Full disclosure: we decided on the theme for this preview before Jacob Epperson went down with a serious knee injury. Originally we were going to talk about Creighton’s depth. The Bluejays lost Martin Krampelj and Sam Froling, but all the rest of the pieces of the Jays were coming back. Take a team that was a two seed in the NIT, throw in a grad transfer from Idaho State, and slide back into the NCAA tournament after only a year out.
That was before Epperson broke his leg. While the loss of one guy who only played in nine games may not seem big, it absolutely is. For starters, Epperson threw shots at a 6.9% rate last year. For a team that got gashed inside the arc last year, that could be vital. Secondly, Creighton will now suit up a team with exactly one player standing over 6-7. Xavier, for comparison, has three 6-7 players and five more who are taller than that. You don’t need to have a degree in basketball science to see where a deficiency in height could cause Creighton some problems. Further, Kelvin Jones, the one big left for coach Greg McDermott, posted an offensive efficiency of 100.4 for Idaho State (329th in the nation) last season. He rejected shots at a 8.0% rate, but didn’t rebound as well as Zach Hankins or Tyrique Jones. This in the Big Sky.
Still, you doubt Greg McDermott at your own risk. In looking back just one year, you can find another Creighton team with only one big playing more than 20 minutes per game, albeit with other bigs chipping in time. That team made the NCAA tournament. The year prior to that McDermott took a team with Isaiah Zierden as its most efficient offensive player and grabbed a six seed. It’s fair to say that losing one piece, even an important one, won’t keep the Jays from competing.
How will they compete? McDermott will spread the floor, push the pace, and concede the offensive glass. The Bluejays are going to hunt good shots relentlessly and more often than not take those shots from deep. All four returning starters, Ty-Shon Alexander, Davion Mintz, Marcus Zegarowski, and Mitch Ballock, took at least 120 threes and made at least 34% of their attempts. Alexander (258 attempts, 36%) and Ballock (224, 42%) will have the green light from wherever they are standing. Kelvin Jones will provide a 6-11 presence in the post for any team that decides to solely push out on shooters. When Jones isn’t on the floor, Damien Jefferson or freshman Jalen Windham present more shooting options.
Defense will present a problem for the Jays given their size, but McDermott’s best teams have focused on forcing one shot possessions rather than pressuring shots. Last season at Idaho State, Jones snared a casual 23.1% of opponent’s misses. When Jones is not on the floor, McDermott can at least be encouraged by what Jefferson (20% DR rate) and Christian Bishop (15%) did last year.
Why Creighton can beat Xavier
When the Jays beat Xavier last year, they did it by capitalizing on one of the worst stretches of Xavier basketball in recent memory and by working inside out through Martin Krampelj. That won’t happen this year as Davis isn’t the threat that Krampelj was, but Creighton will, as most teams do, find open looks from deep against Xavier’s defense. For the Jays to beat the Musketeers all they’ll need to do is lean into their strength and bomb away. Whether the shot goes or not McDermott’s teams get back and mostly concede second chances. To win, they’ll just have to be hot or maybe even just warm.
Why Xavier can beat Creighton
Simply put, the Musketeers are going to tower over the Jays. Creighton tends not to chase offensive rebounds and they are going to have a hard time keeping the much bigger Musketeers off the offensive glass as well. Xavier slowed the pace and choked off absolutely everything inside to win last year. This year, with that same game plan and the advantage of much more size, the Musketeers need only dictate the terms to win two vital Big East matchups.