When: Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023
Where: CHI Health Center, Omaha Nebraska
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn +4, over/under 142.5
KenPom Predicted Score: Creighton 71, UConn 70 — 46 percent win probability
The No. 21 UConn men’s basketball team looked like the No. 2 UConn men’s basketball team on Tuesday, in a definitive win over No. 10 Marquette. But just how ‘back’ are the Huskies? They have a chance to be Back with a capital ‘B’ on Saturday, when they head to Omaha, Nebraska to take on the No. 23 Creighton Blue Jays.
UConn’s roller-coaster season has been inverse to Creighton's. The Blue Jays—preseason Final Four sleepers — are winners of seven straight and are a far cry from the injury-plagued unit that dropped six straight in November and December. When Creighton looked fraudulent, the Huskies were barnstorming the college basketball world. And as Ryan Kalkbrenner recovered from illness and Creighton started its revenge tour, the Huskies looked like a bubble team.
UConn finally beat Creighton 69-60 — for the first time in program history — on Jan. 7, in what at that time was supposed to be a bounce-back win for a top-five team in the country. Despite a .500 record in 2023, UConn has won four out of its last five and flashed enough glimpses of the early-season goliath that had fans looking up Final Four tickets.
Throw the analytics out, because both teams are elite; Creighton is KenPom No. 9, UConn is No. 6. Both have KenPom offenses and defenses in the top 30, two of only eight teams in the country that boast such balance.
When Creighton Has the Ball
The Blue Jays have arguably the best starting five in the country. Ryan Nembhard — third in the conference in assists — is the straw that stirs the drink. Trey Alexander is a microwave scorer who shoots over 40 percent from beyond the arc. He’s racked up 102 points, 23 assists, and only four turnovers during their win streak.
Baylor Scheierman is a do-it-all matchup nightmare that hits 2.5 3-pointers per game but is also third in the Big East in defensive rebounds. Arthur Kaluma hasn’t taken the type of sophomore leap that many expected, but is a 6-foot-7 glue guy that always makes the connecting play. And then of course there’s the 7-foot-1 Kalkbrenner, who has a well-documented blood feud with Adama Sanogo for Big East Player of the Year. The pair are first and second in the conference in all-game win share, and both landed on the Naismith Player of the Year midseason watchlist. Kalkbrenner leads the conference in field goal percentage, and is good for three offensive rebounds per game.
Creighton is everything you want out of a modern basketball offense; shotmaking, offensive rebounding, spacing, and versatility. The catch? Only one guy off the bench — Francisco Farabello — plays more than 15 minutes per game.
Last time out, UConn held Creighton to an ice-cold 40 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from beyond the arc. The two teams match up well for UConn; Sanogo and Clingan can disrupt Kalkbrenner, Newton has the size to bother the 6-foot Nembhard, and Andre Jackson can do Andre Jackson things to Scheierman. However, Creighton should be expected to hit more than a pair of triples at home, so UConn’s defense will have its work cut out for them.
When UConn Has the Ball
The Huskies will need another complete game to sneak out of Omaha with a victory. The four points mustered by the bench last time out against Creighton won’t cut it again. It’s the perfect time for Naheim Alleyne to continue to revert to his Virginia Tech form; a veteran who’s played three games at Cameron Indoor won’t be fazed by the CHI Health Center.
Donovan Clingan, who was quiet last time vs. the Blue Jays because Sanogo was too busy eating Kalkbrenner’s lunch, will likely be called on more. A repeat of his stat line at Marquette —20 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks — could have the Huskies stealing one on the road.
UConn only had five turnovers versus Creighton in January, an absurd anomaly for a team that averages 12.7 per game. They blew out Marquette while coughing the ball up 19 times, so limiting turnovers isn’t a prerequisite to winning, but it does make it easier, particularly away from home. Trey Alexander also happens to lead the conference in steals.
Fouls will be vital for the Huskies. Creighton commits a nation-leading 12.8 fouls per game, incredibly impressive considering their elite defensive metrics. It starts with the rim protection provided by Kalkbrenner. Per CBS Sports, “in 86 career games, Kalkbrenner has never fouled out, and he’s finished with four fouls only six times. This season, he is averaging just 1.6 fouls per game, which has allowed him to log 31.1 minutes per contest.” Only twice this season has anyone in a Creighton uniform fouled out of a game. Not fouling is crucial for the Blue Jays, as their starters play 81 percent of their minutes.
With that discipline, Creighton can pressure the ball like maniacs, knowing if they get beat off the dribble there’s Kalkbrenner behind them as a safety valve. UConn will need to avoid the temptation to drive head-down into the teeth of Creighton’s defense, and instead focus on hitting open cutters or shooters once in the lane.
A downhill Tristen Newton means an elite UConn. In his first eight conference games, Newton averaged 3.1 free throws. In his last four, he’s racked up 7.8 attempts. When Newton or Jackson are driving, the likes of Alex Karaban, Joey Calcaterra, Alleyne, and Jordan Hawkins need to be flying to open spots on the court, ready for kick outs. The same goes if Sanogo and Clingan get the ball in the post.
Doubles to Sanogo will continue to happen, but Dan Hurley and the coaching staff have varied up how and where Sanogo gets the ball—it’s much less traditional, back-to-the-basket post-ups. Less static touches mean fewer double-teams, and his passing has improved with the tweak, with an assist-turnover ratio of 2.5 in the last five games.
Getting Jackson in favorable spots as a screener, secondary creator, and transition terror are also important. Coach Greg McDermott will force UConn to play four-on-five and sag off of Jackson along the 3-point line. Imbuing Andre Jackson’s elite qualities and negating his game-killing ones seems obvious, but if his field goal attempts creep up near double-digits, the Huskies will be in trouble.
Creighton is going to be one of the most unfair draws in the country come March. Take out their injury-plagued stretch, and the Blue Jays are exactly what we thought they would be in the preseason. UConn, on the other hand, has tantalized fans with visions of their best self. A road win here might prompt fans to revisit their Google Flight alerts to Houston.