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Bluejays Draw Ducks in Second Round of NCAA Tournament

by Mar 22, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

Creighton Bluejays guard Trey Alexander #23 looks to pass the ball during a game against the Akron Zips during the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh, PA March 21st 2024. Photo by Eric Francis
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

For the fourth straight season, Creighton men’s basketball has advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.

The third-seeded Bluejays took down No. 14 Akron 77-60 in Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon, earning a meeting with 11th-seeded Oregon on Saturday night. The Ducks defeated No. 6 South Carolina 87-73 in the first round.

Dana Altman’s Ducks are 24-11 and ranked 51st in KenPom. They needed to win the Pac-12 Tournament in order to qualify for the Big Dance and did just that, though some of their struggles this season resulted from significant injury issues that kept their rotation in flux.

Nathan Bittle, Jesse Zarzuela and Keeshawn Barthelemy are all on the shelf, but the Ducks will carry a five-game winning streak into Saturday with three of those wins over NCAA Tournament teams and one over a NIT team.

“[Jermaine] Couisnard and [Jackson] Shelstad are playing at a high level, and [N’Faly] Dante is a difference maker,” Coach Greg McDermott said on Friday. “When he’s on the floor, he just commands so much attention on the offensive end because you can’t guard him one-on-one, and we’ve got one of the best defenders in the country and I’m not sure we can guard him one-on-one. And defensively, he sits back there and he impacts shots … Arizona is a heck of a team. I think they’re a team that’s got a chance to be a Final Four team, and that 12, 15-minute stretch from the end of the first half till eight minutes left in the [Pac-12 Tournament semifinal] game, they just dominated Arizona, and I think you saw that on display again yesterday.”

According to KenPom, Oregon is 44th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 69th on the other end. The strength of their offense is ball security (47th in turnover rate at 14.8%) and interior scoring (76th in 2-point percentage at 53%).

The story of Thursday’s win was Couisnard, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound South Carolina transfer who dropped 40 points on his former team. He shot 9-of-13 inside the arc, 5-of-9 from 3 and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line while dishing out five assists to just one turnover.

On the season, Couisnard is averaging 16.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists, though he’s only shooting 40% from the field including 33.7% from 3.

“I don’t think you ever want to overreact to a crazy outstanding game by a player,” McDermott said. “I think everybody has them; not many have them like the one he had yesterday on this stage, but he scored at every level yesterday, and we have to make sure that, the best we can, get him to take the shots that we want him to take, not the shots that he wants to take. And that sounds easy in theory; it’s very difficult because of his size and strength and the pace that he plays with. When he’s making 3-point shots at a level like that, it’s very problematic because of all the other things that he can do.

“But we’ll give him some different looks. We’ll put some different guys on him, probably mix up our ball screen coverages so he doesn’t get comfortable. But he’s a terrific player and he’s had the game of the tournament so far.”

While Couisnard grabbed the headlines on Friday, it’s Dante, the Ducks’ 6-foot-11 center, who has been the driving force behind this late-season surge. The former 5-star prospect has dealt with injuries throughout his career but is playing the best basketball of his career by a significant margin, averaging 19.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.6 steal, 2.0 blocks and 1.9 assists while shooting 84.1% from the field in his past seven games.

“He’s terrific, and you look at their team with him versus without him, this is a team that’s grossly under-seeded,” McDermott said. “If Dana had this group of guys available all season long, he wouldn’t have needed to play in the PAC-12 Tournament to win it to get in the NCAA Tournament, he would have had a very good seed. And they’re playing great basketball right now. Dante impacts the game on both ends of the floor. He’s very physical at the rim offensively, and then he’s a tremendous rim protector on the other end, and his physicality is obviously going to be a problem for us.”

Dante is leading the team at 16.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.7 steals per game overall this season, providing a significant challenge for three-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalist Ryan Kalkbrenner.

“They’re obviously a really, really good basketball team,” Kalkbrenner said. “Looking specifically at my match-up against their big man, he’s a really, really good player; really big, really physical, good touch around the rim. So we definitely have to be locked in and prepared for this team, but I think if we do what Mac asks us to do and do the game plan we put out there, I think we’ve got a good chance.”

Shelstad, a 6-foot point guard, has had a terrific freshman season after arriving in Eugene as a top-30 recruit. He’s averaging 13.0 points and 2.8 assists while shooting 34.5% from 3-point range.

Jadrian Tracey, a 6-foot-5 wing, is averaging 7.6 points while shooting 36.6% from 3. Kwame Evans Jr., a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, rounds out the starting lineup at 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.

Defensively, Oregon provides a few different looks, which Ashworth experienced first-hand when he played against the Ducks with Utah State in the 2022 NIT.

“They have a lot of athleticism and a lot of length,” Ashworth said. “When you have perimeter guys that can get a lot of deflections and run out into transition, it fuels their offense. And I remember, playing them in NIT at Utah State, that was really what hurt us in the second half of that game. I believe we had the lead at the first half but at the second half they really came out and were aggressive and extended that zone.

“And so spacing is a key against all of that, making sure you keep your spacing and keep your movement because when teams get stagnant and pushed up the floor, they’re really, really hard to score against.”

Oregon has deployed a zone defense on 11.3% of its possessions this season according to Synergy Sports, ranked in the 74th percentile nationally in frequency. That’s something the Jays will have to prepare for with a short turnaround, though Creighton is one of the best in the country against zones, scoring 1.348 points per possession (99th percentile).

The Bluejays and Ducks drew the late start time on Saturday, tipping off at 8:40 p.m. CT (9:40 ET) on TBS with Andrew Catalon, Steve Lappas and Evan Washburn on the call.

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