"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Sunday, October 20, 2019

About that Pomeroy Ranking...

The new kenpom.com rankings are out and Marquette fans should be pleasantly surprised to see their team checking in at #17 in the country. Considering other rankings we've seen include T-Rank having them at #33, Three Man Weave slotting them in at #32, and most of the poll voters having them anywhere from the mid-20s to unranked, this is something many didn't see coming.

First of all, Pistol Brad at Anonymous Eagle did a nice job of breaking down the individual players that likely contributed to the improvement. If you want to check out my Twitter feed, I posted a response to that article, but I felt it deserved a full article, so here we are.

When considering Pomeroy's rankings, we have to remember virtually everything is based on the Four Factors. The factors are effective field goal percent, turnover rate, offensive rebounding, and free throw rate. Let's look at each one individually and determine how they will likely change with Sam and Joey Hauser gone and Koby McEwen, Jayce Johnson, and Greg Elliott in.

Effective Field Goal Percentage: This is a mathematical calculation of how many points a player gets per shot they take. If you need a formula explanation, scroll down to eFG% here. The Hausers take with them 133 made threes and combined to make 40.9% from beyond the arc. The team three point percentage will likely decline and their overall combined eFG% last year was an impressive 56.3%. For comparison sake, if the Hausers were a team, that number would rank 7th in the nation. So what about the replacements? If we consider the most recent seasons for Johnson & Elliott, as well as Koby's first season (when his usage was lower, which it likely will be this year) the three combined for an eFG% of 56.7%. This definitely cherry picks McEwen's stats a bit, but I think it is safe to say that while this number may decline slightly, it won't fall off a cliff as much as some might expect because Marquette should have better interior finishing.

Turnover Rate: While Sam Hauser had an excellent 11.9% turnover rate, Joey was a fairly abysmal 22.3%. Elliott (19.9%), McEwen (19.2%), and Johnson (17.0%) are all significant improvements on Joey's numbers. But the real factor to consider is how much we are hearing about Brenden Bailey being a projected starter. Bailey's stunning 6.3% turnover rate, had he played enough minutes to qualify, would have been 4th in the country. More ballhandlers and better ballhandlers should lead to an improvement in turnover rate.

Offensive Rebounding: For front court players, the Hausers were not good offensive rebounders. Sam pulled down just 3.7% and Joey 3.6% of available offensive rebounds. For comparison, Brendan Bailey pulled down 6.5% of available offensive rebounds, nearly double what either Hauser did. But of players that will replace their minutes, Bailey is on the low end. Jamal Cain got to 7.2% of offensive rebounds, Theo John got to 11.1%, Jayce Johnson got to 14.1% (27th in the country), and Ed Morrow got to 15.5% (he would've ranked 11th had he played just 1.6 more mpg). Even Greg Elliott got to 4.5% of offensive rebounds as a freshman. Quite simply, the departure of the Hausers should VASTLY improve Marquette's offensive rebounding. Last year, Marquette improved 80 spots in the rankings from #211 to #131 in offensive rebounding. I expect a similar improvement this year with the Hauser minutes going to players that are much, much better at crashing the offensive glass.

Free Throw Rate: Sam's 92.4% free throw percentage was a stellar 4th in the nation, but it would've meant far more if he actually got to the line. His 20.9% free throw rate was lower than anyone on the team except Jamal Cain. Joey had a respectable 38.4%, but even that won't be hard to replace. Of the newcomers, McEwen had a 37.4% free throw rate, Elliott had 44.9%, and Jayce Johnson had 59.0%. Marquette should be much better at getting to the line. They may not convert at the same rate, but free throw rate is far more important than percentage because of the dual effect of the raw attempts generating points and the fouls on the defense making it easier to attack offensively.

So on offense, the eFG% should roughly be a wash because interior scoring will be better while the team should be better at turnover rate, free throw rate, and significantly better at offensive rebounding. In terms of overall efficiency, this team actually projects to be better in 2019-20 without the Hausers than it was with them in 2018-19. That said, I think the team would be even higher had they stayed. McEwen and Elliott would still be here and as much as Jayce adds certain qualities the brothers don't have, the improved shooting from deep and the expected improvements from what the brothers actually did in 2018-19 versus them being expected to be better in 2019-20 would've likely led to a top-10 offensive ranking. Still, it's understandable why MU should be better on the offensive end this upcoming season.

