"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

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Creighton Preview, 2022-23

Creighton Bluejays

Head Coach: Greg McDermott (276-137 at Creighton, 556-332 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 29.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 28.0

Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 23

Projected Starters: PG Ryan Nembhard (6'0" So), SG Trey Alexander (6'4" So), SF Baylor Scheierman (6'7" Sr), PF Arthur Kaluma (6'7" So), C Ryan Kalkbrenner (7'1" Jr)


Arthur Kaluma and Creighton went 3-0 against Marquette in 2021-22

Photo by Tim Nwuchukwu | Getty Images

The lasting image of Creighton from 2021-22 is a team that took eventual national champions Kansas to the limit, as the short-handed Bluejays cut a 9-point deficit down to just one with a minute to play before succumbing to the superior Jayhawks. That came on the heels of a spirited 3-2 stretch that began with them ranked #70 in kenpom entering the Big East Tournament before earning wins over Marquette, Providence, and San Diego State. Their non-conference was marred not just by a loss to a bad Arizona State team but needing second-half comebacks to beat Kennesaw State, Southern Illinois, and SIU-Edwardsville. In league play, they opened with a dominating performance over Villanova, but as good as they looked in that game, they looked equally bad in most of their losses, dropping four Big East games by 17+ points. Because of that inconsistency, Creighton finished the season 50th in kenpom, and proceeded to lose their best player in Ryan Hawkins and their only other shooter over 32% from deep in Alex O'Connell.

Where Creighton gets their optimism is in their returners. Ryan Nembhard showed flashes of brilliance before a season-ending injury, though he desperately needs to improve his shooting (31.1% 3PFG%) and turnover rate if he is going to develop into an elite Big East guard. Trey Alexander is regarded as the best NBA prospect on the roster, despite similar turnover propensity and worse shooting from deep. Arthur Kaluma has the kind of usage and all-around impact numbers that foreshadowed Justin Lewis' breakout for Marquette, though he would require a similar efficiency improvement to match Lewis' impact. Ryan Kalkbrenner is the most proven returning player, as he's a high-efficiency big that dominates the offensive glass and is won Big East Defensive Player of the Year not only due to his rim protector but in how he shuts down opposing drive-and-kick efforts. Joining them is South Dakota State star Baylor Scheierman, who on paper looks like the high-efficiency sniper Creighton needs to replace Hawkins. Off the bench, Shereef Mitchell is a defensive specialist who missed most of last season with an injury while Francisco Farabello gives another long-range threat off the bench after transferring in from TCU.

Offensively, last year Creighton was a mess. It was the first time in 12 years McDermott's offense was outside the top-66, and at 112 was WAY outside. That was in large part because they were terrible shooting from deep and turned it over way too often, ranking sub-300 in both categories. Typically, McDermott's teams move the ball quickly and effectively, putting multiple shooters on the floor and spraying in threes from a four-out attack. Last year, it was unexpectedly the defense that was Creighton's strength. It was the first time McDermott had a top-30 defense at Creighton. Kalkbrenner was a big part of that because he was effective not just at closing the lane with his length and swatting shots, but doing both without fouling. However, when it comes to the best defensive lineups, it was Ryan Hawkins and not Kalkbrenner that showed up on the floor. Just look at the on/off numbers for Hawkins:

Ryan Hawkins On/Off splits from Hoop-Explorer.com

Granted, Creighton played far more possessions with Hawkins than without him, which probably includes some garbage time, but when he went off the floor their offense and defense both went in the toilet. No other player on their team had such a drastic impact on both ends. One of the biggest worries this year has to be Scheierman, who is expected to take many of Hawkins' minutes. With the Jackrabbits, he played for teams ranked #241, #222, and #217 in defense, and did so in a league that never had a team in the top-100 of adjusted defensive efficiency.

If everything goes right for Creighton, predictions of a Big East title and top-10 ranking make sense. But there are a lot of ifs. Alexander (97.1 Adjusted Offensive Rating), Nembhard (91.5), and Kaluma (90.5) were all low-efficiency players that each need to make Justin Lewis type jumps to be what prognosticators are predicting. For context, out of 70 players that kenpom rated in terms of offensive efficiency, Creighton's freshman trio ranked #58, #69, and #70. They are literally counting on 3 of the 13 worst qualifying players in the league to have breakout seasons. And while Scheierman has some gaudy offensive numbers, he was miserable last year against high-level competition, which is all he will see this year, and has never had to play defense at this level. Kalkbrenner is a potent force on both ends of the court, but he can't do it alone. If three freshmen have breakout sophomore seasons, if Scheierman can produce on both ends like Hawkins, if their transfers and freshmen can be proven contributors, if the overall defense can return to McDermott's average levels without a noticeable talent upgrade, and if Kalkbrenner can anchor another top-20 defense, they can be what people are predicting them to be. Those are a lot of ifs.

As Jim Root from Three Man Weave noted, in the past 15 years, there have been 28 teams that finished outside the kenpom top-25 and were predicted to be top-10 teams the following year in the AP Poll, and just 28.6% of them delivered on that hope. And of those eight teams, only ONE went from outside the top-40 (like Creighton) to the top-10, and that was last year's Kentucky which added the National Player of the Year and a one-and-done first round NBA Draft pick. Creighton did not do that. This should be a tournament team but has the look more of a Big East top-half team and single-digit seed than a clear favorite. While the Kansas game left Jays fans on a promising note, last season's results as a whole, the need for so many players to have simultaneous breakout seasons, and the expectation of defensive consistency from a coach that has never shown an aptitude for that would strongly indicate they won't get close to those top-10 projections. There's a reason none of the computer metrics have Creighton in the preseason top-20. It's because jumping from #50 into the top-10 simply isn't something that happens very often, especially not without a significant talent upgrade, and in trading Hawkins and O'Connell for Scheierman and Farabello, Creighton may have gone in the opposite direction.

Marquette Memory: Marquette fans will remember it as one of the greatest buzzer-beaters they've ever seen. Creighton fans still think it should have been waved off. And despite the controversy of the shot, many fans will remember it as the night Markus Howard scored a Big East record 53 points in a game. On January 9, 2019, the #21 ranked Golden Eagles traveled to Omaha. They came in as slight underdogs and Creighton soon showed why, establishing a double-digit lead midway through the first half. In fact, after the first basket was scored, Marquette never led and was never tied during regulation. And when Martin Krampelj's free throws made it 85-80 with 8 seconds to play, the game looked over. Sam Hauser tried a three to close the gap but missed. Joe Chartouny grabbed the rebound but missed a bunny under the hoop. He managed to get his own rebound and put it back in with 0.8 seconds on the clock. All Creighton had to do was inbound the ball and the game would be over. Instead, Connor Cashaw threw a Hail Mary style pass that was too long for Krampelj and the ball bounced out of bounds, giving Marquette an inbound under the basket with 0.8 to play. Howard lofted an inbound pass to Sam Hauser, who caught, rose, fired, and hit a miracle three at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. Even slowing the video and watching frame by frame, there's never a clear image of the shot being off. It's in Hauser's hand at 0.1, then out at 0.0, but there's no frame in between that shows the exact instant of release. In overtime, Howard took over. He scored 14 of his record-breaking 53 points in overtime, including the first 11 of the extra frame for Marquette. In a reversal of regulation, once the first overtime basket was scored, Creighton never led and was never tied during overtime. Marquette went on to escape with a 106-104 victory.

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