NC State is in, but Creighton matchup will be an uphill climb
NC State heard its name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2018, capping a tremendous turnaround that saw the Wolfpack go from the worst team in the ACC a season ago to 1 of the league’s 5 NCAA Tournament teams in just one year.
Will the good feelings last longer than one round? NC State has the talent and balance to make noise in March, making the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2015 possible. A first-round matchup against an immensely talented Creighton team out of the Big East did the Wolfpack no favors, however, and NC State must regain the form that propelled to wins over Duke and Miami in January if it hopes to, ahem, survive and advance.
Here’s a deep dive into Creighton, the Wolfpack’s first-round opponent in Denver on Friday afternoon (4 PM ET, TNT).
Scouting the Creighton Blue Jays
Overall: 21-12, 3rd place in the Big East, At-Large bid
Creighton was the preseason favorite to win the Big East but finished 3rd, behind Shaka Smart’s Marquette and Sean Miller’s Xavier. Creighton wasn’t bad by any stretch. You don’t get a 6 seed (comfortably in the field) if you aren’t very good. They just weren’t quite the dominant team basketball folks expected, largely due to their inability to win close games. Creighton lost 4 games before Christmas by 5 points or less, and dropped 2 more such games, along with a double overtime loss to Providence, in league play. That said, Ryan Kalkbrenner is one of the nation’s most dominant bigs, Ryan Nembhard is a terrific floor general, and Baylor Scheierman, one of the nation’s most sought after transfers last season, does a bit of everything. The Blue Jays are really good, and NC State hasn’t beaten a great team since January.
Top Player: Ryan Kalkbrenner, Center
The dominant big put up staggering efficiency numbers. Per KenPom, Kalkbrenner was the nation’s: 6th most efficient offensive player, with an offensive rating of 134, 2nd-best effective field goal percentage shooter (72%), No. 1 total shooting percentage player (73%), and 89th best blocked shot guy, with a 6.2 block percentage. Kalkbrenner makes Creighton brutally difficult to guard, because he’s comfortable away from the basket, even if he isn’t necessarily a long range threat. Kalkbrenner doesn’t need Creighton to play through him, either, but he is capable of taking over a game if they elect to, as he did down the stretch of Creighton’s win over Villanova in the Big East Tournament last week. DJ Burns Jr has been terrific for NC State, but he’s better off against a more stationary big, like Armando Bacot, than a big who can comfortably move away from the hoop. This is a problematic matchup for the Pack.
What the Blue Jays do Best: Defend
Creighton led the Big East in defensive efficiency. Their ability to rebound and play outstanding defense was the key to their season turnaround after a 3-8 stretch in November and December threatened to keep them outside the NCAA Tournament. Creighton ranks 15th nationally in KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and they do that mostly by getting stops and rebounds, as the Blue Jays rank near the bottom of the sport (356th of 363 teams!) in generating turnovers. Opponents are shooting just 45% on 2-pointers against Creighton this year — one of the stingiest interior defenses in America.
Best Win: Connecticut, Feb. 11
Creighton suffocated the Huskies 56-53 in February. Not impressed? UConn spent early portions of the year ranked No. 1 in the polls and were a top 10 KenPom team all season. This was the final win of an 8 game win streak for the Blue Jays that turned their season around, and it was keyed by Creighton’s signature defense. Connecticut shot a dismal 26% from beyond the arc, 36% from 2-point range, and scored a season-low .88 points per possession in the defeat. Kalkbrenner was a monster, with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals, and a blocked shot in the win.
Most Important thing to know about Creighton
They have a tremendous formula for March success with quality bigs, great defense and talented guards. But they will likely only go as far as their guards take them, and while Nembhard and Trey Alexander ooze potential, they have lacked consistency this season. Nembhard is a guy NC State needs to dare to finish at the rim, as he has struggled to do so against physicality and athleticism this season. As for Alexander, he parlayed a 13 point, 5 assist per game point guard job after Nembhard was injured last season into a primary role with this season’s team, and averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per contest in heavy minutes this year. Like Nembhard, however, Alexander can hit three pointers but struggles to finish inside. NC State will want to dare the Creighton guards to drive and score, but the bad news for the Wolfpack is that when the Creighton guards do score, Creighton is extremely tough to beat. That’s how you end up ranking 13th nationally in KenPom Efficiency despite being a 6 seed.
Prediction: Creighton 71, NC State 61
Terquavion Smith can keep the Wolfpack in this game for a while and it’s tempting to like the physicality of Jarkel Joiner against Nembhard and Alexander. But NC State will struggle to deal with Kalkbrenner and Scheierman inside, and ultimately it will be the balance of Creighton, and their ability to get stops, that allows Creighton to pull away late.
Parting shot …
By any measure, Kevin Keatts did a tremendous job. A tournament bid after last year’s stunning last-place ACC finish was great coaching, and it’s vital to remember Keatts did that despite losing transfer Dusan Mahorcic, who was expected to play a large role and was playing 20 minutes a game inside early in the season, to injury. When Burns charged late, it was hard not to think of what this NC State team could have been with both Mahorcic and Burns able to offer big minutes inside. What happens next year, however, will largely rely on the transfer portal, especially if Terquavion Smith declares for the NBA Draft and signs with an agent. Keatts showed he could use the portal brilliantly this season.
Can he do it again and keep NC State competitive next year?