Creighton Basketball: Keys to Bluejays' 2012 NCAA Tournament Run
While most of the college basketball world was busy slogging it out during Championship Week, the Creighton Bluejays were maxin' and relaxin' back in Omaha, savoring the sweet flavor of their Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title and awaiting their seeding fate for the NCAA Tournament at the hands of the almighty Selection Committee.
Well, the time for takin' it easy has come and gone, now that Creighton, armed with an eight seed in the Midwest Region, has a clearer picture of the path it must travel if it's to shoehorn its collective foot into Cinderella's glass slipper.
In just his second season on the job, head coach Greg McDermott has the Bluejays back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2007, when they lost in the first round to Nevada.
McDermott and the Jays can thank Doug McDermott, the coach's son and MVC Player of the Year, for fueling the team's rapid rise back into March Madness. The sophomore from Ames ranked third in the nation in scoring and carried Creighton on the boards.
And lest you think their 28-5 record is simply the byproduct of playing in a mid-major league, consider that the Jays notched key nonconference wins against San Diego State, Northwestern and Long Beach State, all of whom could make the 68-team field as at-large participants.
So what does Creighton have in store for the rest of the month? Read on to find out!
Superstars Who Must Shine
As mentioned previously, any discussion of Creighton's NCAA hopes begins and ends with Greg McDermott. The 6'7" forward paced the Bluejays in scoring (23.2 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg), and not simply because he's the coach's son.
Folks, this kid can play. Need proof? Check out McDermott's shooting percentages—61 percent from the floor, 49.5 percent from three, 79.9 percent from the free-throw line.
Not bad for a cornfed kid who played second fiddle to Harrison Barnes in high school and nearly wound up at MVC rival Northern Iowa.
Of course, McDermott can't do it all by himself. Even he can only get by with a little help from his friends, particularly Antoine Young. The senior point guard has been a steady leader up top for the Jays all year long, chipping in 12.1 points and 2.1 rebounds along with 4.5 assists.
Creighton will need young to control the action in the backcourt while McDermott gets his work done up front if it's to sneak by the likes of Alabama and North Carolina amidst a deep tournament run.
Role Player Who Must Emerge
Having two top-tier scorers like McDermott and Young is great for Creighton's tourney hopes, but the team won't get very far unless it has someone who can do the dirty work against some of the best teams in college basketball.
Enter Gregory Echenique. The 6'9" Venezuelan center has been a steady presence in the middle throughout his collegiate career between Rutgers and Creighton. He's settled quite well into a hustling, defensive role alongside McDermott up front for the Bluejays, averaging 9.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while making big plays without the ball.
Echenique's size and length (not to mention his goggles) give Creighton a sneaky advantage over most potential opponents and may prove to be the X-factor in a trip to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Offensive Strategy to Watch
Creighton's latent greatness is predicated on its ability to score from the inside out and spread the wealth. The Bluejays rank among the top 10 in Division I in a slew of offensive metrics, including scoring (sixth), field goal percentage (first), three-point percentage (third), assists (third) and assist-to-turnover ratio (seventh).
In other words, the Jays don't waste possessions, and it shows if you look up and down their roster. They sport two experienced ball handlers (Young and Grant Gibbs), a post presence (Echenique), a collection of strong perimeter shooters (Jahenns Manigat, Ethan Wragge and Josh Jones) and of course, a dual-threat scorer in McDermott.
'Bama will have to pick its poison against the Jays in the Round of 64, as will any and every opponent in Creighton's path should the team advance deeper into the tournament.
Defensive Strategy to Watch
Defense isn't exactly Creighton's forte, to say the least. The Bluejays rank 200th or worse in scoring defense (238th), field-goal percentage defense (215th), three-point defense (236th), blocks (288th), steals (323rd) and turnover margin (278th).
All of those numbers point to a team whose focus isn't all that acutely trained on forcing turnovers and contesting shots.
For Creighton, then, the best defense may, in fact, be a steady, efficient offense, if only because it's not particularly good at anything else.
Biggest NCAA Tournament Hurdle
The Bluejays have struggled to defend quick guards all season, and as such, may find stopping the likes of Andrew Steele and Trevors Releford and Lacey of the Crimson Tide in the Round of 64 to be a rather tough task.
That being said, Creighton should survive and advance to the weekend, when it'll be pitted as David to the Goliath of top seed North Carolina. Aside from the obvious intrigue of Doug McDermott matching wits with Harrison Barnes, his former high school teammate, the Jays will struggle to handle the Tar Heels' gifted front court, especially if John Henson's wrist isn't too much of a hindrance.
Not to mention the challenge Creighton's guards will face in defending the crafty Kendall Marshall.
Last-Second NCAA Tournament Prediction
The Bluejays will find their way out of the frying pan against 'Bama and into the Tar Heel blue fire, precipitating a somewhat disappointingly early exit for the most talented team that Creighton has fielded since the sweet shooting days of Kyle Korver.