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Xavier vs. Creighton: Preview, matchups, keys to the game

The Bluejays are down to their last chance to get a good win at home and jump onto the right side of the bubble.

Maurice Watson drives past a ginger teammate for an easy bucket.
Maurice Watson drives past a ginger teammate for an easy bucket.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Two seasons ago, both of these programs joined the rebuilt Big East and began life as major conference programs, eschewing the pedestrian surroundings of the MVC and A10 for the life of rubbing shoulders with top 25 opponents on a weekly basis and making a yearly pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden. After some initial success, in no small part thanks to Doug McDermott, Creighton has taken a few losses on the chin in the middle of rebuilding their roster for years of contention in their new surroundings.

After a rough 4-14 season in the league last year, Creighton followed up a 9-4 non conference slate with a 5-2 start in the Big East this year, including a couple of top-50 wins at Seton Hall and home to Butler. Since dispatching the Bulldogs, Creighton has had a couple of tough losses and a thrashing at Villanova. They currently sit at 6-5 in conference and are not on any bracket projections. To make the tournament they probably cannot afford to lose to Xavier twice, and this will be a much better chance to grab a very valuable win for their fading postseason hopes.

Team fingerprint

You probably think of a horrifying barrage of threes when you wake up in a cold sweat thinking about Creighton's offense, but this is not that style of team. They're still not shy about launching from deep, but this year's attack is based on getting good shots quickly. They're 33rd in the nation in offensive pace and 27th in EFG%. Their biggest asset has been not turning the ball over, landing in the top 20 nationally and the top 1 in the conference in offensive TO%. They don't hit the offensive glass particularly well and their 3P% has been just 31.9% in Big East play, but they'll get their chances to score just by virtue of not turning the ball over.

Their defense benefits from a whole team effort on the glass that belies the pace at which they turn possession into shots at the other end. They're a tick below average defensively inside and beyond the arc and right in the middle of the league in forcing turnovers. They'll make you work for your points though, as they rank second in the conference in DReb% and in keeping teams from getting to the line.

Starters

Starting matchups
Maurice Watson Point Guard Edmond Sumner
Junior Class Freshman
5'10", 170 Measurements 6'6", 183
14.1/3.3/6.5 Game Line 10.4/3.3/3.3
.478/.361/.720 Shooting Line .396/.327/.695
Watson is a former ESPN 100 guard who spent his first two years tearing up the America East at Boston. He really wants to get to the rim on offense, but he can shoot it a little bit from deep and isn't afraid to pull off the dribble. It's Watson, not Kris Dunn, who leads the Big East in assist rate; this guy is a special talent.
Isaiah Zierden Shooting Guard Myles Davis
Junior Class Junior
6'3", 185 Measurements 6'2", 188
11.3/3.4/2.5 Game Line 11.0/3.3/3.7
.411/.391/.877 Shooting Line .406/.375/.891
It's hard not to cheer for Zierden at least a little bit. After redshirting his first season on campus, he had his next two years end prematurely through knee injuries. Now he's back, and he's a heck of a shooter. More than 75% of his attempts come from deep, and - even though his success rate has slowed down in Big East play - he's a very dangerous shooter. He's also a solid defender on the other end.
Khyri Thomas Small Forward Remy Abell
Freshman Class Senior
6'3", 200 Measurements 6'4", 185
6.7/4.1/1.5 Game Line 6.2/1.5/1.9
.512/.462/.441 Shooting Line .394/.356/.733
That free throw number is not a typo. Thomas scored the ball really well in non-conference play, but he's shooting .302/.222/.300 in conference games, which obviously isn't good. He's a reasonable defender and a very good defensive rebounder, but he'd have to get every board to be worth that shooting line. He fits the profile of a guy who has the game of his life against Xavier.
Toby Hegner Power Forward Trevon Bluiett
Sophomore Class Sophomore
6'10", 225 Measurements 6'6", 215
6.3/3.9/0.5 Game Line 15.4/6.6/2.2
.368/.378/.545 Shooting Line .427/.387/.823
Hegner is a power forward like Ethan Wragge was a power forward. If he blocks a shot or gets an offensive board, it was likely an accident. He shoots nearly three quarters of his shots from behind the arc and doesn't get more effective as he closes range. He'll stretch the defense on the one end and clean the defensive glass on the other; it will be interesting to see how Coach McDermott deploys him on defense.
Geoffrey Groselle Center Jalen Reynolds
Senior Class Junior
7'0", 240 Measurements 6'10", 238
11.1/6.0/0.4 Game Line 9.7/6.7/0.7
.696/.000/.652 Shooting Line .524/.400/.662
Groselle draws a lot of fouls, but he also commits a lot of fouls. When he can stay on the floor, he's Creighton's only consistent offensive rebounder and one of the most efficient scorers in the conference. He's also a good rim protector, and he does a very good job of not turning the ball over. Basically, he's what you hope to get from a veteran big man. Creighton is 10-4 when he plays more than 20 minutes and 5-5 when he does not.

Reserves

Cole Huff is a 6'8" junior power forward who comes off the bench for 10.3/4/0.6 on .424/.346/.768 shooting. He's a little more bashful in terms of stepping out behind the arc than Hegner, but he is fairly effective in stretching the defense and is a powerful defensive rebounder. James Milliken is a 6'3" senior who will come off the bench to play the 2 or the 3. He averages 8.0/1.7/1.3 on .386/.351/.691 shooting. He's not a great shooter (obviously), but he doesn't generate too many empty possessions simply because he never turns the ball over.

Center Zach Hanson is the last big piece off the bench. He's a 6'9", 250-pound junior who goes for 7.4/3.3/0.1 on .692/.000/.725. He's a good offensive rebounder and a decent jump shooter. Beyond Hanson, there's nobody who has played in every game and nobody who averages even 10 minutes per appearance.

Keys to the game

  • Make Watson a Shooter. The last time Maurice Watson took more than 10 shots and Creighton won was January 9th at Seton Hall, where he dished out 14 assists. You have to go back to the game before that against Georgetown to find the last time he got 5 or fewer assists and they won. Watson is not a bad shooter, but when he is distributing at his best and not being forced to shoot, Creighton becomes much tougher.
  • Keep the post fresh. This is the exact type of game where Xavier's depth in the post goes from being a luxury to an asset, because Creighton is not deep down low. Groselle and Hanson are their only true back to the basket players who get significant playing time, and both tend to struggle with fouls, while also being excellent offensive rebounders. All this points to Xavier trying to keep fresh legs in the paint to and force Creighton to go deeper into their bench than they want to.
  • Keep the ball moving. Villanova obliterated Creighton by 25 last week with only one player attempting more than 10 shots. Xavier's run back into their win over Marquette was characterised by unselfish play on offense, which would serve well against a Creighton team that allows opponents to shoot 36.3% from three.