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Marquette Basketball Preview Primer: at #9 Creighton Bluejays

We get some bird-on-bird violence to start league play for both sides.

Big East Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

RV Marquette Golden Eagles (4-2, 0-0 Big East) at #9 Creighton Bluejays (4-1, 0-0 Big East)

Date: Monday, December 14, 2020
Time: 8:00pm Central
Location: CHI Health Center, Omaha, Nebraska

Marquette Stats Leaders

Points: Koby McEwen, 15.3 points/game
Rebounds: Theo John, 8.2 rebounds/game
Assists: D.J. Carton, 3.0 assists/game

Creighton Stats Leaders

Points: Denzel Mahoney & Marcus Zegarowski, 15.0 points/game
Rebounds: Christian Bishop, 5.6 rebounds/game
Assists: Marcus Zegarowski, 6.0 assists/game Rankings

Marquette: #43
Creighton: #12
KenPom Projection: Creighton has a 70% chance of victory in this game, with a predicted score of 76-71.

Tempo Free Fun: There’s two things that immediately jump out at me when I start looking into Creighton and what the Bluejays have done so far this season. Technically, it’s just one thing, but two aspects of that one thing. The first is that Denzel Mahoney is tied with Marcus Zegarowski for the team lead in scoring so far this season. Mahoney averaged 12 points a game last season after he got out onto the court for the Jays, so it’s not weird that he’s boosted his numbers by three points per game so far, it’s just a little weird that Zegarowski, the preseason Big East player of the year, isn’t clearly Creighton’s top scorer.

The other angle on this is that Mitch Ballock is only averaging 7.6 points per game this season. He has started all five games, and he’s averaging over 31 minutes per game, but the ball just isn’t goin in the bucket for him. Ballock is primarily a long distance threat for Creighton, with three-quarters of his career attempts coming from behind the arc. He has been even more one-dimensional this season, with 30 of his 37 attempts coming as three-pointers. That’s pretty appropriate right now, because Ballock has only drained 30% of them. He was a career 40% shooter coming into the season and knocked down 44% a year ago, so this is a major dropoff for him.

Of course, now that I have pointed this out, Ballock is probably going to go 6-for-8 against Marquette, so consider this my preemptive apology for that.

Depending on your feelings about Nebrasketball, Creighton has only been tested once this season. They started off with three home games, and picked up 10+ point wins in each one. They only beat North Dakota State by 11 in the opener, but the Bison went on a 14-2 run to end the game to make it look that close and it was still a 15 point game with a minute to play. They shredded Nebraska Omaha in Game #2, and did the same to Kennesaw State in the next one. Their fourth game of the year took the Bluejays to Allen Fieldhouse to face Kansas in the Big East/Big 12 Battle series, and hooooooboy did we get one hell of a basketball game out of that. Kansas escaped with the win, 73-72, in a titanic clash after Marcus Zegarowski missed the third of three free throws nearly at the buzzer and failed to force overtime.

That’s Creighton’s lone defeat on the year, and on Friday, they bounced back with a 24 point stomping of Nebraska. That’s a game that looks as bad as it does because the Bluejays ripped off a 23-2 run in the second half to push away from a four point margin with just under 15 minutes to play. Generally speaking, it’s probably beneficial if Marquette avoids something similar from happening.

Through five games, Creighton is pretty much exactly what you’d expect a Greg McDermott Creighton team to be. They shoot more threes than most anybody in the country and they make a metric ton of their shots both inside and outside the arc, they play pretty fast because then you get to shoot even more times and who doesn’t like even more points, they don’t screw themselves out of opportunities to score by turning it over, they don’t get offensive rebounds or more accurately probably don’t care about them, and they don’t get to the free throw line because only idiots foul jump shooters, and they don’t let you go to the line, either.

The biggest change so far this season has been on the defensive end, but I’m not 100% willing to say that the Bluejays are some sort of defensive wizards this season. Let’s be honest: Their four wins have come against overmatched opponents. You don’t get extra credit for holding Kennesaw State to only 58 points, y’know? With that said, they have held every single team they’ve played under a point per possession. The three non-Major Seven foes were held under 0.90 points per possession, and they nearly got Nebraska under there, too. Kansas was their only “misstep” so far this year, and they still kept the Jayhawks under an average performance. Just barely under, but under is under. If that’s real, if that’s something that Creighton can replicate night in and night out in league play, that’s going to lead to wins more often than not with their offensive abilities.

If that defensive effort against the Jayhawks is more of a result of this year’s Kansas team not being A Kansas Team like we’re used to seeing regularly due to the NCAA investigations putting a damper on KU recruiting, well, then we still say “that’s pretty good, Creighton, but I need to see more.” It’s more of a sign of potential than it is proof of concept.

To a certain extent, this game will be entirely decided by which team’s defense is more real to this point of the season. No one thinks that Marquette is going to keep holding teams to 40% effective field goal percentage shooting all year long. Memphis was the best eFG% defense in the country last year, and they were at 41.2% and the only team below 43%. It’s great that MU has been doing it, but it’s just not sustainable over a 25 game period. Still, the Golden Eagles have held all three Major Seven teams that they’ve faced under 47% in eFG% defense. That’s going to be a trick and a half to pull off against the mighty Bluejay assault, but if we can say “eh, close enough” after the game, there’s a real chance that Marquette has pulled the upset. Marquette’s defense is more mobile and agile than it has in years past and has more length as well, so we’ll see how well they can track after Creighton’s variety of shooters.

On the other end, we will have to wait and see if Marquette’s offense decides to do Creighton’s defense some favors. MU’s two losses on the year are largely if not almost entirely because the offense just disappeared into the ether. Against Oklahoma State, the disappearance can be attributed to being confounded by the zone defense that the Cowboys deployed. On Friday night in Westwood, MU just completely forgot how to shoot three-pointers, missing all 11 attempts after halftime and thus allowing UCLA to sock the win away late.

The Golden Eagles were also incredibly fumblefingered in both losses, turning the ball over on 31% of possessions against OSU and 28% against the Bruins. The good news is that Creighton doesn’t have the tendency to even try to force turnovers. The 19.8% defensive turnover rate that the Bluejays have through five games is literally the absolute best that head coach Greg McDermott’s teams have posted in his time in Omaha. You have to go allllllllllll the way back to 2002, the first year in the database, to find a Greg McDermott team that had a better turnover rate than that. Even this “literally the best they can do” rate is currently ranked just #143 in the country. Creighton is not going to be trying to help Marquette lose control of the ball on Monday night. When MU controls the ball on offense, they win. Facing the Bluejays is going to put that statement to the test, but it’s not going to be because Creighton is forcing a lot of turnovers, that’s for sure.

All-Time Series: Marquette leads, 55-35.

Current Streak: The Bluejays swept the season series last year, so 2-0 in their favor after Marquette had won six straight before that.

Follow Along On Twitter

@AnonymousEagle - Hey, that’s us!
@MarquetteMBB - Official MU account
@BluejayMBB - Official CU account
@whitebluereview - our favorite Creighton site
@becb_sbn - our SB Nation friends that follow the whole Big East
@BenSteeleMJS - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel MU beat writer