Four Notes from Creighton’s First Week
Opening day could not have come soon enough for Creighton Bluejay fans. The school had arguably the most expectations before a season, with arguably one of the best rosters in school history, and the best preseason ranking in school history (9th in the AP Poll). But after two vastly different games, one of which tested the Bluejays late and the other allowing for walk-ons to play minutes late, there is a ton to unpack from these performances.
After the first week of Creighton basketball, these are the notable components to the Creighton games that were played.
NOTE: I understand the season just started less than a week ago. I get Creighton players have played a whopping 400 minutes on the court together in official games when, in reality, they are going to play something close to 6,200 minutes this regular season. Since those are good points, it is important to take these notes with a grain of salt, and I will do my due diligence to give updates on these notes as we progress past the UC Riverside game and past the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
First, the center position looks to be solid for the Jays.
The first thing you might say is that the competition is not stout enough to make a good judgment call on the skill level of Ryan Kalkbrenner and Fredrick King, but these are still games that you need to impress with, and the center duo did just that in the second game.
Ryan Kalkbrenner went 10/11 from the field and 4/4 from the line in game two, notching a career-high 24 points and 7 rebounds, while King put up 8 point and 8 boards in the reserve role. It is encouraging to see this, especially after a flu-sickened Kalkbrenner played a relatively bad game against St. Thomas compared to what he was doing at the end of last season, and after King was not much help as a backup in his first official collegiate game.
Why am I not concerned after the first game? Kalkbrenner’s illness was hampering him, and King seems to have shaken off the nerves.
Second, shooting seems to have improved compared to last year. Last year’s Creighton team was the worst a Division 1 team coached by Greg McDermott has shot the three, and the worst any Creighton team has shot the three-ball since the advent of the three-point line in college. It did not look better against St. Thomas, where the Bluejays shot 8/34 (23.5%), making as many three-pointers as in 12 games last season, but attempting more threes than any game last season.
Against North Dakota, not only did the post play start to click, but three-point shooting did better as well: Creighton shot 12/27, good for 44.4%. Not only that, but there were multiple players who made multiple threes. Trey Alexander made 4/6, Baylor Scheierman made 2/5, and reserve Mason Miller made 2/3.
Through two games, there have been 5 times a Bluejay had made 2 or more three-pointers. Through 35 games last season, it happened 55 times, and Creighton lost the players responsible for 40 of those instances (Ryan Hawkins, 21; Alex O’Connell, 18; Rati Andronikashvili, 1).
For comparison, in 31 games during the 2020-21 campaign, they hit that mark 78 times (the only player on the current roster with any contribution to that number is Shereef Mitchell with 3 games of 2 or more three-pointers). At the current pace, Creighton is more likely to approach 2020-21’s number than last year’s number.
Third, Creighton’s pace is getting faster. Hard to judge against teams this early, but it looks like the “Let It Fly” mentality is back, spurred by confidence in their shot and the ability to play into the bench.
Think about this: Creighton played only seven players for more than 5 minutes in any postseason game, and played only six players for more than 5 minutes in the game against Kansas. Three players played full games in these five postseason games: Ryan Hawkins (3), Trey Alexander (2), Arthur Kaluma (1). Three players last season played over 1,000 minutes (Ryan Hawkins, Alex O’Connell, Ryan Kalkbrenner), compared to one in 2020-21 (Mitchell Ballock).
Greg McDermott played 15 Bluejays for 40 or more minutes last season, when he did that just 3 times in 2020-21. This can almost entirely be explained by the injury bug. In addition to redshirting Mason Miller and Zander Yates, McDermott lost Shereef Mitchell, then John Christofilis in early February, Ryan Nembhard in late February, then Ryan Kalkbrenner in March.
This year, he has a multiplicity of tools to use, which facilitates the pace McDermott wants to play at.
Fourth, the point guard play that Creighton needs to succeed is present on this team. These numbers even show themselves in the St. Thomas game. McDermott has been blessed with solid point guard play in the past several years, and this year they seem to have a tandem (like the centers) who will be able to make plays for others.
Ryan Nembhard, the reigning freshman of the year in the Big East, was good last season at distributing, but also had 3.1 turnovers per game to go along with his 4.4 assists per game. This year? 11 assists to 2 turnovers. The ratio has crept up from 1.3 to 1 all the way to (for now) 5.5 to 1. This isn’t usually sustainable, but the really encouraging thing is that backup Shereef Mitchell is doing well dishing out assists as well.
He has 5 assists without a turnover in 22 minutes as a reserve. This is especially encouraging for Mitchell’s progression as he had just 8 assists last year in 99 minutes of play across the season. He seems fresh and ready to tackle the season, along with Nembhard, in the backcourt for Creighton.