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

These teams battled to the wire at Cintas. The return leg isn’t likely to be any easier for the Muskies.

NCAA Basketball: Creighton at Xavier
This frickin goober couldn’t miss there for a minute.
Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

When these two teams first played, Creighton - a trending preseason Final Foul pick - was floundering. After starting the season 6-0, they suffered some bad luck and a little bit of illness and had suddenly won just 3 of their last 10. They battled Xavier the whole way at Cintas, but a Souley Boum masterclass in closing was enough to seal the game for the Muskies and drop the Jays to 3-3 in conference.

Now lining up as the home team, Creighton is ascendant. They outlasted a scrappy Providence team at the CHI Health Center, ran Butler out of their own barn, and fired up a classic Creighton offensive explosion to drop 104 on St. John’s. It has only been three games, but with a fully healthy Ryan Kalkbrenner resettled in the lineup, they’ve looked every bit of what they were supposed to be this year.

Xavier has lost to DePaul since these teams last played. Fortunately, they’ve also beaten Marquette and won at UConn, in addition to not losing (winning?) Georgetown Roulette. Twenty(ish) games into the season for both of these teams, it’s Xavier who is in line for a protected seed while Creighton is trying to fight their way off of the bubble. Despite their respective resumes, the teams are projected to finish just a game apart at the top of the Big East.

This is a huge game for both of these teams postseason fates, both in the conference tournament and the big dance. These are the games both of these teams joined the Big East to play. Expect a dogfight.

Team fingerprint

Greg McDermott has put four different teams into the top 5 in offensive efficiency during his career, but this team starts on the defensive end. They lead the Big East in defensive efficiency, thanks largely to being on top in defensive EFG% and defensive free throw rate. You just can’t get good shots on these guys and can’t get free points from the line. They also smother the arc, allowing the lowest ratio of attempts from deep. They’re very good on the defensive glass, but they don’t force turnovers at all (which isn’t to say Xavier won’t manufacture a few on their own). This is a very good defensive unit.

The offense is also rounding into form, sitting third in the Big East. They’re second in 2P%, 3P%, and FT%; this is a good shooting team. They’re 6th in the league in TO rate, which isn’t great, and 8th in both OReb% and FT rate. They really - statistically speaking - do much that you see good offenses do aside from making shots. Fortunately for them and their fans, they’re really good at making shots from all over.



Starting matchups
Ryan Nembhard Point Guard Souley Boum
Sophomore Class Senior
6'0", 170 Measurements 6'3", 175
11.5/3.2/5.3 Game line 16.8/4.2/5
41.1/32.5/83.7 Shooting line 47.5/45.2/88.3
Everything you want out of a point on offense, Nembhard does. He's nails at the line, good at distribution without sacrificing ball security, and he's even shooting 37% from deep in league play. He's comfortable calling his own number or setting up his teammates. On defense, his size is a little bit of a detriment against bigger guards, but he's not entirely a traffic cone out there. He's an excellent and reliable college guard.
Trey Alexander Shooting Guard Adam Kunkel
Sophomore Class Senior
6'4", 190 Measurements 6'4", 185
13/4.2/2.3 Game line 10.2/2.2/2.8
44.7/41.1/83.3 Shooting line 46.4/39.3/85.7
Great teams have a guy you can throw the ball to and tell him to go get his own shot, and Alexander is that for Creighton. He's a three-level scorer who is comfortable shooting off the bounce or getting all the way to the rim. He only took 8 shots the last time these teams played, which is a win in itself for the Muskies. The next time out, he lived at the line and dropped 20 on Providence. He's a huge problem.
Baylor Scheierman Small Forward Colby Jones
Senior Class Junior
6'7", 205 Measurements 6'6", 205
13.5/8.6/3.3 Game line 14.6/4.9/5.1
45.3/39.8/78.1 Shooting line 50.2/42.4/72.7
Because Braydan has love for every former Jackbunny, I'll refrain from elaborating on how I feel about Scheierman. He's an excellent defensive rebounder and a prowling menace in the passing lanes, but his real threat is on the offensive end. He takes 60% of his shots from deep and hits 40% of those attempts. He's got a deep and varied bag from the mid-range and at the rim. The only thing that can stop him is fatigue.
Arthur Kaluma Power Forward Zach Freemantle
Sophomore Class Senior
6'7", 225 Measurements 6'9", 225
12.4/6.2/1.3 Game line 15.1/8.3/3
43.4/31.9/70.7 Shooting line 57.8/63.2/65.3
A versatile defender and incredible athlete, Kaluma was a popular pick for a breakout sophomore campaign. He's got a good line, but he's well below average in terms of offensive efficiency. He's a good finisher, but he spends too much time taking jumpers. On 111 shots not at the rim, he's shooting 30.6%, which is bad. He's a really good rebounder and can defend all over; a little more discipline on offense might help him make the jump he was looking for as a sophomore.
Ryan Kalkbrenner Center Jack Nunge
Junior Class Senior
7'1", 260 Measurements 7'0" 245
15/6.9/1.3 Game line 10.2/2.2/2.8
73.8/33.3/69.4 Shooting line 46.4/39.3/85.7
Kalkbrenner is second in the nation in ORtg and EFG% and first in true shooting percentage. He shoots almost 80% at the rim and takes 75% of his shots from right there. McDermott does a good job of allowing him to play to his strengths and he responds with big numbers. He's a solid defender and well above average as a rim protector. He's not super bouncy, he just does a good job of walling up and staying vertical, plus he's absurdly tall. He can be victimized a bit by bigs who can work on the perimeter, as Travis Steele and Jack Nunge demonstrated in this fixture last year.


