Team: Creighton Bluejays
2022-23 Record: 24-13, 14-6 Big East
2022-23 Big East Finish: Third, one game behind Xavier and one game ahead of the UConn/Providence tie for fourth.
Final 2022-23 KenPom.com Ranking: #12, up from their preseason ranking of #23
Final 2022-23 T-Rank Ranking: #13, up from their preseason ranking of #22
Postseason? After losing by 22 to Xavier in the Big East semifinals, the Bluejays had a great NCAA tournament run. Coming in as a #6 seed, they knocked off #3 seeded Baylor to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, then took advantage of Princeton advancing there as well to get to the Elite Eight. Only eventual national runner-up San Diego State was able to slow Creighton down from reaching the Final Four, and even then, the game was tied with less than a minute to play.
Key Departures: For a team that finished the year at #12 in KenPom, just barely outside the AP top 25, and minutes away from the program’s first ever Final Four, we have to admit it’s a little weird that the Bluejays are losing three guys who had eligibility remaining, and none of them were NBA Draft picks. Shereef Mitchell was the least impactful of the three this past season, and also perhaps the least surprising departure. After missing most of the 2021-22 season with an injury, Mitchell played in 36 of Creighton’s 37 games this past season, but only saw 7.3 minutes a night. That actually puts him kind of outside the normal parameters for what we’d consider a “key” departure, but playing almost every single night does earn him some leeway. Those minutes are a big drop from the double digit minutes he was playing in his first three seasons in Omaha, and so if he’s off to Ohio on a grad transfer, you can’t really blame him for wanting to have a big role to end his collegiate career.
The other two key departures do make us ask questions as to what’s going on in Nebraska. Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Nembhard just finished up their sophomore seasons at Creighton this past year, and then they both hit the transfer portal. Kaluma is off to Kansas State, while Nembhard landed at Gonzaga for his final two years of eligibility. Both men started all 37 games this past year, just like they both started every game they were healthy for as freshmen. Nembhard averaged 12.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, and a team high 4.8 assists per game while knocking down 36% of his long range attempts. Kaluma played a little bit less than Nembhard, just under 30 minutes versus 34 minutes a night, but added 11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.6 assists. I’m all for guys making whatever decisions make the most and best sense for them.... it’s just that you don’t usually see sophomores who start and play big minutes electing to leave teams that came a breath away from the Final Four.
Key Returners: Five men started and played more than 35 minutes each in the Elite Eight loss to San Diego State. Three of them are back in 2023-24.
The most notable returnee to the squad is Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton’s 7’1” center. The Bluejays went 24-10 with Kalkbrenner in the lineup last season, and you could maybe make an argument that they were 24-8 with Kalkbrenner at 100% power. He missed three games due to mono and Creighton lost the two games immediately before Kalkbrenner actually sat out. He led the team in scoring in his 34 starts, going for 15.9 points per game, and added 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 2.1 blocks a night.
Baylor Scheierman is probably the most surprising returnee to the roster of the three big names, as he was on his fourth year of eligibility after his much bally-hoo’d transfer in from South Dakota State. He didn’t quite have the impact on the Bluejays that he did on the Jackrabbits, as he saw declines in pretty much every statistical category, whether that’s counting stats or shooting percentages. That’s not to say he wasn’t a big part of CU’s success, anyone who averages 12.8 points, a team high 8.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists while shooting 36% from long range as a 6’7” forward is clearly doing a lot of good things. It just wasn’t the sparkling numbers he was able to put together in the Summit League.
We round out the talk of the Elite Eight starters with Trey Alexander. Did you realize that he was second on the team in scoring this past season at 13.6 points per game as a sophomore? I wouldn’t have gotten that in three tries, but it’s true. The 6’4” guard knocked in 41% of his long range attempts and added 4.2 rebounds along with 2.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
From here we have to start playing a game of “where do we stop calling someone a Key Returner?” I think Francisco Farabello clearly falls on the good side of the line, playing in 34 games, all of the bench, and averaging just short of 16 minutes a night. I’m going to include Frederick King on the good side as well even though he only averaged 8.4 minutes per game. He still played in every single contest, and when Kalkbrenner was out of the lineup, the freshman big man started and averaged 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in 24 minutes a game. Does Mason Miller get to be on the good side or bad side of the line? Played in 36 of 37 games.... but averaged 2.3 points and 1.6 rebounds in nine minutes a game. Is that notable? I’m seriously asking.
Key Additions: There are four freshmen on the roster, but we’re just going to fast forward past all of them as none are in the top 150 in the country according to 247 Sports. Heck, 247 doesn’t even list two of the first year guys, and neither does On 3 for that matter.
