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

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Xavier leaves the zip code for the first time on the season to take on a Creighton team riding a modest 2-game Big East win streak.

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

THIS IS A 3PM TIP. DO NOT MISS TIP OFF BECAUSE YOU FORGOT IT WASN’T AN EVENING GAME.

Creighton has two losses by a grand total of five points this season. They left a tie at the free throw line at Kansas, and they fought back from down a dozen with six minutes left to cut it to one at home against Marquette before falling short. Other than those two games, they’ve rolled a trio of buy games, beat the fire out of a decent Nebraska squad, and won on the road against St. John’s (a beating) and UConn (in overtime).

Xavier will be the most undefeated team Creighton has taken on in conference play. The Muskies are just coming off a pause for Covid, but they bracketed that break with their two best wins of the year. Just prior to it, they ran Oklahoma out of Cintas. Just after, they opened Big East play by frittering away a late lead against Marquette before winning it at the horn through a second-chance bucket from noted glass cleaner Adam Kunkel.

Team fingerprint

As they have in 8 of the last 10 seasons, Creighton is in the top 50 in team three-point percentage. They take more than 40% of their shots from deep and connect on more than 38% of them. They move quickly, looking for shots in transition and early in the half-court. They also thrive on ball security, turning the ball over in just under 15% of their possessions, 16th in the nation. They don’t get to the glass or the line much, but they are so effective in getting and making shots that they’re 5th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. If this one comes down to it, it might be worth noting that Creighton is 242nd in the nation with a 66.4% free throw percentage.

Defense... isn’t really Creighton’s thing. They’re 55th in the nation, which isn’t horrible, but it pales in comparison to their offensive output. Their weak points are in forcing turnovers and defending the arc. You may recognize these as particular strengths of the Xavier offense, which feels as weird for me to type as it must have felt for you to read. Creighton is just a tick above average on the defensive glass and they do a good job keeping opponents off the free throw line.

Creighton is a deeply veteran team. They are 52nd in the country in experience and 17th in minutes continuity, meaning that they have a lot of veteran guys who have played together in this program for a while. This is not, as a rule, a team that will beat itself with silly mistakes.

Players

Starters

Starting matchups
Marcus Zegarowski Point Guard Colby Jones
Junior Class Freshman
6'2", 180 Measurements 6'5", 195
14.3/3.8/5.4 Game line 4.7/3/3.7
40.8/37.3/75 Shooting line 71.4/50/75
With Dwon Odom still in return-to-play protocol and Jones having gotten the start last time out, this is our best guess. Zegarowski has gone from being Ty-Shon Alexander's wingman to running the show. He can score from all three levels, distributes well, and doesn't turn the ball over. His shooting numbers are down a bit from last year - when he was absolutely deadly - but he's still not a guy you can lose track of even for a second on the defensive end.
Mitch Ballock Shooting Guard Paul Scruggs
Senior Class Senior
6'5", 205 Measurements 6'4", 196
10.8/3.6/2.6 Game line 16.4/4.1/7
47.6/41.5/57.1 Shooting line 50/36.8/80.6
Ballock hit the campus shooting and has never slowed down; he's a career 40.8% shooter from behind the arc. More than three quarters of his career attempts have come from three-point range. He's something of a one-trick pony, but that one trick is capable of ruining opposing teams in a hurry.
Denzel Mahoney Small Forward Nate Johnson
Senior Class Senior
6'5", 220 Measurements 6'4", 195
15.3/5.1/1.9 Game line 13.5/4.5/1.6
43.9/40/78.9 Shooting line 51.5/59.1/92.3
Mahoney isn't that much different from Ballock, to be honest. He'll get into the middle a little more often, but he is primarily a sniper. He'll rebound a little bit and is a very solid defender. Like Ballock, he rarely turns the ball over.
Damien Jefferson Power Forward Jason Carter
Senior Class Senior
6'5", 220 Measurements 6'8", 227
11.4/5.3/3.4 Game line 7.1/7.9/1.9
61/43.5/50 Shooting line 43.5/27.8/66.7
Creighton goes small all the way, with Jefferson playing the four. He is a good shooter at all three levels, but most of his action comes inside the arc. He's a good but not great rebounder, and he's effective facilitating the offense, sitting second on the team in assists. He's shooting over 70% from inside the arc.
Christian Bishop Center Zach Freemantle
Junior Class Sophomore
6'7", 220 Measurements 6'9", 225
13.1/5.9/0.6 Game line 17.5/7.9/1.6
72.4/50/64.5 Shooting line 59.6/42.9/50
Bishop is far and away the best defensive rebounder on the team and one of the best in the country for his size. He has been an excellent offensive rebounder in prior years, but he isn't getting to the glass at that end nearly as much this season. He lives in the paint on offense and is shooting 83.3% from the rim on the year. Not letting him get comfortable in the post will be a tall order for Xavier.