Defensively, it's just as easy to see why this team will project to be better without them. When it comes to challenging shots and limiting eFG%, the team will have more athleticism and shot blocking/challenging ability without them. Neither of them excelled at creating turnovers. They were decent but not exceptional defensive rebounders and the addition of Johnson (23rd in the country and 5th among high major players) and particularly Koby McEwen (19th in the country for players 6'4" and under, one of the elite rebounding guards) should more than offset the Hausers. Sam was excellent and Joey average at defending without fouling, so that aspect may get worse, but it is the least important of the four factors and if the other three are all better, it's easy to see why this team should be better overall on the defensive end.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Georgetown Preview

Georgetown Hoyas
January 18, Capitol One Center, Washington, D.C.; February 26, fiserv.forum

Coach: Patrick Ewing (34-29)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 118.0
3-Year kenpom Average: 87.7
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 42

Projected Starters: PG James Akinjo (6'0" So), SG Mac McClung (6'2" So), SF Jamorko Pickett (6'8" Jr), PF Josh LeBlanc (6'7" So), C Omer Yurtseven (7'0" Jr)

Georgetown had about as mediocre a year as one could have last year. Non-con losses to Loyola-Marymount and SMU were head-scratchers and did damage to what was a very favorable schedule. In conference play, they split with 7 of their 9 opponents, sweeping only Providence and being swept by Creighton. So while they won some big games, they lost some bad ones as well. In Ewing's second season, they fell in the kenpom rankings for the second straight year, from 69 under Thompson III to 94 in Ewing's first year and 100 last year. They also lose leading scorer and rebounder Jessie Govan.

So where's the optimism? A great freshman class, buoyed by the Big East Rookie of the Year, James Akinjo. Both of their backcourt debutants averaged over 13 ppg, though multi-talented Josh LeBlanc was the most efficient offensively while providing boards on both ends. In addition, Yurtseven provides a big, experienced presence to be a like-for-like replacement for Govan and immediately is a contender with Theo John for best big man in the Big East. Pickett, the first big recruiting win for Ewing, has been terrible offensively (sub-90 ORtg his first two years) but provides needed length on defense. The bench is thin. Jagan Mosely, Jahvon Blair, and grad transfer Terrell Allen are competent backups, but are 6'3". Galen Alexander is the only real front court relief, aside from a bundle of expected freshmen projects.

On offense, Georgetown plays ultra-fast, a sharp contrast from the Thompson years. Despite finishing in the top two in the league in pace every year under Ewing, they also finished in the bottom four in efficiency. The reason is twofold. First, because players like Blair, Pickett, and Akinjo have been indisputably terrible inside the arc and because Jessie Govan, who had the highest interior usage, was mediocre (52.8 2PFG% the last two years) in that regard. Further, while they're a more efficient team from three, they don't take a ton of shots outside the arc. They will hope another year of experience will improve upon that, but it's the same poor finishers and Omer Yurtseven's 54.8 2PFG% in two years at NC State is only a slight upgrade from Govan. Defensively, there's no real identity. Despite Ewing being a staunch defender as a player (like Wojo) he hasn't been able to convey that to his team.  They don't have enough depth and length to stick with a zone and usually seem overmatched in man. I've seen Hoyas fans indicating that was largely Govan's fault as an immobile tree that only blocked shots, but if the answer to that is Yurtseven, I don't think expectations should change much.

On paper, Georgetown looks like a clear #7 in the Big East. They have some talent, but the ball will likely spend too much time in the hands of less efficient players like Akinjo and McClung. If Yurtseven fits in immediately and they run the offense through him and LeBlanc while finding a defensive identity, maybe they can move up in the pecking order, but they just seem to have too many holes in the starting lineup and especially bench to be a top-half team. The ability to get Ewing's first NCAA berth is there, but it's worth noting that despite the optimism around the program, they have regressed in overall efficiency rankings per Pomeroy in each of his first two seasons.