In that case, we move on to the transfers. Isaac Traudt (6’10”, 235 lb., Forward, Grand Island, Nebraska) is the biggest mystery of the transfers, as the former top 100 prospect redshirted for Virginia last season. That’s not a surprise given Tony Bennett’s system, nor is it a criticism of Traudt in the slightest. It’s just an acknowledgement that we don’t know what he looks like as a college player. On the other end of the spectrum is Steven Ashworth (6’1”, 170 lb., Guard, Alpine, Utah), who comes in after three years at Utah State. He had a big time season for the Aggies this past year, averaging 16.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game while knocking down 43% of his long range attempts.
Johnathan Lawson (6’6”, 188 lb., Guard, Memphis, Tennessee) got a decent amount of playing time as a redshirt freshman at Memphis last season, playing over 15 minutes a game in 29 appearances. His minutes were kind of all over the place for Penny Hardaway though, and perhaps that helps explain 1) his contributions of just 3.4 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists as well as 2) the reason why the Memphis native isn’t with the Tigers any more.
Coach: Greg McDermott, entering his 14th season in charge of the Bluejays and 23rd season in Division 1. He has a record of 300-150 with Creighton and 580-345 overall when you add in his years in Division 2 as well.
Outlook: If you sat there on the morning of the national championship game in April and took the full view of everything that happened to Creighton last season, it would have been easy to pick them to win the Big East in 2023-24. If you were feeling spicy about the entire thing, you could even say that the Bluejays were your pick to win the NCAA tournament in 2024, and nobody would even have been able to tell you that you were obviously wrong.
And then things changed, and within about a month, Creighton lost their starting point guard and one of their starting forwards to the transfer portal. Once again, the fair reaction to that information was “what the hell is going on in Omaha?” as well as downgrading the Bluejays from their position as favorites in the Big East and in the conversation as a national championship contender. You can like Greg McDermott’s tenure as head coach all you want, in terms of results on the court at least, but the fact of the matter is that you shouldn’t be considered a big time contender when you lose two sophomore starters. That becomes even more relevant when you realize that this was a team that had their five starters playing 29 minutes or more a night and only one bench player was getting at least 10 minutes of run per game, too. There’s just not enough there any more to think of Creighton in that way, right?
The logic seems to hold up.
The math, apparently, does not.
BartTorvik.com has Creighton installed as the #4 team in the country heading into next season, at least right now. That’s just a shade behind Connecticut as the best team in the Big East, and if you’re preseason top five, you’re clearly a national championship contender.
This has to be a “well, sure, if” situation. If Steven Ashworth is a legitimate Big East point guard, then Creighton’s got something going on. He was ranked just #167 in the country in assist rate last season according to KenPom.com, but that was #6 in the Mountain West. But that can work for the Bluejays in McDermott’s offense, as Ryan Nembhard was #177 and #9 in the conference. If Isaac Traudt can be a 4 and play with Ryan Kalkbrenner, then that gives the Bluejays an awful lot of size to contend with on the inside. We just don’t know if he can step in after a year away from competitive basketball and do that.
Can Mason Miller and Frederick King make a jump and alleviate some of the minutes workload from the Bluejays’ starters? Is McDermott’s Let It Fly style of offense better off without Arthur Kaluma hurking up 132 three-pointers with a conversion rate of just 31%?
There’s questions to be answered that we can’t even try to have a solid opinion on until we see the Bluejays on the floor in November.
If you want to take the optimist’s view of it without seeing those results, the fact of the matter is that Creighton’s going to get a chance to figure it out. They won’t leave Omaha until November 22nd, and sure, they host Iowa in there but that’s not a “inspire fear” in you game. Even less so for the three teams they might see in their multi-team event: Boston College, Loyola-Chicago, and Colorado State. Oklahoma State in Stillwater? Perhaps their first real challenge, but that’s a winnable game for the top five team that T-Ranks says that they are. At Nebraska? Okay, yes, they fell apart down the stretch at home against the Huskers last year, so who knows. They will get Alabama at home right before Big East play starts, but that’s their only legitimately scary non-conference game, and it comes after they’ll already have 10 games of smoothing out the rough edges.
Not only are they going to have time to figure it out, but I think we can trust Greg McDermott to do exactly that. I know I installed myself as a massive doubter in his sudden interest in coaching defense after finishing with a KenPom top 40 defense in 2021, the first time his teams had done that since 2006. The fact of the matter is that Creighton has been a top 20 defense in each of the past two seasons, and Kalkbrenner anchoring things in the middle, I think we can expect that to continue at this point. Even better than that, Creighton got their offense back on track last season, finishing #23 in the country per KenPom. That’s a nice bounce back from their #112 finish in 2022, and much more in line with what we expect to see from the Bluejays year in and year out.
I feel more than safe thinking that Creighton will be a good basketball team this coming season. I feel comfortable saying that they should believe that they’re an NCAA tournament team, since the mere existence of Kalkbrenner, Alexander, and Scheierman should carry them to more than enough wins. One of the five best teams in the country? I’m going to need to see it before I feel comfortable thinking a team losing this much to transfers is capable of doing that.