"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 23, 2023

Creighton Preview, 2023-24

Creighton Bluejays

December 30, 2023 at Fiserv Forum and March 2, 2024 at CHI Health Center

Head Coach: Greg McDermott (300-150 at Creighton, 580-345 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 31.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 28.0

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 4

Projected Starters: PG Steven Ashworth (6'1" Sr), SG Trey Alexander (6'4" Jr), SF Mason Miller (6'8" So), PF Baylor Scheierman (6'7" 5th), C Ryan Kalkbrenner (7'1" Sr)

Trey Alexander, Ryan Kalkbrenner, & Baylor Scheierman anchor Creighton's core
Photo by Joe Robbins | Getty Images

Last year, Creighton came in with top-10 expectations that Cracked Sidewalks was skeptical of. Ultimately, they fell just short, finishing #12 in kenpom. However after an ugly 6-game losing streak, largely on the back of an illness to star center Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Jays played like the 6th best team in the country from December 22nd to the end of the season and made their first Elite Eight since 1941, when just eight teams were even invited to the NCAA Tournament. Creighton won the NBA Draft as Trey Alexander, Ryan Kalkbrenner, and Baylor Scheierman all returned for another season. They lost point guard Ryan Nembhard to Gonzaga and forward Arthur Kaluma to Kansas State, but will hope the additions of Utah State guard Steven Ashworth and Virginia forward Isaac Traudt will help mitigate those losses.

The first question the Jays will have to answer will be at the point guard spot with Ashworth, who was an ultra-high efficiency player at Utah State, averaging 16.2 ppg/4.5 apg with a 127.7 offensive rating. He was a high-usage player that had the ability to create for himself and others. Ashworth was the driving force of the Aggie offense as they were 23.5 points/100 possessions better with him on the floor per hoop-explorer.com. Trey Alexander proved he belonged as a Big East starter, though he was streaky, with twice as many games having single-digit points (10) as 20+ point outputs (5). When he was on, he was an elite player and will need to be more consistent to develop into a more viable NBA candidate. The biggest mystery in the lineup is who will replace Kaluma. While the departed top-50 recruit never quite lived up to his billing at Creighton, he was a reliable fifth starter for the Jays. Mason Miller seems to fit the mold as a sharpshooting wing with length and an NBA lineage, but he likely needs to add strength to be a regular Big East contributor. Up front is the true strength of the Jays. Last year we questioned if Baylor Scheierman would be able to step up to this level, and while his offensive efficiency tailed off a little bit, he was still a competent scorer and proved himself an elite defensive rebounder. Pairing him with Ryan Kalkbrenner makes for a fearsome front court as the big man led the Big East in offensive efficiency while winning Big East Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. Kalkbrenner is a dominant low post scorer who is great on the offensive glass while also being an effective rim protector, but perhaps more important is excellent disrupting the pick and roll as he uses his length well to get into passing lanes. Off the bench, Francisco Farabello is a competent backup at either guard position, Isaac Traudt is a redshirt freshman transfer from Virginia that could compete for starting minutes, Jonathan Lawson provides wing depth and Fredrick King is a physical sophomore that is a fine backup to Kalkbrenner. This team is both talented and deep.

Offensively, McDermott wants to spread the floor and let it fly. Scheierman allowed them to get back to their free-shooting ways from deep and adding Ashworth and Miller in place of Nembhard and Kaluma should lead to an even more lethal long-range attack. This team will likely be one of the most dangerous in the country in terms of getting hot from three and they have a coach that prizes ball possession and taking those shots. As a team they don't do a ton of work inside, but Kalkbrenner's offensive rebounding keeps opponents honest and his finishing ability down low means you can't just sell out to take away the perimeter. They do need Ashworth to be close to his Utah State self, and it would help if Alexander can share ball-handling duties, but the pieces are there for a truly elite offense. On defense is where McDermott's teams have really improved. That might be primarily because of Kalkbrenner. They have improved in defensive rating every year since his arrival and he should be on the short list for National Defensive Player of the Year from day one. Where the Jays shone last year on defense was playing to their strengths. They were only average at 3PFG% defense, but were top-10 in limiting attempts. Inside, Kalkbrenner was an eraser and Scheierman's rebounding took away second chances which increased the value of their top-25 2PFG% defense. That effectiveness comes from a focus on defending the man rather than taking away the ball, which helps keep their foul rate low and mitigates their lack of turnovers forced.

While we were technically right about Creighton last year in our skepticism that the Jays could go from in the 50s at kenpom to top-10 (a feat Marquette accomplished) the Jays were really close to doing just that and bring back the main reasons for their success. This was an elite team once Kalkbrenner was at 100% and they look like a team that this year should be in the top-10 all year long provided they stay healthy. Few teams in the country have as many offensive options as the Jays do, fewer have a defensive stopper like Kalkbrenner anchoring a scheme that is well-designed around him, and they boast depth that is more proven than it was entering last year. This is a team that should compete for a Big East title and be at the forefront of any discussions when it comes to National Championship expectations.

One Man's Opinion: Creighton is my pick for #2 in the Big East, though it's a razor-thin margin. On paper, there's a very real chance this is the best team Greg McDermott has ever had. While they lost Nembhard, Ashworth looks like an even better on paper offensive fit. Kaluma was their least efficient starter, and it's reasonable to think Miller or Traudt could be even better on offense. Defensively, they have improved each of the last three years since Kalkbrenner arrived and those have also been McDermott's three best defenses in Omaha. They have talent, shooting, defense, and depth at every position. They could end up being the best team in the Big East, but even if they aren't, this should be a team that spends most of the year in the top-10. Looking at their schedule, it seems possible, even probable, they will enter Milwaukee undefeated on December 30th. If Marquette wins Maui, might that be a #1 vs #2 matchup? It isn't impossible to think it might be, and that shows just how good the two teams at the top of the Big East are.

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