Marquette Memory: After narrow wins over St. John's and Villanova, Marquette was one win away from reaching the 2010 Big East Tournament final. The only thing standing in their way was a Georgetown team they had beaten 3 straight times, including a 62-59 win in D.C. earlier that year. From the outset, it wasn't meant to be. Georgetown started on a 15-4 run and every time Marquette surged back, the Hoyas had an answer. Maurice Acker's layup pulled Marquette to a manageable 56-51 deficit before a decisive 14-1 Georgetown run put the game away. Greg Monroe led the Hoyas with 23 points, 13 rebounds, and 7 assists as they ran Marquette out of MSG with a 23-point defeat.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Xavier Preview

Xavier Musketeers
January 15, fiserv.forum; January 29, Cintas Center, Cincinnati OH
Coach: Travis Steele (19-16)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 35.7
3-Year kenpom Average: 37.0
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 37

Projected Starters: PG Quinton Goodin (6'4" Sr), SG Paul Scruggs (6'3" Jr), SF Naji Marshall (6'7" Jr), PF Jason Carter (6'8" Jr), C Tyrique Jones (6'9" Sr)

It was a rough start for new head coach Travis Steele, who was staring at a losing overall record and 6-game Big East losing streak on February 9. The Musketeers rallied to win 7 of their next 8 and were only denied a spot in the Big East Tournament title game when eventual champion Villanova rallied from 7 down with under 4:00 to play to force overtime and knock them out in the semifinal. Xavier was invited to the NIT, where they also lost in overtime to the eventual champion, Texas.

Hope is blossoming in Cincinnati. While they did lose three graduate transfers, they return the core of last year's team. Marshall, Scruggs, Goodin, and Jones all averaged double-digit scoring. Marshall is the presumed leader, moving down to the small forward position thanks to the physical presence of grad transfer Jason Carter (who has two years eligibility). Marshall is a multi-talented player that can put up big raw numbers, but has issues with turning the ball over and isn't a particularly good shooter. Scruggs and Goodin are both capable backcourt options, but while both have shown flashes, at least one needs to step up as a reliable second scorer. Jones is the most efficient of them, largely because of his ability to dominate on the offensive glass. The rest of the roster is a question mark. Carter and fellow grad transfer Bryce Moore both have experience, but have to make the step up from bottom of the MAC teams as both finished last in their divisions last year, Carter at Ohio and Moore at Western Michigan. The rest of the roster is freshmen. Of those, expect to see dynamic scoring guard KyKy Tandy and big man Zach Freemantle the most. Tandy offers a downhill attacking ability while Freemantle is expected to be the main front court backup.

Steele was the architect of the Chris Mack offense. While Steele, like many coaches, preached pushing the pace in his early interviews, his actions were the opposite. At their best, Mack's teams spread the floor out with multiple wings and are aggressive attacking toward the basket. This allows them to get to the line and take advantage of stalwart big men like Jones cleaning up the glass. On their face, this team has the roster to do that, with a variety of long players able to play on the perimeter and drive downhill, but Steele played at the slowest pace of any Xavier team since the shot clock was shortened to 30 and the lowest tempo ranking (302) of any Xavier team in the advanced stats era. Defensively, Steele has proven malleable. He often employed a zone last year to try to keep sharpshooter Ryan Welage on the floor, as he was a complete defensive liability. Expect more man this year, though I'll need to see more to be convinced Xavier's defensive strategy is anachronistic. Under both Steele and Mack, their best asset is on the defensive glass. They don't do enough to challenge shots and don't create the turnovers and transition chances Steele talked about when hired. They also allow teams to take and make too many threes while not having the ability to counter that on the offensive end.

