Their news conference leading up to this game ended in a draw as Gonzaga coach Mark Few and Creighton counterpart Greg McDermott lavished praise on the other’s high-powered offense.
“They’re an absolute elite offensive team, year in and year out,” Few gushed. “Greg’s brilliant with his offensive schemes.”
Countered McDermott: “They’re fun to watch. Someone that appreciates good basketball, as you watch more games of them on film it’s very enjoyable to watch because it’s the way basketball is supposed to be played.”
So, they’ll just have to settle it on the court Sunday in the Sweet 16 at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The top-seeded Bulldogs (28-0) are one victory from their fourth Elite Eight in the past six tournaments. Fifth-seeded Creighton (22-8) has only been in the final eight once – when it was an eight-team field in 1941.
The Zags are heavy favorites to move on, but the Bluejays have several components that should have Gonzaga’s complete attention.
Creighton, ranked 19th in the final poll of The Associated Press, is one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The starting five (three seniors, two juniors) have 20 years of collegiate experience and have scored 4,706 career points at Creighton.
The starters routinely log 30-plus minutes, so the Bluejays usually don’t go deep into the bench.
“I hope our experience helps,” McDermott said. “We’ve been there and the fact that we’ve played them two years ago, three of our starters were part of that game so I don’t think we’ll be surprised with their pace. That can overwhelm teams at times.”
Creighton’s offense in 23rd in KenPom’s efficiency rankings with all five starters averaging in double figures, paced by junior point guard Marcus Zegarowsk’s 15.7.
The Bluejays and Zags are among 10 teams that have had at least six games with 93 points or more this season. Of course, that’s basically an average outing for Gonzaga, which leads the country in scoring offense (92.1).
Creighton’s “ball screen continuity and ball movement is something we do also,” Zags junior guard Joel Ayayi said. “There’s obviously a lot of similarities. I think it’s going to be a good matchup.”
Creighton ranks sixth nationally in three-point attempts (788), nearly 44% of the team’s shots from the floor. The Bluejays can be streaky from behind the arc but they’re exponentially more dangerous when the three-ball is falling. They’ve had eight games with at least 30 three-point attempts.
Roughly 33% of Gonzaga’s shots are three-pointers. The Zags lead the nation in two-point accuracy (63.6%) with Drew Timme operating inside and the offense at its best in the open court.
Timme, who at 6 feet 10 has no shortage of post moves, has a size advantage in his matchup athletic 6-7 forward Christian Bishop. Creighton’s undersized post can create shots off the dribble and he’s effective around the rim.
The Bluejays also could turn to 7-foot freshman Ryan Kalkbrenner for minutes off the bench.
“We’ve been better defensively this year and that defense is going to be tested like it’s never been tested before because there’s really not a weakness in their lineup,” McDermott said.
Creighton limits opponents to 67.7 points, 40.2% from the field and 31.5% from distance. The Bluejays held UC Santa Barbara to 62 points and Ohio to 58, but the Zags present a unique set of challenges.
McDermott noted that his team is going to have to score because “we’re not winning this game 65-64.”
McDermott was asked how Gonzaga’s offense compares to the 2017 and 2018 versions that put up 91 and 103 points against the Bluejays.
“This team is one of the best passing college basketball teams that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “If you make a mistake, they’re going to make you pay for it with a pass. It’s one thing to be unselfish and another thing to be unselfish and have the ability to deliver the pass on time and in the right spot.
“That’s what makes this team different than the other two. They have multiple guys that can do that.”