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Xavier v. Creighton: preview, matchups, keys to the game

Xavier is still right in the thick of the jockeying for seeding at MSG, and a trip to foggy London Town Omaha may go a long way in deciding their fate.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Creighton
Such a snappy dresser, too.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier didn't look like a Final Four dark horse at 11-7, but you could definitely see the possibility for a suitable resume there. Four straight losses later, the Muskies are headed into a February that doesn't promise to be rife with opportunities to right the ship. The at-large bid is gone; X needs to play for a shot at the Big East 6 seed at this point.

First in line for the Muskies is Creighton. Like X, the 'jays are in a tail spin; a season that once sat at 10-4 has fallen off a cliff to the tune of 2-5 in the last 7. Unlike Xavier, Creighton hasn't been particularly close in most of those losses. They've seen their KenPom ranking drop from 31 to 59 in the confines of the month of January and are desperately looking to spark their season back to life.

Team fingerprint

Let it fly. The Bluejays are 8th in the nation in 3P%, 15th in 3P frequency, and 9th with nearly 42% of their scoring coming from behind the arc. If you were going to draw up a team to perforate Xavier's already permissive defense, you'd be reinventing the wheel if you did anything other than copy and paste Creighton's. Oh, they're also 7th in the nation in 2P%. They don't get to the glass or the line much, but the way they shoot, it scarcely matters.

Their defense is somehow worse than Xavier's. It's the answer to the question, "how does a team with a top-15 offense struggle to stay above .500?" Creighton has bought into the #LetItFly philosophy that the players are starting to proselytize, seeking to make converts of opponents by allowing them firsthand experience. Shots near and far go basically unchallenged as Creighton seeks to spread the gospel of chucking from the cheap seats to everyone they play against.

They're also crap at forcing turnovers but decent on the glass. They rarely foul, presumably because you have to challenge shots to make that happen.

Players

Marcus Zegarowski Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Freshman Class Sophomore
6'2" 180 Measurements 6'3", 200
10.8/3.6/3.3 Game line 13.4/4.9/3.3
48.1/46.2/76.9 Shooting line 49.8/46.7/81.5
Zegarowski is a very promising point guard prospect that has taken to Big East play as smoothly as can be expected. He is currently in the top 10 in the league in assist rate and 12th in three point %, but has the ability to drive to the basket and get buckets there as well. Very rarely will pull up inside the arc and has only turned the ball over 3 times in the past 3 games, despite logging 103 minutes.
Davion Mintz Shooting Guard Kyle Castlin
Junior Class Senior
6'3" 185 Measurements 6'4", 193
10/3.2/2.9 Game line 4.9/3.6/0.9
46.9/36.6/75.6 Shooting line 40.7/26.3/71.8
Mintz was pressed into point guard duties in his first year after Maurice Watson's season ending injury, but has since moved off the ball, where he is a threat to score at the rim and is a capable if not somewhat streaky outside shooter. He is coming off of possibly his worst game of the season against St. John's, a one point performance, although he did still dish out 7 assists.
Ty-Shon Alexander Small Forward Naji Marshall
Sophomore Class Sophomore
6'4" 195 Measurements 6'7", 222
17.4/3.4/2.7 Game line 13.3/7/3.3
43.9/39.9/76.1 Shooting line 40/23.9/72
Alexander is Creighton's go-to guy on offense, but has seen his efficiency numbers take a dramatic dip in Big East play. He is capable of scoring at all three levels, although he prefers to find spaces to catch and shoot on the perimeter, and is not especially adept at distributing. He was last held to single digits on January 5th against Butler, a game in which he went 1-10 from three.
Mitch Ballock Power Forward Tyrique Jones
Sophomore Class Junior
6'5" 205 Measurements 6'9" 235
10.9/4.1/3.7 Game line 11/7.4/0.6
44.7/45.9/76.7 Shooting line 60.4/0/68.1
Ballock is on the floor to do one thing: jack a three at the first sight of the rim. The fact he is hitting nearly half of them in conference play probably vindicates that particular choice on his part, but it is hard to overstate how disinterested he is in anything that has to do with going in the lane.
Martin Krampelj Center Zach Hankins
Junior Class Senior
6'9" 235 Measurements 6'11", 245
11.4/6.2/0.6 Game line 10.2/4.9/0.9
59.1/32.3/60 Shooting line 70.8/0/59.6
Krampelj is on the floor to do the things that four guys who primarily make their hay from the three point line can't do. Namely, he rebounds the ball well at both ends because someone on the floor has to and scores a majority of his buckets at the rim.

Reserves

Creighton already did not have a ton of depth, but losing Jacob Epperson for the season and Damien Jefferson for at least a month have really left the cupboard bare. The two main men off the bench are 7 footer Samson Froling, a freshman Aussie who spells Krampelj sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not, and Syracuse transfer Kaleb Joseph, who has had one of the strangest college basketball careers I have seen, having been a high-major starter as a Freshman and then whiling away most of the rest of his career on the bench, even after his transfer.

Three questions

-Can Xavier find a second perimeter scorer? Paul Scruggs leads Xavier's guards and wings with an ORtg of 117 in conference. Ryan Welage is second with a 105.6, but on a usage rate of under 13%. Q and Naji are both under 95%, and it gets worse from there. Scruggs is blossoming into a star, but he could use some help from the rest of the back court.

-Can Coach Steele find some bench depth? Paul Scruggs is first in the league in minutes percentage. Naji Marshall is third. For a team playing two traditional big men, having two perimeter guys who basically never get a chance to catch their breath is an indictment on the rest of the roster. Someone - anyone - needs to show enough of a pulse that the coaching staff will trust them to stay on the floor between media timeouts. If they can't, X will keep fading out of games late.

-Does Xavier stick with two bigs? Creighton's usual power forward is Mitch Ballock, a 6'5" wing who has hit 60 threes on the year and connects at a 46% clip. Obviously not an ideal matchup for Tyrique or Hanky. On the other hand, you wouldn't like his odds of stopping either of Xavier's bigs on the block. It's stick or twist with a lineup decision that X really needs to get right.

Three keys

-I'm not going to insult you just to keep the format going. Creighton has taken 52% of their shot attempts from deep in Big East play and hit more than 37% of them. They've hit 11 or more threes in 5 different conference games. They have 5 guys who have taken at least a three a game and are hitting more than 39% of them, and that leaves out Davion Mintz's very respectable 35.7% on 25-70. Creighton lives and dies by the three, the very thing Xavier most struggled to stop. This game will be contested on the arc.