I want to like this Xavier team, but there's a lot to clean up for them to be a Big East contender. Their three primary ball-handlers all had turnover rates north of 21% (think Joey Hauser, only at PG, SG, and SF). They were an anemic three-point shooting team and lost their best shooter. And despite having length all over the floor, they don't turn teams over. To be clear, Steele had a tough job, taking over for a great coach and having to replace four seniors, including Trevon Blueitt and J.P. Macura. But currently, there's no clear leader (six players averaged 18+ mpg and 20+% usage last year) and it's hard to see what this team's identity will be. They have a favorable non-conference schedule that has their toughest games (Missouri & Cincinnati) at home with winnable road games (at Wake Forest & TCU) and a non-con tournament where they should be able to get at least 2 wins. I expect Xavier to start strong, but once Big East play starts, I think this team comes back down to earth and finishes around the middle of the pack. They have enough talent to get to the NCAA Tournament, but not enough of a clear identity to be a true contender.

Marquette Memory: Xavier was ranked #6 in the country and on their way to a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament when they opened Big East play at the Bradley Center. Andrew Rowsey led the way in a back-and-forth affair. A Jamal Cain three put Marquette ahead with 10 minutes to play, but a 14-4 run put Xavier in the driver's seat. Marquette did manage to tie it once again, at 80, but cold shooting at the arc from Markus Howard (1/8 from three) likely doomed them in their failed upset bid as the Musketeers left the BC with a 91-87 victory. In a season where Marquette went 0-6 against teams that finished on the top two seed lines, that was maybe their best shot at a resume-affirming win as they instead had to settle for the NIT.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Seton Hall Preview

Seton Hall Pirates
January 11, Prudential Center, South Orange, NJ; February 29, fiserv.forum

Coach: Kevin Willard (169-126 at Seton Hall, 214-175 overall)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 44.0
3-Year kenpom Average: 45.7
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 29

Projected Starters: PG Quincy McKnight (6'3" RS Sr), SG Myles Powell (6'2" Sr), SF Myles Cale (6'6" Jr), PF Sandro Mamukelashvili (6'10" Jr), C Ike Obiagu (7'2" C)

Seton Hall had a roller coaster of a season last year. They had a rocky 1-2 start before finishing non-con on a tear, including wins over Kentucky, Miami, and Maryland away from home. They started conference play 2-0 before dropping six of their next eight games. A three-game winning streak was followed by a three-game losing streak. They rallied at the end, earning home wins over Marquette and Villanova before a trip to the Big East Tournament final proved just enough to earn them an at-large bid. It wasn't overwhelming success, but it was a solid result for what was expected to be a transitional year.

Most of that team comes back for the Pirates. Powell leads the way and, along with Markus Howard, is one of two Big East players that is expected to be in the running for All-American honors. Cale, McKnight, and Mamukelashvili are all decent complementary scoring options. In the middle, Obiagu leads a hosts of bigs, including Romaro Gill, Taurean Thompson, and Tyrese Samuel. While they won't likely contribute much offensively, they have a lot of rim protection options.

On offense, Seton Hall's strategy was basically run everything through Powell. He took 31.4% of the shots when he was on the floor, no other player that averaged double-digit minutes took more than 20%. They ran a ton of screens for him and when he drew extra attention, he would be used as a decoy to open up the bigs down low. It seems their entire offense is either designed for Powell or to take advantage of the attention given to Powell. Defensively, they were decidedly mediocre last year. They want to chase teams off the line and funnel them into the shot blockers, but don't really excel in any aspect. The additional size and experience should help, but consistency has been a problem for them throughout Willard's career so it's hard to expect that with a fairly static roster.

The consensus seems to be that Seton Hall is ready for a breakthrough. The Big East coaches picked them to win the league and they are consistently picked as a top-2 Big East team and top-15 team nationally. I don't see it. This is essentially the same roster that looked certain to go to the NIT in early March. Their offense is completely reliant on one player and their defense is shaky at best. In addition, Kevin Willard has struggled to get the best out of his most talented teams. Powell is a phenomenal talent but there's no one who has shown the ability to be the Robin to his Batman. Further, while you don't need to be a great defensive team to top the polls, you need to be able to get stops, and I'm not convinced Seton Hall can do that. This looks like a tournament team, but I think they're more likely to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the league and in line for a seed in the 6-9 range than the 3-5 pundits seems to be expecting.

