Creighton bucks March Madness trend in physical South Region
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Creighton’s players watched in disbelief last weekend as North Carolina State and Baylor pulled out oxygen masks in Denver’s high altitude.
The Bluejays were in such good condition they didn’t even need them to catch their breath.
Now coach Greg McDermott will find out if his fast, sometimes frenetic offense can hold up against March’s newest darling, 15th-seeded Princeton, as Creighton vies for its first-ever Elite Eight trip.
“The guys playing a bunch of minutes are doing a good job off the floor to manage their bodies,” McDermott said Thursday before revisiting the Denver scene. “I think our guys kind of looked at that with a chuckle like, ‘Really, they’ve got an oxygen mask and we’re the ones playing faster?’”
Playing with pace is Creighton’s trademark.
It’s one reason McDermott’s son, Doug, left campus ranked No. 6 on the Division I career scoring list and how the elder McDermott took Northern Iowa to three straight NCAA Tournaments before earning eight more bids with Creighton.
Among the teams left in the South Region, Creighton (23-12) is the exception. The physical group includes the two top rebounding teams and the fourth-best scoring defense in the Sweet 16.
The Bluejays’ roster features the fewest players listed at 6-foot-8 or taller, the second-lowest rebounding average (37.0) and the lowest rebounding margin (plus-3.7) in the South. And they are the only team with five players with double-figure scoring averages.
Creighton’s next test, Friday against Ivy League Tournament champion Princeton (23-8), promises to be its biggest yet. The Tigers held an 11-2 edge in second-chance points when they beat No. 2 seed Arizona in the first round, and had an astounding 19-2 advantage in their win over Missouri.
McDermott didn’t need a video session to notice.
“Princeton does a great job of putting their body on you on the offensive glass, so we have to put our body on them first,” he said. “It’s that simple. If they get to us first and they create an angle, they create a seal, I have to hope (the ball) bounces somewhere else or they’re going to go get it.”
Princeton has a more traditional style.
Its offense runs through Tosan Evbuomwan, a 6-foot-8 forward with a potential NBA future who averages 14.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in his final season. He could be defending Creighton’s mobile 7-foot-1 center, Ryan Kalkbrenner.
Tigers coach Mitch Henderson has only one complaint about his talented big man.
“I often say to him, and we’ve spent a lot of time together, ‘I need you to influence the game physically early, right away,’” Henderson said. “He nods and then he doesn’t do it. He absorbs the game. It’s exquisite watching him play.”
After beating two higher-seeded teams last weekend in Sacramento, California, the Tigers’ toughest task Friday may be staying focused.
They’ve spent much of this week dealing with national media attention, speaking with some New Jersey’s leading political figures and getting support pretty much everywhere they go.
“I got a nice standing ovation at a restaurant back at Princeton, so that was a cool moment,” Evbuomwan said. “That was really special. I got to interact with the fans a little bit there.”
If Creighton manages to navigate its way past the Tigers, it’ll face another challenging matchup against either top-seeded Southeastern Conference champion Alabama or fifth-seeded San Diego State, the Mountain West champ.
The Crimson Tide lead Division I in rebounds (44.4) and are ranked fifth in scoring (82.4 points) and eighth in rebound margin (plus-7.3).
The Aztecs rely on a muscular, experienced lineup and a stingy defense that allows 63.1 points. San Diego State held its first two tourney opponents, Charleston and Furman, to their lowest scoring totals of the season.
But, just like last week, McDermott and the Bluejays will continue playing their game, their way.
“We’re in a good place. Our guys are very confident in their teammates’ ability to function on the offensive end,” McDermott said. “I think guys are being champions in their roles.”
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