defensive stopper
Johnson might be the one Bluejay who aces the eye test. Four days of work a week in the weight room have added noticeable muscle to the lithe, 6-foot-5 swingman.
McDermott laughed when it was suggested that Johnson likely will volunteer to be a skin every time the Bluejays get together for summer shirts-and-skins pickup games.
"I think Nevin definitely likes what he sees when he looks in the mirror," McDermott joked. "There definitely has been some good changes."
Johnson showed up last summer weighing 185 pounds. He started the spring lifting program at 202. He wants to reach 215 for next season. He believes that he can do that without sacrificing speed and quickness.
The added strength gives Johnson a chance to be the lock-down perimeter defender — something Creighton has lacked in recent seasons.
"My goal is to become the best on-ball defender on the team," Johnson said. "If I can do that and rebound, I think I can really help this team."
Johnson's attitude and physical talents give him a chance to provide the Bluejays with something special on the defensive end.
"Everyone wants to score the basketball because that's what gets the most attention from the media and the fans," McDermott said. "But to have a successful team and program, hopefully you can have a player like Nevin that has the ability to lock down on defense.
"Nevin has that combination of size, length and athletic ability. We've got guys that are athletic, but they're 6-foot or 6-1. We have guys that have better length, but they aren't as athletic. Nevin has the right combination, and if he embraces the role of defender, he has a chance to make a big impact."
Johnson, who was a top-40 recruit in the state of Texas when he came out of Spring High School in Houston, hardly will be content to be a one-dimensional player. His offensive game is built on getting to the basket, but he's intent on working hard on his outside shooting.
There were times this past season when Johnson was as good as anyone in the gym during practice. His offensive effectiveness will increase when consistent effort becomes the norm, McDermott said.
"Both Nevin and Geoff made strides in that area," the coach said. "It's always a challenge for freshmen to get to the point where they can play harder for longer periods of time.
"In Nevin's case, the improvements he's made in his body have helped his endurance. And he has a much better understanding of what we want defensively. In that regard, he's in a much better place than he was when he first got here."
Groselle's size gave him a natural advantage over opponents in high school.
"I knew when I came here on my visit that one of my weaknesses was playing against someone stronger than me," Groselle said. "I didn't play against many guys in high school that were bigger and stronger than I was."
That changed immediately when the 245-pound Groselle found himself matched up in practice against Gregory Echenique, the Bluejays' 6-9, 270-pound inside muscle man. Echenique is a two-time pick to the Missouri Valley all-defensive team and earned the conference's defensive player of the year award last season.
Groselle also found himself banging inside with 6-11 Will Artino, whose passing and ability to run the floor give him a skill-set that provides a different look than many inside players.
"One of the things Geoff has learned is the physicality it takes to be successful at this level," said assistant coach Steve Merfeld, who is in charge of Creighton's big men. "Who better to teach him that than Gregory Echenique?
"Geoff got to go against him for 120 practices."
There were days when Echenique held the upper hand, but as Groselle's redshirt season wore on, he often found himself holding his own.
"Geoff learned some things playing against Gregory and Will every day," McDermott said. "Those guys are going to be competing with each other and fighting for playing time.
"To have three guys like that gives our front line some things that other teams we compete against don't have. And it sets us up to be competitive daily in practices and drills."
Groselle averaged 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks a game as a senior at Plano West High School. McDermott said the Bluejays' tallest player has improved his post moves over the past six months.
Like Johnson, Groselle benefited from his work in the weight room. He said his weight stayed static for much of the season, but he's added about 15 pounds since the beginning of March.
"The thing I like is that his body composition has really changed," Merfeld said. "Geoff is never going to be a great athlete, but what he's done makes him a better athlete.
"And I think his work ethic has improved. He has that 'I-want-to-please' mentality, and when a player has that, he'll get better. Geoff definitely has."
Groselle believes that his redshirt season has left him better prepared to compete next season.
"My mentality and aggressiveness toward the game have improved," he said. "I feel like I'm a lot stronger and I can jump a lot higher. Hopefully, that will make a difference."
A year to grow
Groselle and Johnson were like most players in that they showed up at Creighton thinking that they would play right away. When the coaches initially suggested that they might benefit from a redshirt season, there was at least a slight push back.
"I didn't expect it at all," Groselle said. "But then I wasn't doing as well in practice as I should have been. I started thinking that maybe they were going to redshirt me, and that's what they did."
Groselle now looks back on the experience as a positive. Creighton had two other scholarship freshmen — Austin Chatman and Avery Dingman — who played immediately. Chatman averaged 11.2 minutes per game as Young's backup at the point, while Dingman averaged 7.2 minutes as a backup on the wing.
"I wouldn't do it any other way," Groselle said. "Avery and Austin had great years, but I don't think trading the amount of playing time they got for another year would be worth it."
Johnson, too, sees how sitting out the past season will be beneficial to him over the next four seasons. Still, he admits that it was difficult to watch while one of the finest seasons in school history unfolded for the Bluejays, who won 29 games and made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
It didn't help that there were times when Creighton appeared to be in dire need of a player with Johnson's perimeter defensive skills.
"I know Coach Mac is always looking out for my best interests and the best interests of the team," Johnson said. "I thought there were times when I could have played and benefited the team.
"There were times when I was sitting on the bench next to Geoff thinking, 'You and me could be in this game right now.' But now that I look back on it, this extra year of development is really going to help me a lot."
McDermott's own experience as a player at Northern Iowa provides him with empathy for the players he now asks to sit out a season.
"I redshirted myself, and I know how difficult it can be on a daily basis when you don't have the reward of game time to motivate yourself," he said. "I thought both guys handled it well. They had their peaks and valleys, and there were points during the season where I thought maybe they weren't practicing as hard as they could.
"But when I look back on where those two guys were at that first practice last July and where they are today, they've made tremendous improvement. The redshirt year is only going to help them and our team."
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