Marquette Memory: Let's go all the way back to March of this year. After Marquette choked away a 13-point lead in under 10 minutes at the Rock, Wojo's team faced Seton Hall a second time in 9 days at Madison Square Garden with a trip to the Big East Tournament final on the line. Marquette was leading with 12:48 to play when James Breeding took over the game. The problem being, of course, that James Breeding was a referee. An altercation under the Seton Hall basket led to Marquette starters Sacar Anim and Theo John being thrown out along with Seton Hall's Sandro Mamukelashvili and Myles Powell. Then, inexplicably, despite having been called for both a flagrant and a technical foul, the refs called for Myles Powell to come back from the locker room. Powell rallied the Hall from a 5-point deficit, scoring or assisting on 14 of SHU's final 23 points. Oh, and despite the traveshamockery this game was, Breeding went on to officiate in the Final Four.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Providence Preview

Providence Friars
January 7, fiserv.forum; February 22, Dunkin Donuts Center, Providence RI

Coach: Ed Cooley (162-110 at Providence, 254-179 overall)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 52.7
3-Year kenpom Average: 67.3
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 23

Projected Starters: PG Luwane Pipkins (5'11" RS Sr), SG David Duke (6'5" So), SF A.J. Reeves (6'6" So), PF Alpha Diallo (6'7" Sr), C Nate Watson (6'10" Jr)

The Friars had a respectable non-conference season, despite an upset home loss to Luwane Pipkins' Massachusetts team. Then came the injury to freshman scoring star A.J. Reeves. Reeves was averaging 14.2 ppg before his injury. Reeves missed 9 games in the middle of the season that included a 2-4 start to conference play and after getting back he only scored 6.9 ppg the rest of the way. They finished 7-11 in conference play, but had leads in the second half or overtime of 7 of those losses. Providence was constantly the team that had chances to win and couldn't get it done, which led to them missing the NCAA and accepting a NIT bid.

Ed Cooley returns the majority of last year's team. Diallo is long, do-everything forward that will be expected to carry the load, but he has a lot of help. Watson averaged double-digit scoring and Reeves looked like a go-to scorer in flashes. Transfer Pipkins, who was instrumental in the Friars' upset loss a year ago, is reminiscent of the point guards Cooley has thrived with; guys like Kyron Cartwright, Bryce Cotton, and Vincent Council. He's a quick, heads-up guard that can score and distribute. The question will be if his offensive skills (averaged 18.9 ppg/4.5 apg the last two years at UMass) will translate to the Big East. The other question mark is who the fifth starter will be. Duke seems to be the safe bet, but if Emmitt Holt is healthy, he could be a difference maker. The 6'7" forward was granted a sixth season and, if he's back to his 2017 form, could give the Friars the most complete starting five in the league.

Cooley's offense is predicated on the transition game. He wants his teams to force turnovers and press the attack quickly. They look to drive first, but will kick it out to open shooters and continue pressing the secondary break. Their fluid passing means a lot of assists. Cooley generally runs through a ball-dominant point guard. Last year's lack of success largely came down to not having that guy. Consider this, in Cooley's first seven years at PC, his lead guard had a top-20 in the nation assist rate every single season. Lots of ball movement, lots of passes, and one maestro pulling the strings. On the other end, pressure is the name of the game. Friar defenders will guard tightly and seek to get into passing lanes. They try to take away the dribble and force opposing teams to pass the ball, which allows their long defenders to get into those lanes, create turnovers, and start the attack.

