Xavier v. Creighton: Preview

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Muskies take on the best three-point shooting team in the nation in this the first of their two remaining chances for a massive home win.

It is beyond the scope of imagination that I would have to tell you how big this game is. Clearly Xavier agrees, because the University has released standing room only tickets for the first time in the history of the Cintas Center. Xavier's last two home games are both great chances to bolster the at-large resume, and a tricky trip to Seton Hall lies between the two. This is the homestretch.

Creighton comes in tops in the league, riding an 11-2 record and a Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott. Their most recent contest was a one-point win at home over Seton Hall, but it's hard to see where they are going to be anything other than the Musketeers' most difficult home game of the season to this point. Let's get right to it.

Team fingerprint:
Everyone knows Creighton has a stunning offense, so we might as well start there. Their propensity for lifting from deep is well-known, but they can flat-out score the basketball from all over. They're first in the nation in 3P% at 42.9%, 8th in 2P% at 55.4%, and 17th in FT% at 75.4%. This all adds up to an EFG% of 59.2%, which is first in the country. They're only turning the ball over on 14.3% of their possessions in conference play, and they take almost 42% of their shots from behind the arc. This comes together to make them the most efficient offense in the nation. The only chink in their offensive armor is a sub-par OReb%, but when you shoot like that, who is bothering trying to board anyway?

A good offense only carries you so far, though, and despite all the headlines focusing on the other end, Creighton has a stout defense. They are third in the conference in defensive efficiency, thanks in large part to their ability to own the middle of the floor. Teams can shoot fairly freely from beyond the arc and make an average amount of those attempts, but the Bluejays hold teams well below the national average in 2P% and are second in the league in avoiding sending teams to the line. They also rebound like fiends, leading the conference with a DReb% of 71.9%.

They are not a very deep team, getting only 29% of their minutes off the pine, but they are immensely experienced (insert Grant Gibbs joke here). Aside from freshman guard Isaiah Zierden, every meaningful rotation player for Creighton is a junior or a senior.

Starters:
The player: 6'0", 180-pound guard Austin Chatman
The numbers: 7.5/3.3/4.3 on .396 /.403/.775 shooting
More numbers: 24.5% assist rate, 46.1 FT rate
Last time: 12/5/2 on 2-3/2-2/6-8 shooting, 2 steals, 5 TO
The words: Chatman is one of a stable of consistent, efficient players that allows Coach McDermott to feature his son without worrying that the possessions he doesn't use will be going to waste. Chatman stepped in as the lead ball distributor when Grant Gibbs was out with injury, and he helps set the tone of finding a better shot for the Bluejays. He's not an especially ardent or effective driver, but he'll bury a three if left open.

The player: 6'1", 180-pound guard Jahenns Manigat
The numbers: 7.6/2.9/3.1 on .467/.445/.882 shooting
More numbers: 63.0% EFG%, 13.4% TO%, 2.6% steal%
Last time: 11/3/6 on 3-5/3-4/2-2 shooting
The words: Manigat is a pure shooter who would be a lot of teams' number one outside threat. He can score it a little bit from inside the arc, but his mostly looking to catch and shoot on the perimeter. Of the 110 threes he has hit this year, 2 have come without an assist. Unlike most shooters, he's also a ferocious defender on the other end, leading the team in steals.

The player: 6'5", 210-pound guard Grant Gibbs
The numbers: 7.0/3.7/4.1 on .545/.419/.634 shooting
More numbers: 26.5% assist rate, 24.7% TO%
Last time: DNP (old age)
The words: Gibbs is a sixth-year senior who already looks like one of those inexplicably effective guys you always run into at open gyms. He is the primary ball handler for Creighton. His numbers reflect both a high assist rate and a high turnover rate, not unlike those of Dee Davis. He is one of the few Bluejays who actively tries to get all the way to the rim when looking to score, and he is shooting over 60% from inside the arc this year. His gaudy 3P% comes on only 31 attempts.