Fredrick King and Francisco Farabello are the two main bench pieces. Farabello is a pure shooter who came in from TCU this year sporting a career 3P% of about 40%. He hasn’t been that in Omaha, shooting 34.7/31.7/50 on his way to 3.7 PPG. He gets a lot of run relieving the guards, largely due to a lack of other options.

King is a 6’10” freshman big who does what you’d expect a freshman big to do. He scores well around the rim and crushes the glass at both ends, but he’s bad from the foul line. He blocks a lot of shots but can be foul prone. He averages 4.8/3.2/0.2 in about 10 minutes per game.

Junior guard Shereef Mitchell and freshman forward Mason Miller provide deep depth, combining for about 15 minutes per game. If either of them becomes the headliner, it will be a legit Tre Campbell situation.

Three questions

-How does Xavier deploy the defense? In Trey Alexander and Baylor Scheierman, Creighton has two guys who can fill it up from perimeter positions. In Colby Jones, Xavier has one starter who can be relied upon to defend a guy matching that description. Will we see some zone? More switch-everything defense like Miller threw out for the last possession against UConn? An extra dose of the bench players? Something needs to happen or Creighton is going to drop 100 on Xavier like they did on St. John’s.

-Which Jack Nunge will show up? Xavier’s biggest big man has had a couple of rough outings in January, being held to just 7 against both Villanova and Georgetown. He’s also 4-15 from deep since the calendar turned, which is suboptimal. Xavier needs him to be at his best to move Kalkbrenner around on one end and make him earn his points on the other. If he’s not, it could be a long day for the Muskies.

-Can anyone on Creighton stay in front of Souley Boum? Xavier isn’t the only defense with questions to answer in this matchup. He put 26/5/8 on them at Cintas with 0 turnovers in 39 minutes of play. He was 9-18 from the floor, including a season-high in both two-point attempts and makes in going 7-13 from inside the arc. He clearly had his eye in against UConn; if he stays hot, he can be the difference in this game.

Three keys

-Des Claude. I know I just spent a paragraph talking about how Souley might be unstoppable, but Des has the ability to guard that Xavier will need against Creighton. He has the strength to badger Scheierman and the lateral mobility to make Alexander work. He’s also coming off his best offensive game of the year, dropping 6/4/3 with 0 turnovers and finishing over 14 feet of UConn bigs. Getting a good game out of him is vital for Xavier.

-Move Kalkbrenner. He doesn’t block a ton of shots, but he alters plenty by being obnoxiously good at using his size without fouling. His presence in the middle is an elite anchor to Creighton’s defense. Aside from Souley Boum scooping the ball to the rafters, there isn’t much opposing drivers can do to get to their shots if Kalkbrenner is comfortable lurking in the paint. Xavier doesn’t need Jack Nunge to go full Steph Curry, but he has to do enough to make Kalkbrenner move his feet a bit.

-Get some stops. Creighton put up 87 points in 76 possessions at Cintas. That’s not a good defensive showing, to be honest. Creighton can score and Xavier can also put the biscuit in the basket, so it’s not like this is ever going to be a defensive struggle, but the Muskies can’t hemorrhage points on the road for 40 minutes and expect to come out on top. This roster isn’t suddenly going to turn into lockdown defenders, but when it comes down to brass tacks, somebody has to be the hungrier Howie for X to come away with this one.