If you had told ESPN executives two years ago that the battle for the early lead spot in the Big East was going to be contested between Xavier and Creighton and there was no way they would even have a shot at the broadcast rights, they would have slapped you twice and soiled themselves. A lot has changed in the last two years, and not all for the good, but it has broken quite well for both of these programs. The Muskies come into this game riding an eight game winning streak thanks in large part to talismanic point guard Semaj Christon, but this will be the team's first road test in the league.
Standing at the other end of that particular road are the Bluejays of Creighton. Creighton is perfect at home and has just two losses overall, those coming on neutral courts to San Diego State and George Washington during the same Thanksgiving tournament. Meanwhile, they've steamrolled everyone else in their path, from the warmup game against Alcorn State to wins over Arizona State (neutral court), Nebraska, and Cal (both at home). A home win against Marquette and romps on the road agianst Seton Hall and DePaul have run their record in the Big East to a perfect 3-0. It's a clash of the early-season titans shaping up here.
The thing Creighton is known for on a national level is their ability to score the basketball. More specifically, they can shoot the eyes out of the thing as a team. They're first in the country in EFG%, 3rd in 3P% at 43.3%, 20th in FT% at 75.7%, and a frankly embarrassing 53rd from inside the arc at 52.5%. To put that in perspective, you can pick any spot on the floor and Creighton shoots better than Xavier from it. They take 45% of their shots from behind the arc and score almost 42% of their points on three-pointers. They're a mediocre offensive rebounding club (probably from lack of practice) and they don't get to the free throw line much (owing to their love of jump shots). What they can do is fill it up. Oh, and they also almost never turn the ball over and collect assists on a staggering 67% of their made buckets. All of this adds up to make them the most efficient offensive team in the nation.
They're also no slouches on the other end, either. Their defensive efficiency is 42nd in the nation and has been improving in conference play. They are well below average at forcing turnovers and even worse at blocking shots, but they do everything else well. Teams are shooting only 44.8% from inside the arc and 31.8% from deep on the Bluejays, and they are 45th in the country at avoiding sending teams to the line. Things go from bad to worse for opponents once the shot goes up, because Creighton is 14th in the nation in DReb% and 74.2%. One possible chink in the armor is their willingness to let teams lift from deep; opponents have shot almost 37% of their FGA from behind the arc this year.
Creighton is not a particularly deep team, getting just under 30% of their minutes from the pine. They're very experienced, averaging 2.5 years of college ball per player one the floor at any given time. Their height is just above average, but not meaningfully so, and their tempo on each end is just a hair slower than the national average.
The player: 6'0", 180-pound guard Austin Chatman
The numbers: 7.1/4.1/4.2 on .402/.412/.839 shooting
More numbers: 25.7% assist rate, 116 ORtg, 14.5% shots%
The words: Chatman's shooting percentage is let down by his 18-47 from inside the arc, particularly his 7-26 on two-point jumpers. From farther away, though, he's one of many Creighton shooters you can't leave alone. He profiles as the point guard for the Bluejays, but he also has a confusingly high DReb% of 14%. Obviously, the young man loves to get to the glass and cut out that annoying middle step of having a big man outlet to him.
The player: 6'1", 180-pound guard Jahenns Manigat
The numbers: 8.1/3.1/2.9 on .466/.448/.909 shooting
More numbers: 3.3% steal%, 15.2% shots%, 63.6% EFG%
The words: If Chatman is dangerous to leave alone, Manigat is flat-out deadly. He eschews the mid-range almost entirely, but he is an effective finisher and an extremely accurate three-point shooter out of catch-and-shoot situations. Of his 30 three-points baskets, all of them have come with assists. On the other end, he leads the team in steals and is nationally ranked in steal percentage. Not your average gunner, in other words.
The player: 6'6", 215-pound wing Avery Dingman
The numbers: 3.1/1.8/0.9 on .415/.333/.556 shooting
More numbers: 12.6% DReb%, 16/2/0 in 18 minutes against DePaul
The words: This is my best guess on who will replace Gibbs, based largely on who replaced him in the DePaul game when he went out injured. Dingman had bounced in and out of favor off the bench, but he got 18 minutes and responded with 16 points. His shooting percentage numbers are not that much different than Gibbs's, though he is not nearly as effective as a passer. I don't see Creighton going to a three-guard lineup, though, so I think Dingman gets the call. Avery, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I spent a paragraph that was supposed to be about you talking about Grant Gibbs instead.
The player: 6'7", 225-pound forward Ethan Wragge
The numbers: 12.1/4.5/0.9 on .483/.491/.750 shooting
More numbers: 2-6 from inside the arc, 71.7 EFG%, 16.3% DReb%
The words: Wragge is one of my favorite non-Xavier players, and not just because of his work on Twitter. Despite being taller than like 96% of the male population, he roams the arc like Brad Redford. He averages fewer two-point baskets a season than Doug McDermott averages a game, but he is one of the best three-point shooters in the country. He averages almost four made threes per game and will destroy teams that give him an inch, as St. Joe's found out when he rained in 7-11 from beyond the arc against them this year. On the defensive end, he's not going to block a lot of shots, but he's an adequate rebounder and not completely hopeless on post defense.