Reserves

Freshman big man Ryan Kalkbrenner isn’t the first man off the bench, but he’s one of the most important. In just 12 minutes per game, the seven-footer is averaging 8.3/3.8/0.5. He’s shooting over 60% from inside the arc and crushing the offensive glass. He’s averaging a foul every 6 or so minutes, which is an issue.

Wing Antwann Jones averages 6.9/3.4/2.1 and has solid distribution and ball security numbers. He’s not much of a shooter, but he’s a good rebounder. Shereef Mitchell is a deep bench sophomore guard. He soaks up a few minutes but doesn’t use too many possessions during them. Alex O’Connell is a Duke transfer guard who just became eligible two games ago. He’s a career 36% shooter from three who hasn’t quite found his feet for the Jays yet.

Three questions

-Can Xavier’s big men press the advantage? Creighton starts effectively four guards and nobody taller than 6’7”. Zach Freemantle and Jason Carter will be the two tallest guys on the floor at the tip, and Bryan Griffin will be the most effective rebounder in the gym. If Xavier can make their big men the story of the game and force Creighton to respond to them with personnel groups, that will be a huge win for the Muskies.

-How will the road treat Xavier? The Muskies have played just one road game, and that was within walking distance of the campus. This will be the first time X has been out on the road, and it will be a strange road trip at that owing to, you know, everything. Scrappy stuff matters in unfriendly confines, and the Musketeers will have their first chance to show that skill set in Omaha.

-Who can get some stops? These are two incredibly dangerous offensive teams and two fairly mediocre defensive squads. Xavier has gone 8-0 largely by overwhelming them with offensive output rather than locking them down on the defensive end. Creighton managed to give up 1.33 PPP to Marquette, though they have defended reasonably against Kansas and UConn. Xavier has had no such markers put down, giving up 165 points in 138 possessions against major conference opponents. They’ll probably need to step it up a bit against Creighton or risk getting run off the floor.

Three keys

-Rebound! Creighton is a dangerous offensive team that will not give up possessions through turnovers; Xavier cannot afford to allow them second looks at the rim via the offensive glass. On the other end, Creighton basically rebounds defensively about as well as Xavier rebounds offensively. Creighton has gotten clubbed on the glass in their two losses and they can be had there. Xavier’s rebounding has progressed in recent games; this might be the decisive statistical category.

-Let Ben ball. Ben Stanley got his toes wet last time out against Marquette; he might have to jump in with both feet today. Creighton’s waves of guys around Stanley’s height might force Xavier to run a small lineup, and Stanley’s skill and athleticism might be the key to keeping that group tenable. Stanley represents a chance for Xavier to match a small lineup from Creighton without giving up a decisive advantage on the glass.

-Ride the hot hand. Here’s a list of Xavier players who have scored in double figures at least once this season: Paul Scruggs, Jason Carter, Zach Freemantle, Kyky Tandy, Dwon Odom, Adam Kunkel, Dieonte Miles, and Nate Johnson. You could also be forgiven for having believed Bryan Griffin or Colby Jones if I had thrown them in there. The point is that Xavier has a lot of dudes who can do it in a big way on any given day. If Xavier can stay unselfish and players are willing to give up minutes and shots to the guys who are on one, this team can go a long way. Taking the fight to a ranked team at their place would be a great first step.