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

Xavier held serve at home in the most dramatic way possible; now they hit the road with the chance to launch their at-large campaign into high gear.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

After going to Providence and feeding it to the Friars and then opening up a can on Butler at home, Xavier was riding high on pairing some results with their recent stretch of solid play. A narrow home win in a stagnant defensive performance against Georgetown might be seen as a step back, but to an optimist, it was another mark of the team’s progress. A good team finds a way to win its bad games, and that’s something Xavier failed to do twice in the stretch of home games that put them behind the eight ball this year. Avoiding the Georgetown loss means that it’s still very much all to play for.

First up in a big away week is a trip to Omaha to take on Creighton. The Bluejays had a weird non-conference, with their two losses being by a total of 36 points to Colorado State and UNLV. They avoided bad losses, picked up a couple of Q1 wins, and hit Big East play with a lot of momentum. They’re 5-1 since their 0-2 start to league play and have rocketed up to an uncontested third place, half a game up on Xavier et al. I don’t know that they’re going to run down UConn, but they’re definitely positioned to be best of the rest.

This game has huge leverage in the Big East race. If Creighton takes it, they have a leg up on the pursuing teams, with a huge away win against Seton Hall in hand and more league wins than anyone outside of UConn. If X wins, they drag Creighton back to the pack. They’d join X, St. John’s, Nova, and Marquette as teams hovering just above .500 trying to reel in Seton Hall.

That’s not even considering what this would do for Xavier’s tournament resume. Once all but dead and buried, X might be clawing back to the right side of the cut line if they manage to pillage a win here. It’s not even February, but this is a game with huge postseason implications on both sides.

Team fingerprint

They are an excellent defense, and I’m sorry to report it all begins with Ryan Kalkbrenner. They relentlessly chase teams off the arc, knowing they have an anchor in the middle. They are the best in the nation in keeping opponents off the free throw line and easily in the top 10 in defensive EFG%. They’re not quite elite on the defensive glass, but they’re pretty dang close. They choose to sacrifice even attempting to force turnovers to make this happen; they’re dead last in the nation in defensive TO rate, and the next 30 teams would fit into the gap between then and next to last.

On offense, they’re what is going through your head when you wake up out of a dead sleep to the sound of Gus Johnson yelling “WRAGGE!” echoing through your skull. Almost half of their shots come from behind the arc, though they’re just barely inside the top 100 with a 35.4% success rate. That number has dipped to 30.7% in conference play. They lead the conference in two-point shooting and are fourth in the nation shooting almost 60% from inside the arc on the year. They’re miserable on the offensive glass and have an non-existent presence on the free throw line. It all adds up to a top-50 offense, though one that is slumping fairly significantly in conference play.

Players

NB: We’ve bracketed out the starters grid in the normal 5x5 fashion, but Creighton’s positions are a little less straightforward. Alexander is the primary ballhandler, but he’s also arguably the primary scorer, so Ashworth - who has basically equalled Alexander in assist rate since conference play started - is listed as the point. Scheierman is more of a wing than a big, but so is Miller. Scheierman definitely defends as the four, so he’s listed there. Thus ends your fairly meaningless explanatory note regarding a question very few of you would have had. As always, thanks for reading.

Starters

Starting matchups
Steven Ashworth Point Guard Dayvion McKnight
Senior Class Senior
6'1", 170 Measurements 6'0", 188
8.7/2.7/3.6 Game line 10.6/4.1/5.1
37.9/32.4/92.6 Shooting line 43.6/32.4/81.8
In three years at Utah State, Ashworth basically couldn't miss, hitting over 40% of his nearly 500 three-point tries. He's found the sledding a little tougher in the Big East, but he has shown a solid mid-range game in conference play to go with excellent distribution and ball security. His defense is a question mark, but it started the season as an interrobang, so progress has been made. He doesn't need to look for his own shot much, just keep things ticking over and not waste possessions.
Trey Alexander Shooting Guard Quincy Olivari
Junior Class Senior
6'4", 190 Measurements 6'3", 200
16.1/6/4.6 Game line 18.1/4.9/1.9
43.4/30/77.8 Shooting line 44/43.4/81
Trey Alexander does look for his own shot. He also looks for other people's shots, as evidence by his assist rate sitting 7th in Big East play. He has taken a huge step back from being a knockdown three-point shooter last year, but he's tough in the mid-range and gets to the rim well. He is an excellent high-volume combo guard. He has score 20 or more points in a game 9 times this year; he averaged over 5 assists per game while doing it. The ball spends a lot of time in his hands.
Baylor Scheierman Small Forward Desmond Claude
Senior Class Sophomore
6'7", 205 Measurements 6'6", 203
17.8/8.3/3.9 Game line 16/4.8/4
42.3/36.1/89.1 Shooting line 43.3/25.8/75
Wild how two guys have basically the same listed dimensions and one can look way more like he knows where the weight room is. Anyway, Scheierman is an excellent scorer. He has heaps of range to the point where his ambition sometimes takes away from his efficiency. He isn't a pull-up guru, prefering instead to go all the way to the rim, where he's an above-average finisher. He's also omnipresent on the defensive glass, hoovering boards in and around the post players. Creighton rides him like Seabiscuit; he almost never comes out of games. In a perhaps related note, his efficiency is way down in conference play.
Mason Miller Power Forward Gytis Nemeiksa
Sophomore Class Senior
6'9", 190 Measurements 6'7", 220
6.9/4.3/0.4 Game line 7.1/5.2/1.3
52.6/47.6/80 Shooting line 49.1/43.8/64.3
Does he hunt shots? No. Does he make shots? Yes. Miller's usage rate is below 12%, which is bonkers low. He is sneaky effective on the offensive glass and a deadly catch-and-shoot guy from behind the arc. He is just 7-23 from deep in January; I wonder if his legs might be going away from him a bit. He can be anonymous for a while and then bury your game in about three possessions if you drop your guards.
Ryan Kalkbrenner Center Abou Ousmane
Senior Class Senior
7'1", 270 Measurements 6'10", 240
16.3/7.5/1 Game line 8.6/6.8/1.1
63.1/28.1/65.4 Shooting line 52.3/25/47.5
Jack Nunge has moved on from Big East basketball, but he left his son behind in the league. Kalkbrenner has a little bit of range, but he's more of a threat in the mid-range than he is behind the arc. He's also an absolute scavenger on the offensive glass; he does a lot of damage on second chances. He's a good rim protector but less of a defensive rebounder than you'd suspect a man his size might be.

