The Creighton Bluejays were the favorite to win the Big East this season. Eight of the Big East coaches picked them to win it and nearly every media out joined in as well. Six games into the season all was going well. The Jays were 6-0 and had just beaten Arkansas. They lost to Arizona the next game by two on a neutral and then lost to Texas in a true away game. These things happen, though. Those teams were 11th and eighth in the KenPom at the time.
The four straight losses after those two were considerably more concerning. Losing to Nebraska, BYU, and Arizona St right in a row is no way to impress anyone. Marquette is a good team, but at the end of a six game skid, even dumping one to them felt very bad. Creighton’s dream season was on the verge of going up in flames.
Except that the Bluejays went on another streak. Sure, it was wins over Butler, DePaul, and Seton Hall, but wins are wins. Even the nine point road loss to UConn is acceptable. The Jays have played themselves to 18th in the KP and 26th in the NET. They’ve taken a rather unorthodox way to do it, but they’ll walk into the Cintas tonight as a solid Q1 game tonight.
On offense Greg McDermott has once again put together a very good team, especially when Ryan Kalkbrenner is on the floor. Prior to his time missed or hindered by mono, they were the seventh best offense in the nation. Since his return they are 17th. The Jays play reasonably quickly and focus on scoring inside. Kalkbrenner is good on the offensive glass, but the rest of the team is not. Creighton has an offense that is good at almost everything, but not really great at anything.
Defensively is actually where this team excels. Offensive rebounds are few and far between, as are trips to the free throw line. The Jays won’t turn you over, content to grab boards, try to block a few shots, and cut off the three point line. Only 15 teams allow a lower ratio of threes to shots attempted.
|A lot of the hype surrounding Creighton this year was built around the idea that Nembhard was primed to break out in his second season in Omaha. While his disastrous turnover numbers have dropped down to an acceptable rate, his shooting numbers are fairly similar to what they were a year ago. He is solid enough as a distributor, but rates as the worst defender among the starting five in DBPR and does not score super efficiently. Still, in a close game you could do worse that having a point guard who takes care of the ball and shoots 83% from the line.
|This guy has made the leap expected and then some. He is the team's most efficient perimeter scorer and does his part on the defensive end as well. The drawback in his game is his insistence on taking midrange jumpers on about 40% of his shots, which go in less frequently than his threes and count for a point fewer when they do. He lit DePaul up for 32 on Christmas day and is capable of getting hot enough to carry Creighton for stretches when no one else is hitting.
|Scheierman was one of the most sought after transfers on the market this summer, but has been way overshadowed in his own conference by Boum and Hopkins in terms of impact. He is a good spot up shooter, but has struggled with the speed and size of the Big East, shooting 13% worse at the rim, 10% worse from three, and getting to the line half as frequently. He is adept on the defensive glass and has surprisingly active hands on the defensive end, ranking top 25 in the conference in block and steal rate, so he still brings a lot to the table even if his scoring has been somewhat tempered by the shift in competition.
|Kaluma joined Nembhard on the preseason All Big East Second Team,but has also struggled to make the jump expected of him. He is very athletic and uses that to be a disruptor on the defensive end and a force on the glass at both ends. However, he is not converting nearly as well as he did at the rim a year ago and his overall shooting numbers, while better, are still pretty inefficient. Combine that with 66% free throw shooting and an occasional penchant for turnovers and you have a guy who still looks unpolished on the offensive end, but brings the energy and aggression to change games nonetheless.
|He came into the season expected to be the team's best player and has lived up to that billing thus far. He shoots 80% at the rim and does most of his damage there. He is also one of the best shot blockers in the country, although that leaves him as less of a factor in defensive rebounding. It is no coincidence that Creighton is 0-3 without him this season and his struggle to get going is a large reason why UConn was able to halt Creighton's hot streak. After doing well to slow down Sanogo and Dixon, Xavier's bigs will have their work cut out for them against this guy.
Creighton’s bench has been a major weakness so far this season as they have struggled to match the production of the starters in their limited minutes. Fredrick King filled in ably when Kalkbrenner was out, winning back to back KenPom MVP’s in losing efforts against Arizona State and Marquette and is an able deputy on the glass at both ends and in blocking shots should need spelled. Francisco Farabello came in from TCU with a reputation as a sharpshooter, but has only made multiple threes in 4 of 16 games this season and is at 33% from deep on the season. The rest of his game has not compensated and it is safe to say he has not made the impact Creighton was hoping for thus far. Mason Miller is a redshirt freshman who is a capable three point shooter, but hasn’t done much else and has scored 8 points in Big East play. Backing up Nembhard is Shereef Mitchell, who has done decently well for a backup point guard but, much like Nembhard, has not scored overly efficiently.
- How to handle Kalkbrenner? Creighton’s big is the seventh most efficient scorer in the nation and the second best shooter inside the arc. 76% of his shots come at the rim, where he’s shooting a tick over 80%. Xavier needs to push him out of the blocks, but that’s easier said than done on someone 7-1, 260. Will X leave Nunge on an island, dig hard with a guard, or use a post double? Some sort of trickery will be required to keep him in check.
- Can Creighton guard Zach Freemantle? Xavier’s bigs aren’t bad in their own right. If Creighton uses Kalkbrenner in his usual free shot block role, they risk Jack Nunge torching them from outside. If they stick Kalbrenner closer to Nunge, Zach Freemantle gets a size advantage in any matchup. It’s tempting when facing an opponent to look at the things they can do to you. Xavier has an opportunity here to create Creighton serious problems of its own.
- Can Xavier find the offensive glass? X is not a good offensive rebounding team and Creighton is elite on the defensive glass. That doesn’t mean the Musketeers can just utterly abandon the idea of offensive rebounding. Prior to Big East play Colby Jones was a wrecking ball on the offensive glass. In Big East play he has three offensive rebounds. Tonight would be a good time for him to find that aggression again.
- Get Colby going: Jones hasn’t been bad in the last three games, but he’s not been his usual efficient self. This is in large part to the 14 turnovers he’s committed in that span, and partly down to being a bit less aggressive on offense. The six shots he took against St. John’s were the fewest he’s taken all year, trailed only by the eight he took against Nova. In the last three games he’s attempted just three free throws against nine three pointers. That’s not exactly Colby Jones ball.
- Find room for some threes: Creighton doesn’t allow many threes, but they allow decent looks on the ones teams do get off. Xavier doesn’t shoot a lot of threes, but is devastating when they get looks. Whoever can win this tipping point is likely to win the game. If X starts finding room the Jays will be in trouble.
- Push the pace: Kalkbrenner has been sick and just now got back to playing 30 minutes. Further, Creighton is just 3-5 in games where the tempo is 70 or above. In games played at that pace Xavier is 12-2. If this turns into a track meet, the numbers favor the Musketeers.