NCAA Tournament Preview No.5 SDSU vs No.6 Creighton
The path through the NCAA Tournament
Creighton is headed to its first Elite Eight since 1941, back when just eight teams made the tournament.
Just like San Diego State, they’ve had a fortunate path in the bracket, facing double-digit seeds in two of their three games. They beat NC State by nine points in their first game before upsetting third-seeded Baylor in the Round of 32.
They then drew 15th-seeded Princeton in the Sweet Sixteen. The Tigers gave Creighton a good fight throughout the first half, but the Bluejays pulled away down the stretch. They used their size and experience to handle the Cinderellas.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for Creighton, who rose as high as seventh in the AP Poll back in December before six straight losses pushed them out of the top 25. They are playing their best basketball at the right time though, which is what March Madness is all about.
San Diego State is headed to its first Elite Eight in program history after beating the top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide.
They beat Charleston in the first round before ending upset-minded Furman’s season in the second round.
Their thrilling victory over Alabama was sparked by shutdown defense and a late run. The Aztecs outscored the Crimson Tide 27-9 to come from behind and stun Alabama.
Darrion Trammell stepped up with a huge game, scoring 21 points on 9-for-16 shooting to send San Diego State through to the regional final.
“We recruit, and we say our goal is to win a national championship, so we can’t act surprised when we have an opportunity to advance to the Final Four,” said Brian Dutcher after the win.
His team of veterans has won seven games in a row, peaking when it matters most. They’re one game away from making it to the Final Four.
This will be the ninth meeting between San Diego State and Creighton all-time and the teams’ third game in a four-season span. The Bluejays lead the series 5-3, including their overtime win in the first round of March Madness last season. It was an agonizing loss for the Aztecs, who led by eight points with two minutes to play before Creighton rallied to force overtime. The Bluejays did enough over the final five minutes to sneak out with a 72-69 win, ending the Aztecs’ season. San Diego State routed Creighton 83-52 in 2019, the only other meeting the two have had recently.
Creighton and San Diego State have several connections, though. Brian Dutcher is friends with Bluejays coach Greg McDermott, and the two teams shared a chartered plane to Maui this season.
“I told (Creighton coach) Greg McDermott, if I walk down the aisle and he’s in there watching our NCAA Tournament game, it’s going to be a problem,” Dutcher joked about the arrangement.
The two teams also share family members, as SDSU’s Adam Seiko and Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma are brothers. Kaluma, who is a starter for Creighton, matched up with Seiko often during their tournament meeting last season.
He played 31 minutes and scored ten points in the Bluejays’ win over Princeton. These two teams are very familiar with each other, both on and off the court. Creighton snuck out with a win the last time these two teams met. It’s time to see if the Aztecs can return the favor.
Like every team still in the tournament, Creighton is extremely talented. They’ve got a top-25 offense and a top-15 defense, something that only two other remaining teams (UConn and Texas) have. Their effective field goal percentage is also among the best in the nation. They make free throws very well, too, as their 78.1% shooting ranks 12th in the nation.
However, they’re a six-seed for a reason. They’ve got plenty of weaknesses that the Aztecs can exploit.
While they are good at not turning the ball over, they do not force very many turnovers of their own. They rank 330th in steal % and 359th in non-steal turnover %. San Diego State is going to have opportunities to get shots off, which will be critical for an Aztecs team that can struggle to score at times.
Creighton also shoots a lot of three-pointers, as 42% of their shots come from beyond the arc. San Diego State has not lost to a team that takes more than 38% of their shots from deep. Their prowess at defending three-pointers can be highlighted by holding Charleston, Furman, and Alabama well below their season averages.
Creighton also uses just a six-man rotation, as all five starters play more than 30 minutes a game. Francisco Farabello is the only bench player for the Bluejays who gets regular minutes. Especially after having played a game less than 48 hours earlier, the Aztecs having a deeper bench could be crucial.
Creighton does shoot a lot of three-pointers, but they also take a lot of deep two-pointers, just like the Aztecs. They do a great job of shooting from all over the floor, but their defense in the paint is lackluster. If Nathan Mensah and Aguek Arop are able to get involved in the offense, that could be huge for the Aztecs. Jaedon LeeDee could look to take advantage of a post defense that isn’t fantastic as he seeks to break out in the NCAA tournament.
Player to Watch: Ryan Kalkbrenner
Two-time Big East defensive player of the year Ryan Kalkbrenner, is the Bluejays’ best player. He’s a behemoth, measuring up at 7’1”, but he’s able to control both sides of the floor. He posted a team-best +8.41 PIPM (Player Impact Plus-Minus), including a +5.82 O-PIPM. He showed just how talented he can be in Creighton’s win over Princeton.
“We (Princeton) hadn’t seen Kalkbrenner’s agility and speed, the way they were getting him the ball in different positions.”, said Tigers coach Mitch Henderson. He added that he “thought (Kalkbrenner) was the key.” Kalkbrenner posted 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting while adding five rebounds for Creighton in their victory over the Tigers.
San Diego State will be more experienced in dealing with tall and imposing athletes than Princeton was, but Kalkbrenner will present quite the challenge for Mensah, who is 6’10”. He averaged 15.9 points this season on an incredible 70.8% field goal percentage. That ranks second best in the nation, making him one of the most efficient scorers in the country. He had a monster game against NC State in the first round, scoring 31 points on 14 shots against the Wolfpack.
“He’s just improved in every facet of the game, and he was able to score on (DJ) Burns. But then when they had to go small, we did a good job of executing some offense to get him the ball around the rim, and then he did the rest.”, said McDermott after the win.
His ability to adapt to a variety of situations makes him extremely difficult to stop. The Aztecs will need to find a way to limit Kalkbrenner’s production without leaving shooters open from beyond the arc.
Key to the Game: Wear Creighton Down
It’s been a long season for both teams. Sunday will be the 37th game for each team. It’ll be their second game in under 48 hours, which is always a difficult task. That’s where the Aztecs’ depth can make a massive difference. Creighton’s six-man rotation is extremely talented and is going to score points. However, San Diego State’s nine-man rotation is solid and consistent, which will help them throughout the game.
All of Creighton’s starters except Kaluma average 30 or more minutes a game, and Kaluma averages 29. Farabello finds himself on the floor for 15.9 minutes a game. No other Bluejay spends ten minutes a game on the court.
The Aztecs don’t have a single player who plays more than 27 minutes a game, and they’ve got nine who play at least 15 minutes. Since San Diego State is willing to play with any five of their nine on the court, they have a lot of different lineups they can use to shut down whatever the opposition is doing.
If San Diego State is able to stay close during the first 30 minutes of the game, they’ll be in a better position for the final ten. They closed out Alabama over the last ten minutes, they can do the same to Creighton.
Sam is a Senior in High School. He has been writing for three years, and started at EVT in June of 2021. He’s headed to Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Communications in the fall of 2023.