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No. 3 Creighton Opens NCAA Tournament Thursday Against No. 14 Akron

by Mar 20, 2024Creighton Mens Basketball

No. 3 Creighton Opens NCAA Tournament Thursday Against No. 14 Akron
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

It’s NCAA Tournament time for Creighton men’s basketball as the madness begins in earnest for the Bluejays on Thursday afternoon.

Third-seeded Creighton will take on No. 14 Akron in the first round in in Pittsburgh at 12:30 p.m. CT.

The Bluejays got their first look at PPG Paints Arena during Wednesday’s open practice and preview press conference.

“You just try to soak it all in,” Trey Alexander said of his third NCAA Tournament experience. “You never know how many more of these you’ll have … It’s just been a great experience for me throughout my college career, just being able to play in the NCAA Tournament for the past three years. Never take it for granted and just give it our all and be able to leave everything out there.”

Creighton’s NCAA Tournament run ended one possession short of the Final Four a year ago. Once Alexander, Baylor Scheierman and Ryan Kalkbrenner all decided to return to Creighton for another year, Coach Greg McDermott said he began hammering home the importance of every single possession, and that point of emphasis has carried them throughout the season.

“That’s kind of been our mantra since we’ve started the season is like ‘this possession really matters,’ and that only works if your leadership buys into it … We’ve had some practices that are better than others, but we’ve had 90-some practices and we haven’t had a bad practice, and that speaks to the leadership in our locker room,” McDermott said. “When a practice gets off to a rough start, they have a way of kind of rallying the troops and making sure we get something out of it and we get better that day. So the leadership in my locker room is as good as it’s ever had and it’s a big reason we’ve had the success we’ve had this season.”

The Zips went 24-10 this season, barely squeaking by Kent State in the MAC Championship Game to secure its NCAA Tournament bid. Even so, McDermott sees a dangerous foe, one led by a coach who has guided his team to impressive NCAA Tournament showings in the past.

“You understand why they’re here by watching them play,” McDermott said. “Obviously they led the MAC in defense and you can see why. Very physical, defensive team, very connected on the defensive end and then a rim protector in [Enrique] Freeman at the basket that makes things tough around the rim. And they’re experienced. Freeman, [Ali] Ali, [Greg] Tribble and [Mikal] Dawson all played in this tournament two years ago, took UCLA to the wire in a first-round game. So not often when you play a team from a mid-major league are they going to have that kind of NCAA Tournament experience, but a very good basketball team. I’ve known John Groce for a long time. He’s been terrific everywhere he’s been and has done a great job with that Akron program.”

As McDermott said, Akron posted the best adjusted defensive efficiency ranking in the MAC this season, good for 96th nationally according to KenPom. Teams have had a difficult time hitting perimeter shots against the Zips this season (30%, 13th-lowest nationally), though they’ve allowed opponents to shoot 50.7% inside the arc (195th).

Akron’s strength offensively is its interior scoring as the Zips are 32nd nationally in 2-point percentage at 54.7%. MAC Player of the Year Enrique Freeman and All-MAC first-team wing Ali Ali lead the way at 62.3% and 59.5%, respectively.

“They’ve got a really good team,” Alexander said. “They’ve got two guys on the first team of their conference. Obviously Enrique was the Player of the Year, he’s had a really good season. We played against Ali Ali last year when he was at Butler, so we know those are two pretty talented guys and they have some nice, quick guards that can get to the rim and shoot a little bit from the outside. So it’s going to be fun. They have a really good team.”

Freeman is listed at 6-foot-7 and 206 pounds but averages 18.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 37% from 3 on 1.4 attempts per game. Despite his size, nearly half of Freeman’s possessions come in the post as the Zips play through him on the block nearly every time down the floor.

“He’s elite at creating angles and he does so much work before the pass is made that his job is easy once he catches the basketball,” McDermott said. “So that’s going to be a challenge for our defense is to make sure we somehow stay between him and the basket, because if he gets you on an angle, it’s over. And he’s got an incredible second jump. So he gets back to the rim the second time very quickly, which obviously makes him a very effective offensive rebounder.

“But he’s really, really talented. And he’s shifty enough that he’s got a way of really drawing fouls, and he’s — I don’t know who leads the country in free throw attempts but he’s got to be in the top 10; he shoots a lot of them. But very complete with his game, scores over both shoulders, he shoots it well enough from 3 that you have to respect that. Just a terrific player.”

Freeman grabs 3.6 offensive rebounds per game and shoots 6.7 free throws per game. His frontcourt partner, 6-foot-9 Sammy Hunter, is primarily a 3-point shooter, averaging 8.8 points and shooting 36.4% on 4.9 3-point attempts per game, spacing the floor for his talented teammate,

Freeman is a tough matchup, one Kalkbrenner will likely be responsible for.

“We know Freeman is a super, super talented player,” Creighton’s 7-footer said. “The coach on the team does a really good job of drawing plays up to get him the ball and get the ball in good spots down low. So you definitely have to be well prepared and really locked in against a player like that. So I’ll just be watching a lot of film of him. I’ve been watching a lot of film, we’ll watch a bunch tonight to be as ready for him as possible.”

The 6-foot-8 Ali is averaging 15.6 points and a team-best 2.8 assists. Greg Tribble, a 6-foot-3 guard, is chipping in 10.5 points and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 36.8% from deep. The top eight in Akron’s rotation are all seniors and juniors.

Creighton fans who made the trip to Pittsburgh will see a familiar face if they stick around for the second game if the afternoon session at PPG Paints Arena as the Dana Altman-led Oregon Ducks, the 11 seed in the Midwest Region, will face No. 6 South Carolina. The winner of the game will face either Creighton or Akron in the round of 32, but at least for Thursday, McDermott expects plenty of fan support from the Bluejay faithful for their former coach and the Ducks.

“Dana is still beloved in Omaha and he always will be … I know Oregon is going to have a sea of blue cheering for them on Thursday afternoon because of the way Dana is respected in our community,” McDermott said.

Thursday’s game will be televised on TNT with Andrew Catalon, Steve Lappas and Evan Washburn on the call.

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