The consensus on the Friars seems to be bottom half of the Big East, fighting for a spot on the bubble. The real outlier is T-Rank, which has them 23rd in the nation. Personally, I think the Friars are very underrated. In a league where few teams have senior leadership, Pipkins and Diallo figure to have the ball in their hands a lot. Both Reeves and Watson have proven themselves to be reliable complimentary scorers. And while it's a big if, if Emmitt Holt comes back and is anything like what he was in 2017, they would be adding a proven, physical 23-year-old Big East big man. Ed Cooley is widely regarded as one of, if not the best coaches in the league outside Jay Wright. His team has athleticism, length, scoring, and experience. This team looks like a comfortable NCAA team, and if healthy, they could be a surprise contender for the Big East title and protected seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Marquette Memory: The lights went out and Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" belted out over the Bradley Center sound system. Phone screens sprang to life, creating a concert like atmosphere in the building, where just moments before, a basketball game had been going on. Most of the fans first realized what was going on when Providence forward Sidiki Johnson fell to the ground, flailing away from a bat flying around the court. Shortly thereafter, players were swinging and throwing towels at the bat. Ed Cooley was shrouded in a towel. The refs tried to resume the action, but there was no deterring the bat until it was serenaded out of the BC by Whitney. After it finally flew through the roof, the game resumed and Marquette finished off an 81-71 victory over the Friars. It was one of the most unforgettable moments in the history of that building.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Villanova Preview

Villanova Wildcats
January 4, fiserv.forum; February 12, Finneran Pavilion, Philadelphia, PA

Coach: Jay Wright (448-175 at Villanova, 570-260 overall)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 9.7
3-Year kenpom Average: 11.0
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 19

Projected Starters: PG Colin Gillespie (6'3" Jr), SG Bryan Antoine (6'5" Fr), SF Jermaine Samuels (6'7" Jr), PF Saddiq Bey (6'8" So), C Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (6'9" Fr)

Villanova started the season in uncharacteristic fashion, losing more non-conference games (4) than they had in the past five seasons combined (3). Jay Wright juggled the lineup, finding more success with additional minutes for Samuels and Bey. That led to an 11-1 start to Big East play before a late-season lull saw them dropping 4 of their last 6 games. Even still, they won the Big East regular season outright and followed it up with a Big East tournament title. The Wildcats fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but you know you have a special program when a "down year" involves winning the double-championship in your league.

'Nova lost their two best players in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, but have a star-studded recruiting class to replace them along with a cadre of experienced juniors and sophomores that will have them staying in the mix for Big East titles. Gillespie, Samuels, and Bey were all highly efficient role-players that will need to step up and be more productive in expanded roles. Antoine is a shot-maker and the biggest star of the recruiting class, but his health is a question. They hope to have him to start the season, but he could be out until the start of conference play. If he's not around, more will be expected of another 5-star recruit, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who is expected to start up front ahead of reliable veteran Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Jay Wright has a young but talented bench, with Cole Swider and Eric Dixon providing front court depth. Another name to watch is Justin Moore. He isn't as flashy as Antoine, but is a hard-nosed guard that could earn minutes early if Antoine isn't ready to go. If some of the returning guys show they can score, a tougher, defense-first guy may be a welcome addition.

Anyone familiar with the Big East has to be familiar with Villanova. Offensively, they are going to spread the floor with a 5-out offense while raining threes like a meteor shower. And the same long, athletic, lethally accurate athletic mismatches are going to be tough, steadfast defenders that get a hand up on every shot and defend without fouling. The Wildcats have slowed their pace in recent years, particularly on the offensive end, where they have been in the bottom third of tempo each of the past 4 years. This is a slow-down club that plays beautiful offense and suffocating defense.

This Villanova team looks like they will be absolute world-beaters...in 2020-21. While they have the talent to win the Big East this year, they don't have anyone that has proven they can shoulder the load for a contender. If Bey or Gillespie can become a First Team Big East player, if Antoine can be a go-to scorer, if all the newcomers are ready to contribute on both ends, if all those things come together, maybe they can reach their peak this year, but it feels unlikely. There will be bumps along the road and this team just looks a little too young to run over the league this year. We saw that even in a down year, Villanova can win Big East titles. That could be the case this year, but while they look like a top-3 team, I don't think they're the prohibitive favorite so many are making them out to be.

