"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

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 Christian Bishop (6'7" So)

***Updated to reflect the injury to Jacob Epperson***

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 Jays suffered a blow when they lost Jacob Epperson, who figured to start at center. That leaves them with the undersized Bishop, who showed a few flashes in limited minutes last year, or Idaho State grad transfer Kelvin Jones, who was marginally efficient for a sub-300 kenpom team. 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. The question this year is if Bishop or Jones will be up for that challenge over a sustained Big East season. 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. I initially thought they were a dark horse to challenge for the league title, but without a reliable interior presence this is a team that will live and die on making threes. I feel they went from a likely safe single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament to a team that will be more likely be on the bubble most of the year. 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.

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