You know how Xavier got here. A year ago, Xavier dumped out on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden to complete a collapse from the best position they held in years. That effectively ended the era of Travis Steele who was, somewhat oddly, then fired following a win. Sean Miller came back to take the reins at Xavier and when Colby Jones thundered past DePaul last night, it was Coach Miller who took Xavier back to the Big East semifinals for the first time since Brian O’Connell beat them in 2019.
Creighton’s route was less circuitous. Greg McDermott has led this team for years, and he is back with quite possibly the best team he’s ever had. To get to the semifinals, the Bluejays dispatched Villanova with a minimum of fuss. With 7:20 to play in the first Creighton led by 12. Nova just never made a run. The Jays ended up with an 87-74 win and earned their shot at Xavier in the semis. For all the craziness of the BET, it’s the top four seeds that will contest the championship.
Creighton’s offense is based on their shooting. They turn the ball over a little too much, and they don’t rebound their own misses all that well. What they do is knock down shots. They finished third in the conference in three point shooting, second in two point shooting, and second in free throw shooting. Turnovers weren’t a problem against Nova, but the Jays only grabbed four (13.8%) of their misses. When you go 12-25 behind the arc, that’s less of a problem.
Creighton’s defense was best in the Big East. They forsake trying to force turnovers in order to make every shot hard and every miss the end of a possession. They were tops in the conference in effective field goal percentage, defensive rebounding, and free throw attempt rate. What that meant on Thursday was 1.06 points per possession for Villanova and a brutal 13-32 inside the arc. Points are hard to come by against this team.
You’ve seen the grid on these guys twice already. Today is going to look a little bit different when we look at the players.
Ryan Kalkbrenner makes this offense tick. He is tops in the nation in true shooting percentage and led the Big East in effective field goal percentage. The thing that sets him apart from most bigs is that he’s bloodless from the line. He had 21/4/1 last night. Creighton doesn’t play a prototypical four to go with Kalkbrenner. Instead, they mix and match Baylor Scheierman and Arthur Kaluma.
Scheierman is a full on wank who absolutely heaves from deep. He has taken 208 threes this year, 42 more than Souley Boum. Scheierman will clean up on the defensive glass but not get near the offensive glass. The key is keeping him out of his rhythm, because he’ll just keep shooting to try to find it. He has games of 3-11, 2-12, and 3-13 from deep this year. He also torched X for 6-11. Last night he had 12 on just eight shots.
Kaluma is a bang average offensive player. He’s below average from deep, solid but not great inside the arc, and a good free throw shooter. He makes his living as a defender and a guy who can take on an oversized three or four. He does a bit of everything, none of it terribly well. Trey Alexander will pick up some of his offensive slack. No one shot the three better in conference play than Alexander’s 43.8%. If Xavier can run him off the line, though, he only shot 47% inside the arc. He also won’t make mistakes with the ball and is a killer at the line. Last night he went for 13/7/2, but didn’t make a shot inside the three point line.
Finally, there’s Ryan Nembhard. He rarely comes out, distributes the ball well, shot incredibly well from the line, and was a 40% three point shooter in conference play. He’s electric quick, so he must have watched game tape of Umoja Gibson last night and absolutely salivated. This game could come down to whether Souley Boum can stay in front of him or whether Boum takes a crack at Alexander and Sean Miller throws Colby Jones at Nembhard.
There’s one. Francisco Farabello is the only bench guy for Creighton getting any real minutes right now. He’s from Canada, which is a city in Argentina. (For real.) Last year for TCU he was really good as a spot up shooter. This year he hasn’t been. He must add value on the defensive end, because his offensive numbers are painful. Backup stick thin (6-9, 190) big Mason Miller will see time as a spot up shooter and little else. Frederick King is a much more prototypical big who eats glass and never ventures outside. He had back to back KenPom MVP games against high major competition in December and has played double digit minutes just five times since.
-Can Jack Nunge stay out of foul trouble? What's plan B if he doesn't? That's what they call a two-fer in the biz. Anyway, Nunge got into foul trouble in the away leg of this matchup and it turned into a boat race. If that happens again, I don't know where answers will come from. Jerome Hunter can probably move Kalkbrenner a little on defense, but he can't contain him on the other end. Cesare Edwards has the height to trouble Kalkbrenner around the rim, but I don't know that he has the range to pull him out of the lane. We need a worldy from Jack today.
-Can Colby Jones stay hot? Colby has 71 points on 24-32/4-8/11-16 shooting in three March games so far. He was fairly anonymous through the first half of the DePaul game, but he showed up when it was winning time. He had 20 on 9-14 shooting in Xavier's win over Creighton; he'll need to be similarly effective to give X the upper hand today.
-Will there be a surprise contributor? These are two incredibly top-heavy teams; both are 300 or worse in the country in bench minutes. Xavier's bench is Des and Cesare, and Creighton is even less comfortable going outside the starting five. Legends are made in the world's most famous arena; maybe someone unexpected is going to etch his name in lore in this one.
-Show up for the tip. Xavier lacked the necessary engagement to make a game of it for about 32 minutes against DePaul before closing on a 24-11 to save themselves from an embarrassing early departure from the tournament. That's not going to cut it at all against Creighton, who has the capacity to remind opponents that they were a trendy preseason Final Four pick. If Xavier doesn't open the game well, it'll be over by halftime.
-Push Kalkbrenner out. In addition to being the conference defensive player of the year, Creighton's center is also a potential offensive force, largely because he takes three quarters of his shots at the rim. In the same vein, he's not going to be as adept at protecting the lane if he's not standing inside the charge circle on defense. I know Jack Nunge is fresh off of a monstrous 36-minute effort against DePaul, but he needs to be at his best to make life miserable for the Bluejays' big man.
-Chase Creighton off the arc. Creighton is second in the league in percentage of points scored from behind the arc. They're 9th in twos and 7th in free throws; they are significantly dependent basically on threes and dunks by Ryan Kalkbrenner for their offensive production. They will happily bomb Xavier into Selection Sunday if given the chance; Xavier has to make it hard for them to get their looks.