Marquette Memory: Marquette was ranked #8 in the country and atop the Big East when Dominic James went down against UConn. They lost that game and slumped to a 4-game losing streak heading into the Big East Tournament. Things started well enough as Buzz Williams' team drilled St. John's, but then they faced Villanova in the quarterfinals. After falling behind 47-31 at the half, a furious second-half rally allowed Lazar Hayward to hit a three with 1:36 to play that put Marquette ahead 75-74, their first lead since it was 3-2. Two squandered offensive possessions later and Villanova got the ball back with no timeouts and 14 seconds to play. The Wildcats played around the perimeter before Reggie Redding drove the lane with time running down. Jerel McNeal left his man, Reynolds threaded the needle to Dwayne Anderson, and a layup at the buzzer ended Marquette's upset bid. Just one more disappointing loss in a season that saw Final Four aspirations evaporate in the final month of the season.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Creighton Preview

Creighton Blue Jays
January 1, CHI Health Center, Omaha NE; February 18, fiserv.forum

Coach: Greg McDermott (207-109 at Creighton, 487-304 overall)
3-Year NCAA Rank Average: 41.0
3-Year kenpom Average: 37.7
2019-20 T-Rank Projection: 33

Projected Starters: PG Marcus Zegarowski (6'2" So), SG Davion Mintz (6'3" Sr), SF Ty-Shon Alexander (6'4" Jr), PF Mitch Ballock (6'5" Jr), C Jacob Epperson (6'11" Jr)

The Jays stumbled in their consequential non-conference games and got off to a terrible start in Big East play before rebounding to win their final five conference games & earning a NIT bid, where they were able to win a couple games before squandering a halftime lead and falling on the road at TCU. There were high hopes with everyone expected back, but on an already undersized team, the two bigs that played the most minutes, Martin Krampelj and Samson Froling, left to pursue professional options.

Creighton has a lot of offensive firepower mixed with defensive questions. Five of their top six scorers are back and transfer wing Denzel Mahoney averaged 19.3 ppg as a sophomore at Southeast Missouri State. Alexander and Ballock both have big-time scoring abilities and aside from the bigs, everyone can shoot the three. The big question mark is Epperson, who missed most of last season with injuries. If Epperson isn't ready to go, Creighton will have to rely on Idaho State grad transfer Kelvin Jones or undersized Christian Bishop, neither of whom look to be high-major centers. Size will be a challenge all year long, which could lead to another defense-challenged squad.

Offensively, Creighton is lethal. They run a spread motion offense that wants to get efficient shots up before the defense can get set. They take and make a ton of threes, as last year they finished in the top 30 in the percentage of field goals taken beyond the arc, three-point field goal percentage, and the percentage of points gained from three. As a team, they don't crash the offensive glass, but the four guys that played in the middle for them were all good offensive rebounders and shot over 60% from two. So while they're likely to only have one offensive player down low, that guy is generally going to be good at getting to offensive boards and good at converting on second chances. Defensively, they were a sieve most of last year, but that changed in the final month of the season. Collectively, the team increased their effort, closed out better on threes, and pursued turnovers. Their forced turnover rate went up, opponent three-point shooting went down, and Creighton went from having one of the league's worst defenses to the best over the final five games of conference play.

This Creighton team is a lot like Marquette's 2018 NIT team. Lethal shooters all over the floor, but questions defensively and insecurity at the center position. For them to reach their ceiling, Epperson has to do work on the offensive glass and protect the rim on the defensive end. He's shown flashes in the past, but back injuries can be tricky with big men The Jays are going to score, but running an undersized, effort-based defense for an entire season will challenge any team.

Marquette Memory:  Marquette started the season as Big East favorites, but the 2014 team was struggling to stay on the bubble when Creighton came to town in February. While the overall record was okay, losses to Ohio State, Wisconsin, San Diego State, Villanova, and Creighton meant Buzz's team didn't have that marquee win on the resume. Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge were determined to keep it that way. They combined for 47 points as Creighton started the beat-down early and never let up. The loss snapped a 3-game Marquette winning streak and began a slide that led to Buzz Williams' departure as MU lost 5 of their final 7 games. And on a personal note, it was the only time I ever saw Milwaukee Police come into the stands at the Bradley Center as they had to remove a number of rowdy, drunken, abusive Creighton fans.