After making light work of DePaul on Thursday night in the quarterfinals, UConn advanced to take on Creighton with a trip to the Big East Tournament championship game on the line. Much like the Huskies, the Bluejays are playing quality basketball when it matters and easily handled Butler 87-56 to move on to the semifinals.
When: 9 p.m. Eastern
Where: Madison Square Garden
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Line: Creighton -1, Over/Under 143.5
KenPom Predicted Score: Creighton 73, UConn 72
Even with all of the bad press surrounding the program due to head coach Greg McDermott’s racist remarks, Creighton hasn’t missed a beat. They easily handled Butler twice as of late, once to finish the regular season and again the Big East quarterfinals to face the Huskies for a third time this season.
While a full-strength Villanova may have been the Big East’s best team, the Bluejays and their No. 9 ranked offense in terms of efficiency are the toughest opponent remaining at Madison Square Garden. Creighton has the Huskies’ number so far this season, surviving a legendary 40-point performance from James Bouknight in December to steal a win in overtime and doing just enough to beat UConn at home in Omaha to sweep the regular season series.
As cliche as it is to say, it’s hard to beat a team three times, let alone a Huskies team that is arguably one of the hottest squads in the country. UConn demolished DePaul from start to finish on Thursday night, and has now won five-straight games and seven of their last eight.
Much like when these teams first met in January, the offense revolves around Bouknight but there is more balance now — four players (including Bouknight) scored double figures in the win over the Blue Demons, and RJ Cole, who had 14 points and eight assists, is playing at a much higher level than in either of these teams’ two previous matchups.
Cole, a notoriously stingy defender, might once again be the key for the Huskies to keep Creighton’s offense contained. After locking down DePaul’s Charlie Moore and holding him to just eight points, Cole has another test in First Team All-Big East point guard Marcus Zegarowski. In Cole’s first matchup with Zegarowski in January, he was an absolute pest, holding Zegarowski to 11 points and forcing five turnovers.
Next time out, Zegarowski was better with 19 points, but had just two assists while Cole was forced to carry more of the offensive load in Bouknight’s absence. With the way UConn is playing now, it certainly can hang with Creighton but Cole’s defense on Zegarowski will likely be the difference between a trip to the championship game or a bus ride back to Storrs.
When UConn has the ball
Bouknight’s health is probably the most important thing to keep an eye towards the end of the first half and start of the second. Just a few minutes after halftime on Thursday night, Bouknight had to leave due to cramps, reentered, then cramped up so bad he had to be carried from the hallway to the locker room. With just barely 24 hours to rest and recover, how will he hold up in the biggest game (so far) of his collegiate career?
UConn was well balanced offensively in their recent wins over Georgetown and DePaul, but Creighton is a better team in just about every way. Can Cole, Tyrese Martin or Adama Sanogo build off of their double-digit game on Thursday night with another strong performance? Or will the Huskies need seniors Isaiah Whaley and Tyler Polley or sophomore guard Jalen Gaffney to step up?
Outside of 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Huskies have a legit size advantage down low with the way Sanogo, Whaley and Josh Carlton have played as of late. Will UConn make a concerted effort to get the ball down low early and often, or will Dan Hurley let Bouknight cook and potentially put on another offensive performance for the ages?
When Creighton has the ball
Zegarowski is the quarterback of this hyper-efficient offense, but he isn’t afraid to shoot it from deep as well — he joins Damien Jefferson and Mitch Ballock as one of three Bluejays shooting 40 percent or better from deep.
The Huskies will have to keep an eye on all three of these shooters, who will usually be on the floor all at the same time, to limit the amount of open 3-point looks they get. If they’re open, they’re letting it fly and it’s probably going in. UConn has scored 90 points in two-straight games, but that doesn’t mean the Huskies can try and win this game in a shootout — perimeter defense will be crucial.
While the Creighton is smaller than the Huskies in the front court, they do have some elite athletes in Jefferson, Christian Bishop, and Denzel Mahoney. Jefferson is the Bluejays’ No. 2 option on offense, and can create a shot off the dribble or in the post. He’s a tough matchup, but UConn will likely cycle through Martin, Whaley and Andre Jackson guarding him for stretches.
Bishop isn’t an offensive juggernaut, but is a good athlete that’s active around the rim, so the Huskies will need to prevent him from getting easy buckets off lobs and putbacks — he scored 27 points and had seven rebounds in his two games against UConn.