Wagner vs. Creighton: 3 Questions

The NCAA tournament may be in full swing, but Wagner is still playing in the NIT. The Seahawks hopped on a plane in Buffalo, NY and headed straight to Omaha, NE after upsetting St. Bonaventure.

What awaits is a game at a Bluejays team that Ken Pomeroy’s ratings thinks is one of the best in the country (at 44). Because Creighton isn’t a team that many Northeast Conference fans have probably seen this season I asked Patrick Marshall from White & Blue Review to tell us about the Bluejays. (You should also check out their primer.)

1. I know from looking at Creighton’s profile for NIT bracketology that the Bluejays have some really nice wins (Seton Hall, Butler, Xavier, now Alabama). Overall how do fans feel about this season?

Well, it might depend on where you look to get your information, but generally, things are pretty positive about this season. Obviously, the standard for Creighton is to be in the NCAA Tournament which was established again during the Doug McDermott years. However, after last season, the only way to go was up.

To most, the Bluejays exceeded expectations after being predicted to finish 9th in the Big East.  They did end up finishing 6th in the standings but were sitting in the top 4 or 5 all season long in conference play. There were a lot of unknowns headed into the season with several players seeing the court for the first time, (Khyri Thomas), a JUCO player (Malik Albert), recovering from a season ending surgery (Isaiah Zierden) or sat out last season as either a redshirt (Ronnie Harrell) or transfer (Maurice Watson & Cole Huff). Honestly, it took a little bit for this team to gel and to get in synch with each other as well as letting the game come to Maurice Watson, who has been the team’s most vocal leader. James Milliken came on strong in the second half of the season like last year, and Geoffrey Groselle has been solid in the post.

While the Bluejays faltered down the stretch losing 5 of their final 6 games of the regular season and the Big East tournament, there was definite growth. The opportunity to still play at this point is a great opportunity to get ready for the 2016-17 season. It gives Thomas, Harrell and Albert more experience as well to get ready for next year. They can also finish with a lot of confidence showing the fans they fought hard at the end of the season.

2. Creighton’s offense is ranked 71st in KenPom and 35th in time per possession, which is really impressive. How does the offense work? Who/or what will Wagner’s stingy defense need to shut down?

As mentioned above, Maurice Watson has been the talk of the town since he came to Omaha. A lot of hype surrounded his arrival after sitting out last season after transferring from Boston U.  Expectations were high and part of the fanbase was a little impatient after the first few games.  However, he settled in and has been the focal part of the offense. How he goes, it seems the Creighton offense goes. A combination of speed to the basket as well as the ability to spread the ball around to Creighton shooters helps this offense go.

No one has talked about it much this season, but the elimination of the 5-second closely guarded rule has benefitted people like Watson quite a bit. He can take his time deciding how to go about creating something on offense. If Wagner wants to focus on something specific for defense, it might be trying to stop Watson. Big East teams had success with packing the lane a bit forcing some quick decisions when driving to the basket.  However, having a security blanket of Groselle in the post, he can clear out space for Watson or get the handoff for the score. It may seem like things are pretty focused on Watson, but James Milliken can make plays on offense as well driving to the basket for a different look.  But Wagner will need to pick its poison. If the Creighton shooters are hot from the outside, then they will be in trouble.

3. What do you think is Creighton’s biggest weakness? How can it be exploited?

When it comes to weaknesses, the biggest weakness not just this year, but last season was the ability to close out close games. In games decided by 6 points or less this season, the Bluejays are 2-7.  Get a couple of the wins against Arizona St., Loyola, both games vs. Providence, Xavier, or Georgetown, and this is an NCAA Tournament team. The ability to close out games has fans scratching their heads at times as McDermott drew up some great plays out of timeouts and down the stretch during the Doug years, but the past couple the plays haven’t been as effective and the substitution patterns have been suspect. If Wagner can play a close game down to the wire, then it is anyone’s game.

Bonus: Is it really frustrating to know that your team played the RPI game really poorly? The Bluejays are 48th in KenPom and almost double that in RPI. So I guess you’re used to beating mid-majors at home?

Three years into the big East, I think getting that great balanced schedule is still a work in progress. The game at Loyola was a holdover return game from Bracketbusters several years ago, North Texas was part of a H/H when Creighton thought they were trying to add a higher caliber opponent three years ago for the home opener. The MTE with Rutgers and UMass wasn’t as good as they could have gotten obviously with the seasons they had.

It is somewhat frustrating, but at the same time, being in the Big East has its benefits now.  Having the Gavitt Games with the Big 10 is great. Creighton would never have gotten a Home/Home with Oklahoma or Arizona St. a couple years ago. There are a lot of opportunities available, but getting back to the level of a couple of years ago I think was the focus this year. With Marcus Foster, who transferred from Kansas St, in the mix next season and a lot of key players returning, I will be really frustrated if the schedule doesn’t have a little more teeth to it.

But yes, bring a mid-major to Omaha and the Bluejays like to eat them up. Creighton doesn’t get many NEC schools to town.  We’ll see what Wagner can do against the Bluejays on Saturday morning.

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