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

It's senior night and Xavier is desperate for a result against a scalding hot Creighton team.

Creighton v Seton Hall
This frickin guy.
Photo by Porter Binks/Getty Images

What's more than a must-win? Xavier has dropped 3 of 4 and is squarely on the bubble with three games left in the season. Hamstrung by covid pauses and struggling to find any momentum as the season draws to a close, it has been too long since the Muskies looked like a team that was a threat in March. Now they're scrambling just to find their way in and they have to do it without Nate Johnson.

Creighton is trending the opposite direction. They lost their first game in February to Georgetown. They've not had a win probability of under 65% during the second half of any of their four games. That run includes road trips to Marquette and Georgetown and a home demolition of Villanova. Things are going great in Omaha.

Despite the recent slide, Xavier still clings to the final bye in the conference tournament with their 5-5 record. Providence and St. John's lurk at 8-9, each with 2 games left on the schedule. Xavier controls its own fate in terms of avoiding the first day of conference tournament play. Going 2-1 would seal the deal, but grabbing a win today would sure help a lot of people breathe easier.

Team fingerprint

Let it fly. Creighton is the league's top team by two-point percentage, but they take almost 45% of their shots from behind the arc, where they shoot 37% in league play. Only Nova gets a higher percentage of their Big East points from behind the arc. They lead the league in EFG% and are third in ball security. Perhaps not surprisingly, they're 11th in OReb%. Curiously, they only shoot 65% from the line.

Defensively Creighton is better this year than they usually are. The Bluejays are 47th in the nation in defensive efficiency based mostly on the fact that they really choke off the interior. Creighton only allows opponents to shoot 44.3% inside the arc, good for 17th in the nation. Overall teams only post an effective field goal percentage of 46.2% against the Jays. That’s 31st in the nation. The only reason Creighton isn’t an elite defense is because they allow offensive rebounds and they don’t really force turnovers. When it comes to shooting, they are tough.

Players

Starters: (forgive the lack of a grid today).

Marcus Zegarowski uses the ball the most and initiates the offense. Zegarowski isn’t shooting the ball nearly as well as he has in the past, but he’s no slouch either. Zegarowski is careful with the ball and will still absolutely kill a team if they give him room. Sharpshooter Mitch Ballock is the other guard. Just about all he does is shoot, and shoot very well. His 40.4% from deep leads the team and comes in high volume.

Denzel Mahoney does a little bit of everything from the small forward position. He’s a solid rebounder, decent shooter, and takes care of the ball. He does have the occasional high turnover game when asked to carry too much of the load. The last of the Bluejays guard/forwards is Damien Jefferson. Like most of the rest of the team he stands 6-5 and is a serviceable rebounder, but nothing more. Also like the rest of the team he can shoot it and cares for the ball well. If a team actually has DNA, that is Creighton’s.

Creighton’s lone starting big is Christian Bishop, and he isn’t actually that big. Bishop is 6-7 but is a very good rebounder and is lethal (71%) around the rim. Bishop is also 130th in the nation in block rate.

Bench:

Ryan Kalkbrenner is a legit big at seven feet tall. He is a decent rebounder but really excels in blocking shots, where he gets 10% of opponents attempts. The primary backup guard is Shareef Mitchell, who is somehow not 6-5, but instead is only 6-0. He’s not as good a shooter as the guys he replaces, nor does he care for the ball as well. He is excellent inside the arc. Antwann Jones is a 6-6 forward who does fit the mold of good ball security, but doesn’t shoot particularly well from anywhere. No other Creighton player has featured off the bench in every game.

Three Questions:

- Should the bench players even bother dressing? For the most part, Xavier’s bench recently could wear streets under their warmups and be in no danger of being found out. X is 235th in the nation in bench minutes and in their last game used only Adam Kunkel for any real amount of time. The Musketeers need some sort of bench contribution tonight.

- Can Travis Steele figure it out? Steele isn’t on the hot seat no matter what happens this season, but there is reason for Xavier Nation to be concerned. The handling of Kyky Tandy and Bryan Griffin is worrying, as is the over-reliance on players that Steele himself admits are tired and need a break. The rotations and the offensive plan need sorting for Xavier to have a chance.

- Who will make a shot? In the last three games Xavier is a woeful 16-76 (21%) behind the arc. The Musketeers best three point shooter is out injured, and only one other player has made more than a third of their three point attempts in conference play. Someone has to make some tonight, or Xavier absolutely will lose again.

Three Keys:

- Adjust the defensive scheme: Xavier’s plan to walk away from shooters on the arc in a slavish adherence to packline principles will kill them this game. Creighton can shoot very well from deep and Xavier just made Providence look like prime Steph Curry. The Musketeers need to find a way to mix things up.

- Find some extra production: Once X pencils in Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle, things get bleak. Nate Johnson won’t be playing, so his potential to go off at any minute is gone. Colby Jones has been a third option, but not a consistent one. Adam Kunkel can’t hit stride, Ben Stanley is hurt, Kyky Tandy features only on missing posters, and Jason Carter is mired in a horrendous slump. Xavier needs someone to step up.

- Win the game: It’s simplistic, but X needs to find a way to win this no matter what. This is as must-win as regular season games get. If the Musketeers lose here, they are in a situation where they need to win at least two Big East tournament games. Get this game and suddenly the outlook is much rosier. It’s time to #savetheseason.