The player: 6'8", 225-pound forward Doug McDermott
The numbers: 26.0/6.9/1.6 on .521/.443/.884 shooting
More numbers: 37.6% shots%, 59.2% EFG%, 18.1% DReb%, 6.7 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
Last time: 35/7/3 on 13-24/4-10/5-6 shooting
The words: Honestly, I could have kept putting numbers up there for McDermott for a long time. He's a great rebounder, can score inside and out, draws fouls, plays solid defense, rarely turns the ball over, is a decent distributor, is money from the line, and plays 82% of the available minutes. The guy should be the national player of the year and has to be the conference player of the year. His bag of offensive tricks is incredibly deep, and Xavier has about zero players on the roster that match up well with him, as you may have noticed last time these teams played.

The player: 6'7", 225-pound forward Ethan Wragge
The numbers: 11.3/3.9/0.9 on .495/.500/.824 shooting
More numbers: 1-1 from inside the arc in Big East play, EFG% 73.7%, 137.8 ORtg
Last time: 15/3/1 on 5-10/5-10/0-0 shooting
The words: Wragge spits in the face of the God who made him 6'7" by spending almost all of his time well outside the three-point arc. He furthers the insult by being an exceptional three-point shooter, currently sitting at 91-182 on the season. To call him a matchup nightmare is to put it lightly. He has almost literally unlimited range, and he can decide games on his own if he gets hot and is left unattended.

Reserves:
Will Artino is a 6'11" center who gets about 13 minutes a game. He pitches in 6.3 and 3.7 and is the only true post in the rotation. Devin Brooks got extended minutes while Gibbs was down, but his role now is to come off the bench and get buckets. He is a 6'2" who is an aggressive driver, excellent ball distrubutor, and remarkably effective offensive rebounder. Wing Avery Dingman grabbed Gibbs's starts due to his size (6'6", 215) when he was out, but he has been relegated to a reserve role. Freshman guard Isaiah Zierden is a reserve guard who doesn't shy away from the big moment but is mostly a game manager for his 11 minutes per game.

Three questions:
-Can Xavier slow down the three-point barrage? The Bluejays have an almost single-minded commitment to getting shots up from behind the arc and Xavier - as we have discussed at length in the articles linked below - isn't exactly the bee's knees at charging down shooters. It's probably a fool's errand to try to entirely stop the three-point attack - as Ethan Wragge demonstrated by banging back-to-back 30-footers when these teams played in Omaha - but at least making it something other than a shooting practice will be important for X.

-Can Xavier score with Creighton? I don't see this being one of those 59-53 grinders that Xavier occasionally plays in. If you're going to run with Creighton, you're probably better served to plan on trading buckets than you are assuming you're going to rein in their offense. The Muskies have a top-25 or so offense in the nation, though it pales a little bit in comparison to Creighton's. If X is going to end the game with a larger number of points than Creighton has, they're going to need to make that number rather large indeed.

-Is Jalen Reynolds suddenly viable? I don't think anyone is expecting Jalen to average 17 and 16 the rest of the way, but he looked like a grown man in putting up those numbers against St. John's. If he can be productive and stay on the court for extended minutes, he suddenly gives Xavier an athletic big man they can rely on to play defense while still being a threat on the other end (no offense intended, Erik Stenger). The buzz around Reynolds was palpable coming into the season; hopefully he is on his way to demonstrating why that was.

Three keys:
-Push the defense out. Creighton takes 36% of their field goal attempts at the rim, a number that is meaningfully below the national average. Outside of Will Artino and Grant Gibbs, they don't have a single rotation player who is above average in percentage of shots taken at the rim, and Artino and Gibbs are 6th and 7th on the team in field goal attempts. Creighton's primary scoring options simply don't prioritize getting all the way to the basket, and Xavier should adjust their defense accordingly.

-Win the possession war. Simply put, Creighton scores too well to give them extra possessions. If Xavier and Creighton each get the same number of opportunities to score, Creighton is probably going to outscore Xavier 8 times out of 10. The solution to that is for X to maximize their own chances to score and/or diminish Creighton's. Even ignoring for the moment that possessions off of turnovers lead to even easier buckets, the Muskies just need to get more looks at the bucket than Creighton does. Turnovers and rebounding are the battles to win on your way to winning that war.

-Work the post. The place on the floor where Xavier has the most obvious advantage is the offensive interior. Last time out, Stainbrook, Philmore, and Farr combined to go 10-17 on two-point field goals. Obviously, there is going to be some urgency to score if the Blurejays come out making it rain, but Xavier would be well served to remain patient and continue to work inside-out on offense for as long as it is strategically viable.

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