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Bluejays, Volunteers Set for Sweet 16 Clash

by Mar 27, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

Creighton Bluejays guard Baylor Scheierman
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

When Ryan Nembhard and Arthur Kaluma opted to depart from an Elite Eight team last offseason, a return to the second weekend of the Big Dance looked like it may not be in the cards.

However, through interior development and some work in the transfer portal, the Bluejays reloaded and find themselves back in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years. The key offseason addition was former Utah State point guard Steven Ashworth, who stepped into Nembhard’s spot in the lineup and hit some big shots down the stretch of Creighton’s double-overtime win against Oregon to keep the season alive.

“It’s awesome,” Ashworth said. “It’s what I what I came here for, I came here to be playing a lot of games in March and you only get to play more games if you win more games. I knew that Creighton was a spot that hopefully I’d be able to help facilitate in that as well and be a part of it. It was cool being able to fly back Sunday and watch some basketball games and see who else is going to still be in the tournament with us as opposed to years past I was watching to see who advanced and watching sad from my couch at home. So it’s fun to kind of have a different view on things.”

The third-seeded Bluejays’ reward for taking down the Ducks is a meeting with No. 2 Tennessee in Detroit. The regular-season SEC champions are 26-8 overall and ranked eighth in KenPom.

“With no disrespect to UConn, I think they’re the best defensive team we’ve played this year,” Coach Greg McDermott said. “The numbers would indicate that — I think Houston’s one, Iowa State’s two and Tennessee’s three [in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency]. They’re elite at forcing turnovers, elite at the rim, really a lot of length across that frontline and then [Dalton] Knecht is a first-team All-American. [Zakai] Zeigler is one of the fastest point guards and most disruptive defensive point guards that we will have seen this year. So we’ve got a lot of work to do before Friday.”

Tennessee has been incredibly difficult for opponents to score on this season as the Volunteers are fourth nationally in effective field goal percentage (factoring in both 2-point and 3-point percentage accordingly) at 45%. Junior center Jonas Aidoo (6-foot-11, 240 pounds) provides terrific rim protection at 1.9 blocks per game, helping hold opponents to 44.1% shooting inside the arc. He also averages 12.0 points per game on 52.8% shooting and 7.6 rebounds per game.

Teams have taken plenty of 3s against the Volunteers but have only connected at a 30.9% rate, and Tennessee is forcing turnovers on 18.8% of possessions (68th) including an 11.2% live-ball turnover rate.

Zeigler, the 5-foot-9 point guard, is the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is consistently at the point of attack for the Volunteers’ pressure while also providing 11.7 points and 6.0 assists per game.

“I think it’s a little bit different in some ways, and sometimes it feels like a one-man press with Zeigler up there and then the length and athleticism on the backside to be able to intercept those passes,” Ashworth said. “And so it’s going to be key to make sure that we protect the ball and eliminate their transition offensive opportunities and make sure that we get the best shot possible, because we’ve seen that when we get shots on the basket we’re really hard to defend.”

Tennessee isn’t elite in any one area offensively, but the Volunteers are average-to-good nearly across the board, which equals out to the 29th-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country.

Tennessee’s headliner on offense is undoubtedly 6-foot-6 senior wing Dalton Knecht. The Northern Colorado transfer and SEC Player of the Year is averaging 21.1 points while shooting 46.1% from the field (39.1% from 3) and 76.8% from the free-throw line. Creighton has its own fifth-year senior on the wing in Baylor Scheierman, who will likely get the call to matchup with Knecht for long stretches of the game on Saturday.

“He’s been terrific, and it’s been fun to watch his progress,” McDermott said of Scheierman. “His improvement from the day he walked on campus to where he’s at now, for a guy that was 21 years old, 22 years old when he got here, is really, really impressive … He’s really gone to work and gotten better. We put him on [Jermaine] Couisnard to start the game the other night … I think that speaks to his development. If you would have told him the first day he was on Creighton’s campus that he was going to be guarding the other team’s best player to go to the Sweet 16, he probably would have told you you’re crazy. But that just speaks to his work. Obviously, he’s very confident and he plays the game in a very confident manner, but he’s also backed it up a lot.”

Scheierman experienced is gearing up for his second Sweet 16 as a Bluejay, and although his role has changed from a year ago, he’s taking the same approach with his preparation and perspective.

“I’m just going to enjoy every moment of it, soak it all in,” Scheierman said. “It’s not normal to get to a Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight. That’s what I tell the younger guys too is to really enjoy it and soak it in … Obviously, I’d like to think I probably have a little bigger role this year than I did last year. I really enjoy being in the role I’m in and kind of being one of the leaders of the team and somebody that the team and coaches look for to have the ball in their hands when it matters most. That’s what you dream of as a kid growing up.”

The Volunteers pulled out a 62-58 win over Coach Rick Barnes’ former school, Texas, in the Round of 32. Tennessee survived a 33.8% shooting performance including a 5-for-18 outing from Knecht by holding the Longhorns to 36.4% shooting and forcing 16 turnovers.

“Texas was behind eight to 10 a lot of that game and then kind of got back in it,” McDermott said. “They hit some shots from 3. Coach [Rodney] Terry worked for Coach Barnes so I think he probably knew their offense a little bit better than most of us do, so I think he was able to take some stuff away that other teams haven’t. This will be a heck of a challenge for us, but when you get to this point in the season, everybody you play is elite and everybody’s had a terrific year.

“Tennessee, I felt, even back to October and November talking to NBA scouts that kind of make the rounds through all the teams in the country, Tennessee was one of the first teams that came out of their mouths in October as a team that’s really good, and I see why they feel that way.”

Ball security is one area McDermott has highlighted as needing improvement from the first two rounds. Tennessee has also been strong on the offensive glass this season, corralling 32.8% of their misses (67th).

“We’ve had a few foolish turnovers in both of the games we played in, and now we’re going to see a team that really thrives on turnovers,” McDermott said. “Every game’s a little bit different in terms of what you really have to focus on what we think are the keys for us to have success. I think taking care of the basketball against Tennessee is 1 and then 1A is battling on the defensive glass because they’re elite attacking the offensive glass as well. But you just try to clean up some of the timing things that maybe were a little bit off in the two games you played. Most importantly you want to get to 10 o’clock Friday night healthy.”

Tipoff on TBS Friday is tentatively set for 9:09 p.m. CT, or 30 minutes after the completion of Purdue and Gonzaga.

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