Entering their most high-profile game of the non-conference schedule, Arizona State and Creighton will meet in Las Vegas having rolled opposite sides of the dice in their recent contests. The Sun Devils have run out to a 9-1 record behind a seven-game win streak, but Creighton hasn’t been as fortunate at the table.
While ASU took down tournament-caliber teams in Michigan, Colorado, and Stanford, the hands the Blue Jays have been dealt haven’t been as fruitful as many expected.
Billed as one of the nation’s top preseason teams and the overwhelming favorites in the always-competitive Big East, the Blue Jays have fallen back to Earth following their big 6-0 start. Winning their first six games, including two ranked contests against Texas Tech and Arkansas in the Maui Invitational, Greg McDermott’s squad has now lost four straight, two of which to unranked opponents in Nebraska and BYU.
While the autumn wind has knocked the Blue Jays off their corn stalks and out of the AP Top 25, Omaha’s team is still one that can’t be taken lightly. One of the nation’s most prolific scoring squads, Creighton has ranked No. 29 on KenPom in offensive efficiency as their entire starting five averages scoring in double figures. While the bench hasn’t produced behind them, the starting quintet has been sensational thus far.
Sophomore point guard Ryan Nembhard is at the center of this quality group. As a high-IQ facilitator in the backcourt, Nembhard ranks 16th-best in individual assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.56, while the team as a whole ranks 13th at team turnover percentage. His floor speed can turn any game into a track meet, and the Creighton offense noticeably slowed down towards the end of last season following Nembhard’s season-ending wrist injury in late February. As one of the nation’s quickest slashers, Nembhard’s scoring role has increased since Hawaii and Arizona State will need to prevent his patented cuts and drives to the basket.
When Nembhard isn’t slicing and dicing defenses, big man Ryan Kalkbrenner has been Creighton’s best all-around player. As the team’s leading scorer with nearly 16 points a night, the junior center is currently the nation’s best shooter from the floor among qualifiers, knocking down 76% of his field goal attempts. When absent, the Blue Jays have been a different team without Kalkbrenner in the last two years. Before his injury in the Round of 32, the Blue Jays were in a second-half battle against eventual national champion Kansas. Out due to illness against BYU, Creighton was dominated down low in a stunning loss. With the 7-footer’s status still in question for tonight’s tilt, his mere presence on the court will be a game-changer not only as an efficient scorer but as one of the country’s premier shot blockers with ASU struggling to score from outside the paint.
As one of the country’s top transfers, Baylor Scheiermann has been as advertised. Built like a forward with a guard skill set, the former South Dakota State Jackrabbit can knock down shots from the parking lot and get in the paint for the misses with ease. Nearly averaging a double-double, Scheiermann’s versatility is well-used by McDermott and is a headache for teams to handle on both ends of the floor. When he’s not hitting his threes, Trey Alexander fills in with his stellar 40% mark from downtown to lead the team. Perhaps the team’s biggest X-Factor lies with Glendale native Arthur Kaluma. Coming off his biggest game as a Blue Jay with 27 points against BYU, the Jays are a combined 5-2 when the sophomore scores in the double-figures, and 1-2 when he doesn’t. Keeping the point forward from a big offensive day will be key for ASU.
In his 13th season at the helm of the Blue Jays, head coach Greg McDermott hasn’t seen his program put under the microscope of expectations until this year and so far, Creighton’s been found to have some flaws behind their flashiness. Nonetheless, he’s coached in big games before, and this is easily his most talented team since Dougie McBuckets ran Omaha. With little roster turnover from last year’s team, the Sun Devils are familiar with this bunch having toppled the Blue Jays 58-57 a year ago.
Receiving 39 votes in this week’s AP Poll, Arizona State will look to give themselves the momentum to shoot into the top 25 with a victory over Creighton. Having just barely come out on top against Creighton a year ago with a much different team to work with, Bobby Hurley and company will have their hands full as they look to go double-or-nothing against the Blue Jays in the Sin City tonight at 7 MST.