Gonzaga fans will be fairly familiar with the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 opponent in the Creighton Bluejays. After all, these teams recently played a home-and-home series during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons in which the Zags won both games and averaged 97 ppg in doing so.
The Creighton Bluejays are making their first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 1974, and their first advancing to this point in the tournament in the modern era so this is fairly uncharted territory for the program. To get to the second weekend, Creighton beat a pair of double-digit seeds in UC Santa Barbara (63-62) before comfortably dispatching the Ohio Bobcats 72-58.
Game date: Sunday, March 28
Game time: 11:10 a.m. PT
TV channel: CBS
Online: NCAA March Madness Live
Location: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Meet the Opponent
Creighton Bluejays, 22-8, KenPom #20
Greg McDermott should be pleased that his team has finally reached this stage, but the end of the season has been far from smooth sailing with three losses in the final six games before the start of the NCAA Tournament in the midst of a major gaffe from McDermott that caused turmoil within the program. The Bluejays appear to have moved past that moment, at least for now, and will be looking to avoid the same result they experienced against Gonzaga in their two (relatively) recent meetings.
Creighton’s starting lineup is old (two 22-year olds, two 23-year olds, with Bishop the youngest at 21 and 9 months) and has lots of experience. How much? Four of the starters—Marcus Zegarowski, Mitch Ballock, Damien Jefferson, and Christian Bishop—were on the roster for the 2018-19 game against Gonzaga and all but Bishop played in that game. Jefferson and Ballock both started that contest, in fact, and Ballock also played 19 minutes in the 2017 game played in Spokane. The fifth starter, 6’5” wing Denzel Mahoney, is a fifth year senior with three years of starting experience split between Creighton and Southeast Missouri State. Like Mark Few, McDermott keeps a pretty short rotation and doesn’t go deep into his bench so those are the five guys we’ll see a lot of during the game unless there’s foul trouble.
What to Watch For
Gonzaga’s size advantage
Christian Bishop starts at the “5” for Creighton, but at 6’7” he will be giving up 3-4 inches to Drew Timme. He has some length, but this should be a major matchup advantage for the Zags that shouldn’t stress the defensive matchups on the other end either since Bishop doesn’t stretch the floor when Creighton has the ball. Creighton does have a 7-footer on its bench in freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner who serves as Bishop’s backup, but his game is fairly raw and this game might be too big and too soon for him. Coming off a 30 point, 13 rebound performance against Oklahoma, Timme looks to be poised for another really big game as I don’t see too many options available to McDermott to slow him (or Anton Watson) down. One thing to note, despite not being very big, the Bluejays do a good job defending inside the arc as they hold opponents to a 45.8% shooting percentage from 2, but the Zags are such good passers that I have a hard time seeing them being forced into low percentage shots.
Defending the three-point line
While Creighton isn’t big, they do love to shoot the three ball (43.9% of their field goal attempts come from the three point line) and they do it fairly well, converting at a 36.5% rate. Zegarowski shoots 42.1% from the arc, with Ballock close behind him at a 39.5% clip. The matchups should allow Gonzaga to switch pretty much everything on defense to prevent Creighton’s shooters from finding too much daylight, though Timme shouldn’t find himself in the situations he encountered against Austin Reaves in the second round as the Zags don’t need to worry very much about Bishop being a pick-and-pop threat. We saw Creighton get hot from long distance in the matchup in Omaha two seasons ago, and they will need a prolific night from the arc to keep pace with Gonzaga’s offense.
Controlling the tempo
Creighton can get drawn into playing an uptempo game. They prefer it on offense. But as Oklahoma discovered on Monday, that is not a winning formula against this Gonzaga team. If the Zags can induce the Bluejays into a track meet, they’ll have one foot in the door to the Elite 8. Creighton does a good job of taking care of the ball, which is a good way to minimize Gonzaga’s transition opportunities, and they will need to have their best game in terms of ball security if they want to pull off an upset.