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Xavier v. Creighton: Preview, matchups, and keys to the game

Xavier gets a chance to bounce back, and grab another Q2 win, early on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Brigham Young at Creighton
A ruminative Greg McDermott contemplates the 54 point swing in his team’s results against Villanova.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Noon on Saturday comes early for a college kid. Friday nights often end with a sober party leading the line through the Taco Bell drive through and the hazy thought that these will, truly, prove to be regrettable decisions come early afternoon. Xavier’s players will not be running for the border the night before this game and most of you reading this have probably largely moved past the point in life where a hangover is even mildly amusing. It’s time for coffee, some brunch, and Xavier’s earliest tipoff of the season.

Visiting the Cintas in almost the AM will be the Creighton Bluejays. Creighton is 10-4 on the year and, other than one borderline inexplicable loss to Arizona State, is putting together a solid tournament resume. The Jays have done what Xavier can’t and beaten Villanova, but they also lost to Wildcats by 34 their last time out. That last game was ten days before this one thanks to a Covid break.

Team fingerprint

One thing that Creighton always does is shoot threes well. Except for this year. The Bluejays are a dreadful 30.1% from behind the arc. That’s good for 299th in the nation. Thankfully, Creighton always takes care of the ball well. Except for this year. The Jays are turning it over on 20.9% of their possessions. That’s 292nd in the nation. Like always though, McDermott’s guys are absolutely elite in the paint and he is making sure that most of their shots come from in there.

Creighton is playing good defense this year. They are susceptible to being gashed from deep because they allow teams to shoot a lot from there. You better make those though, because the Jays are 10th in the nation in interior defense. That comes from shot blocking (more on Ryan Kalkbrenner later) and not fouling shooters. Creighton doesn’t force turnovers at all and is instead content to force opponents to take threes and hope they go. The Bluejays are just mediocre on the glass at both ends.

Personnel

Starters

Starting matchups
Ryan Nembhard Point Guard Paul Scruggs
Freshman Class Senior
"6'0"", 167" Measurements "6'5"", 198"
12.1/3.3/4.4 Game line 11.1/4.7/4.1
42.6/34.7/74.4 Shooting line 39/31.5/77.8
It's been very much sink or swim as a freshman for Nembhard; he's averaging 35 minutes per game and spending all of them at the point. If he's struggling, his only option is to Nembharder. His distribution has been excellent, but he has significant ball security issues. He's a solid shooter, but - as might be expected of a 6' freshman - he struggles around the rim. He stays out of foul trouble defensively and gives Coach McDermott a dude he can write in ink on the lineup card.
Alex O'Connell Shooting Guard Nate Johnson
Senior Class Senior
"6'6"", 185" Measurements "6'4"", 192"
11.9/5.2/1.7 Game line 12.9/3.2/1.1
46.4/32.9/80 Shooting line 49.6/45.6/72.7
A Duke transfer with a reputation as a big-time shooter, O'Connell has struggled to knock down shots at Creighton. He's seeing an increase in efficiency thanks to excellent two-point numbers this year; he's scoring it really well in the mid-range and at the rim. He doesn't get to the line or distribute much, but he has been a consistent defensive rebounder as a Bluejay.
Arthur Kaluma Small Forward Colby Jones
Freshman Class Sophomore
"6'7"", 220" Measurements "6'6"", 207"
8.1/4.6/1.2 Game line 9.1/2.3/2
45.5/21.2/53.6 Shooting line 40.4/37.7/75
Kaluma has the highest usage rate on the team, and he pays it back with an ORtg of 82.4, which is bad. He's shooting 57% from inside the arc, but a third of his shots are threes and he's not making those very consistently. He also struggles with ball security. He's a good defensive rebounder and active defender, but he's also averaging almost 5 fouls per 40. The pieces are there, but his game currently lacks a bit of refinement.
Ryan Hawkins Power Forward Jerome Hunter
Senior Class Junior
"6'7"", 222" Measurements "6'8"", 210"
13.4/7.4/1.6 Game line 6.3/4.5/1.2
42.9/36.4/75.9 Shooting line 31.8/21.4/79.3
A three-time D2 national champ, Hawkins dropped a cool 31 and 18 in the championship game last season. Now he's a clinically efficient scorer for Creighton, scoring effectively at all three levels. He doesn't do much on offense aside from shooting, but he's really good at that. He's a solid rebounder at both ends and never turns the ball over, and he holds his own defensively. Another in the illustrious line of big men transferring from D2 national champs to the Big East.
Ryan Kalkbrenner Center Zach Freemantle
Sophomore Class Junior
"7'1"", 256" Measurements "6'9"", 220"
12.3/6.9/0.7 Game line 7.9/4/1.7
71/0/65.2 Shooting line 45.6/16.7/89.5
This dude is a giant and also one of the 50 or so most efficient offensive players in the country. As you might expect from a man his size, he shoots almost 80% at the rim and crushes the offensive glass. He also has a block rate of almost 11%, comfortably in the top 50 nationwide. He draws a ton of fouls and commits very few. He's not a super great defensive rebounder or free throw shooter, but he doesn't everything else he's asked to at a high level.