The player: 6'8", 225-pound forward Doug McDermott
The numbers: 24.3/7.3/1.7 on .484/.429/.906 shooting
More numbers: 32.5% usage rate, 61.7% true shooting percentage, 19.4% DReb%, 12.6% TO rate, 7.0 fouls drawn per 40 minutes
The words: This guy you may have heard of. He does it all for Creighton and doesn't have a lot of holes in his game. Teams aren't used to being destroyed by fairly ground-bound white guys, but opponents have run a variety of strategies at McDermott and he has responded by pouring in buckets. In the last three seasons, he has been held to single-digits three times, and one of those was in an early-season walk away victory. What Wally Szczerbiak was to his Miami teams, Doug McDermott is to this Creighton club. He always shows up, and occasionally he'll bomb you out of the building no matter what you do.
It gets a little dodgy here for Creighton, but not right from the jump. Devin Brooks is a 6'2" guard who gets 7.9 points per game, boasts an assist rate of 30.3%, and is a very good offensive rebounder and defender. There's a solid chance he'll start if Coach McDermott goes small at the tipoff. Will Artino is a 6'11" center who only gets about 13 minutes per game but is a fairly effective scorer and rebounder in that time. He's also the tallest guy
on the roster getting any real minutes by three inches, so look for a lot of him if Xavier starts going to town on the post. Isaiah Zierden is a freshman guard who shoots a lot and can occasionally hurt you from deep (11-28 on the year) if he gets hot. Other than that, nobody gets meaningful minutes.
-Who guards Doug McDermott? You don't get the kind of National Player of the Year buzz McDermott has without being a tough matchup (or playing at Duke), and it's going to be interesting to see how Coach Mack approaches trying to slow him down. George Washington is the only team to have really done it so far this year, and they used a combination of man and 1-3-1 zone to try to limit his clean touches. When in a man, GW had 6'9" Isaiah Armwood get into McDermott's body and dare him to win off the bounce. For Xavier, Justin Martin, Isaiah Philmore, and Jalen Reynolds seem like the mostly likely one-on-one defenders, but they all have limitations (size, slow feet, and a florid and abounding love for gratuitous fouling, respectively) that McDermott may be able to exploit.
-Can Creighton slow down Semaj? Creighton is not a bad defensive team, but Semaj is just playing stupid (stupid in a good way, like the kids use it) basketball right now. His turnover against Marquette was his first in 140 game minutes, and he compiled 28 points on a stunningly efficient 10 shots. He is growing into a player with the ability to get his team what it needs out of a given ballgame without ever forcing his way in. Brad texted me late in the game that Semaj can't be defended if he's consistently hitting jump shots, and I'm inclined to agree. Coach McDermott has his work cut out for him, because simply defending Semaj in a way that makes it difficult for him to score hardly limits his ability to control a game.
-How much of a difference will Grant Gibbs's absence make? Creighton's 6'5"G/F dislocated his kneecap - which sounds sensationally painful - against DePaul and is going to miss 4-6 weeks. While his numbers are not superficially dynamic, he is the guy who keeps everything moving decently and in order for the Blue Jays. I'm sure a team this good at moving the ball will get things sorted in time, but if there is an adjustment period, Xavier will be playing them during it.
-Charge down shooters. The Muskies have been one of the better teams in the nation all year in terms of both 3P% defense and keeping teams from getting frequent looks from deep, but Big East teams are 24-58 (41.4%) against X from beyond the arc. Allowing an average of 8 made threes per game in conference play obviously isn't good, and Creighton is an excellent three-point shooting team. If Coach Mack can't get the boys in blue back where they need to be against the three, this is going to be a really long day for Xavier fans.
-Play inside out. Xavier's offense is at its best when executing the fairly simple fast break strategy of throw it to Dee who throws it to Semaj who throws it into the hoop. A second viable recourse has been the offensive glass. Creighton, however, is excellent at defending the glass and ruins a lot of fast breaks by making their shots. Creighton is not a tall team, and it's not immediately clear that they have a one-on-one answer to Matt Stainbrook. If Xavier feeds the big man early and the Blue Jays have to adjust by sending post help, that opens things up all over the court.
-Keep Myles involved. As mentioned well above, the Bluejays have trouble keeping teams from shooting against them from deep. While that hasn't bitten them too often this year, opponents have shot 12-25 from three in their two losses. Myles Davis is in just a little bit of a slump right now, but he and James Farr could well be the keys to this game if the defense starts swarming the post. When Stainbrook has it inside, Farr tends to run to the bucket, but Davis finds space high-opposite to spot up. The pride of Bay Village, OH is an excellent passer from the post, and Myles needs to be ready to rise and fire when he has a chance.