Reserves

Very few. The Bluejays are 351st in the nation in bench minutes. In their triple-overtime win against Seton Hall on Satruday, they got 29 minutes off the bench. If my math holds, there are 275 player-minutes in a 3OT game; Creighton’s starters played 246 of them. Yikes.

Most of their bench minutes come through Francisco Faribello, a 6’3” senior guard. He’s averaging 4.4/2.7/1.9 on 52.6/40.5/77.8 shooting. He is shooting the ball well in conference, but he’s got a TO rate of 41.8%, which is translating to almost 2 TO per game despite getting bench minutes and being mostly just a shooter on offense. It’s an issue.

Isaac Traudt and Fredrick King are 6’10” bench big men. Traudt is shooting 42% from behind the arc on the year, but he’s just 1-9 in Big East games that weren’t against DePaul. King is a bruiser who eats glass on both ends. He’s averaging almost 9 fouls per 40 minutes in conference games. These two combine for about 12-15 minutes per game and comprise the rest of Creighton’s meaningful bench pieces.

Three questions

-Does Creighton’s thin bench matter? The Bluejays play slowly and stay out of foul trouble, allowing them to finesse 200 minutes of basketball out of basically six guys. It stands to reason that they could be gassed out, but they just played three overtimes on the road without changing their approach to depth too much, and they still threw up 14 points in 5 minutes to close it out. I’d like to see Xavier get out and run them a bit, but I’d caution against assuming it’s going to crack Coach McDermott and make him go deeper into the bench.

-How does Xavier defend Kalkbrenner? Creighton’s center anchors them on both ends, but he’s an especially difficult matchup when McDermott is moving him around the floor on offense. Abou Ousmane will presumably draw the primary assignment, but there will be 10-12 minutes of game time that Kalkbrenner plays and he doesn’t. Trey Green has been an especially helpful secondary defender on post digs, and with Creighton shooting 30% from deep in conference, we might see X employ more of those than would be comfortable in years past. Kalkbrenner won’t demolish a game the way Zach Edey can, but he will definitely tilt it in favor of the home team if Xavier doesn’t run some looks at him.

-What’s the plan on offense? If you had watched all season and didn’t have KenPom in front of you, you might be surprised to hear that Xavier’s offense is second in the league. The Muskies are shooting well from deep, but they aren’t overly reliant on the three ball to score. Creighton is a sensational defense, and they don’t give clean looks from deep or allow easy baskets inside the arc. Jack Nunge allowed Xavier to move Kalkbrenner around; I’m worried Abou Ousmane doesn’t offer the same flexibility. If Kalkbrenner can stand under the rim, the whole Creighton defense falls into place around him.

Three keys

-Don’t waste chances. Quincy Olivari started last game 0-3 on 3 pretty good looks from deep (before closing a tidy 5-7). You can get away with that home to Georgetown; it’s probably not going to fly at Creighton. Chances will be at a premium tonight; if the Muskies can’t capitalize on ones that present themselves, there’s no guarantee another is coming.

-Score quickly. This is going to be a tough one. Creighton believes in its half court defense so much that it pretty much punts on the offensive glass to get back and get set up. When the ball comes off the rim, they’re mostly already getting into position to jam things up. With that said, Xavier has been exceptional at scoring off of misses and even makes this year, and the guards have done well in getting all the way to the rim in transition. There won’t be too many opportunities, but the Muskies have to consistently put pressure on Creighton’s defense in changes of possession.

-Win the challenge. At a certain level, there aren’t a lot of nuances to this one. Xavier’s offense has been good; Creighton’s defense has been good. Xavier’s defense has been bad; Creighton’s offense has been bad. With few exceptions, the things one team is good at, the other team opposes in just about equal strength. There’s a sense in which it will come down to execution and who can take the other guy’s best punch and keep moving forward. The Muskies have been the hungrier Howies lately; that’s their best chance for bringing a win back from Omaha.