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No. 15 Creighton Men’s Basketball Set to Host No. 1 UConn for Rematch

by Feb 20, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

No. 15 Creighton Men’s Basketball Set to Host No. 1 UConn for Rematch
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

No. 15 Creighton men’s basketball will get a second crack at the No. 1 team in the country on Tuesday night when UConn visits CHI Health Center Omaha.

Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. CT on FS1.

Round one in Storrs was a decisive victory for the Huskies, who led by as much as 22 in the second half before a late push from the Bluejays to narrow the final margin.

“It’s a big game, let’s face it,” Coach Greg McDermott said. “It’s an important game as we continue to try to build our résumé. You only get so many shots during your lifetime; a lot of people never get an opportunity to play against the number one team. As an institution, we’ve never been able to beat the number one team, so to have the opportunity, I think our guys embrace that.

“We didn’t play very well at UConn, and certainly they had a lot to do with that. I think the guys are eager to try to see if we can play a little bit better and put ourselves in a position to have a chance. This is a real talented team, but I’ve got a mature group.”

The reigning national champions will ride the nation’s longest active winning streak (14 games) into Omaha and are 24-2 overall including 14-1 in Big East play. Despite losing three starters from a season ago, the Huskies’ current adjusted efficiency margin on KenPom is slightly ahead of where last year’s team finished.

“You go back to last year’s team, I think there were 8-6 in the league and I think the Big East is better top to bottom than it was a year ago,” McDermott said. “So to win 14 in a row or whatever it’s been now in this conference with a target on their back, they don’t have a lot of missing pieces. They have [Donovan] Clingan and Samson [Johnson] at the five, so they kind of give you a couple different looks, and they rotate those guards, bringing a guy like [Hassan] Diarra off the bench who is really, really talented and would start for a lot of teams. And they just don’t get shook. It appears to be a different guy every night on the offensive end and then of course, they’re elite defensively.”

The heart of that elite defense is Clingan, the 7-foot-2 sophomore center who returned from a five-game injury-induced absence in the first meeting with Creighton back on Jan. 17. Since his return, the Huskies have fielded the best defense in the country according to BartTorvik.com.

Clingan only played 16 minutes in his return against Creighton, totaling six points, five rebounds, two blocks and two assists. His minutes have ramped up recently, however, as he’s topped 20 in three of his past four and has averaged 12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 23.5 minutes per game during that span.

“He’s one of the most talented guys at the rim in the country, defensively especially,” McDermott said. “His offense, it seems like his timing has come back and they’re using him more than they did the first time we played. But he certainly had an impact on that game and the combination of he and Samson is two very different looks, but you have rim protection with both guys. If you can break down the first layer of defense, you’ve got to deal with him.”

Johnson, UConn’s back-up center, is a bouncier 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds. Whereas Clingan usually sits back in a drop, Johnson allows UConn to be more aggressive with hedging or trapping ball screens, and McDermott said the Jays will have to be ready to see both looks.

UConn is no slouch on the other end of the floor as well. Since Clingan’s return, they’re fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency. Over the course of the full season, the Huskies are fifth in effective field goal percentage, ninth in assisted field goal rate and 12th in offensive rebounding percentage.

“Their movement is elite,” McDermott said. “As crazy as it sounds, when Clingan was out and they had to go small, I felt like their screening activity and some things they did off the ball actually got better. So now you add a big back into it and they still have those reads on switches and when you’re switching, when you’re not switching, when you go under a screen, when you chase a screen. They don’t make many mistakes. You make a mistake, they’re going to make the read and they’re going to make you pay for it. They do an unbelievable job of that. They’re an unselfish team because they don’t really seem to care who gets the credit. When a team is as talented as they are, that’s a scary good attribute to have.”

All five starters average double-figure points with Cam Spencer (15.2 points per game, 44.3% from 3), Tristen Newton (15.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game) and Alex Karaban (14.6 points per game, 40.4% from 3) all within a point of each other.

In the first game with UConn, Creighton defended the Huskies as well as anyone has all season, holding them to a season-low 35.9% from the field. However, the Bluejays also gave up 18 offensive rebounds and shot 34.6% themselves, including 6-for-26 from 3-point range. The Huskies had Creighton out of sorts all game with aggressive on- and off-ball defense.

“I’d like to be able to make a pass,” McDermott said of necessary adjustments. “It seemed like we were running for our lives, and looking back on it, we got some decent shots at times that we didn’t we didn’t make. You can’t have live-ball turnovers against UConn. Some teams, they may or may not score; UConn is going to score, they’re that electric when they turn you over and attack in transition. And then they’ve just been an absolute beast on the offensive glass. We’ve got some matchups that aren’t great, so we’re going to have to fight tooth and nail and I hope it bounces to us once in a while because they’ve really dominated almost everybody on the glass.”

Creighton point guard Steven Ashworth has scored in double figures in 10 straight games after doing so just six times in his first 16 games as a Bluejay. McDermott highlighted the second half of the first UConn game as the point when Ashworth upped his aggressiveness, particularly with his scoring inside the arc.

“When talking with Coach McDermott and all the other coaches, a lot of the conversation was about just the opportunity that I’d have to play against the best,” Ashworth said. “As you come to leagues like this, just about every player has aspirations to play professionally after, and so if you want to do that, you’re going to have to prove yourselves against the best. Opportunities like this are what all of us players grew up dreaming about, so super excited for tomorrow for sure.”

Kevin Kugler and Bill Raftery will be on the call for FS1 and Creighton is promoting a “Stripe Out” effect for the game, with designated sections for blue and white attire.

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