Reserves

Guard Trey Alexander is first off the bench in support of the Fighting Ryans. The 6'4" freshman offers 4.5/2.9/1.4 per game; he's shooting really well from inside the arc and really poorly beyond it in about equal volumes.

After seeing limited minutes early on, 6'4" freshman Rati Andronikashvili has been seeing more of the floor lately. His assist rate of 23.6% is solid, but his ball security has been poor, especially in conference games. He's not much of a shooter at any level and has been foul prone defensively.

Senior center Keyshawn Feazell - late of Mississippi State and McNeese State - offers depth inside. At 6'9", 230, he's a big body and is effective on the glass at both end. He's also a solid but not spectacular post scorer who presents some threat from the mid-range. He's averaging 5.3 fouls per 40, which is not ideal.

Three questions

- Can Xavier get back on the glass? Against Villanova Xavier was inexplicably crushed on the glass. The Musketeers, by the numbers, should have been better than the Wildcats on both ends. They weren’t, and that’s a large part of why they lost. Xavier should hold a comfortable rebounding edge against Creighton. If they don’t again, they run the risk of losing two straight.

- Is it time for more of Dieonte Miles? There is no question that Zach Freemantle is a better offensive player than Miles. They are separated by nearly 20 points of offensive efficiency. On defense very nearly the opposite is true. Miles is easily in the upper half of defenders on Xavier’s team and, if you rate adjusted team defensive efficiency as a stat, is the very best. Freemantle... isn’t. Coach Steele left the preseason all Big East player on the bench in crunch time against Nova because he simply can’t guard anyone right now. Dieonte Miles can, and will.

- Can X carry the momentum? It’s weird to want to carry the momentum from a loss, but the Musketeers were the better team down the stretch against Villanova and were oh so close to ripping off a big comeback. That was Xavier’s first genuinely competitive game in three week. Coming off a long layoff and Butler caught up to X early on, but they looked every bit Big East contenders down the stretch.

Three keys

- Make threes: Creighton is going to allow Xavier to shoot. Moreover, only Trey Alexander figures to be a good matchup for Nate Johnson. Shareef Mitchell is too short, Ryan Hawkins is too slow. Look for the Musketeers to work Nate off screens to get him looks early. If he gets going, the Jays are in for a long night.

- Defend in the paint: The two Ryans, Kalkbrenner and Hawkins, are Creighton’s best offensive players. Keyshawn Feazell is a threat off the bench. All of those players are bigs. Jack Nunge is a good matchup for Kalkbrenner, which means X has to find a way to guard someone else. They can try Colby Jones and go small on Hawkins, or use Zach Freemantle there and hope he has learned how to defend. McDermott is a good coach, though, and he’s going to be attacking the weak link.

- Take care of the ball: The Bluejays don’t force turnovers. There is no reason that Xavier should turn the ball over very much in this game. Dwon Odom coughed it up twice in 11 minutes against Nova and earned his benching. The Musketeers can keep Creighton at an arm’s length if they can successfully keep the ball and work their offense.