The Aztecs have made it to the tournament once again. For as many great teams as SDSU has had over the last decade, they have not won a tournament game since 2015 when they beat St. Johns in an 8/9 matchup. They have a chance this year to correct that, and if they do will likely face Kansas in the second round.
General Observations –
Creighton is somewhat similar to the Aztecs in the sense that they are very good defensively and not as good offensively. The game will likely be another rock fight similar to the ones Aztec fans have gotten so used to this season.
The Blue Jays rank 18th in the nation defensively despite not foring very many turnovers. They force a lot of misses. They also rarely commit fouls. Their offense suffers from giving the ball up 20.5% of the time and shooting less than 31% from behind the arc.
How to defend Creighton –
Creighton’s offense runs through their two big men. They are the leading scorers on the team, and get most of the shots. Notice below that their most effective actions are related to their big men.
Kalkbrenner is the main threat. He is the second leading scorer in the team by 0.9 PPG, but is by far the most efficient. He is very good at posting up and finishing over defenders. He is not the flashiest player, but has solid moves and excellent touch, even over good defense.
Creighton also runs him off screens to gain separation from defenders and help him get advantageous position. Below he runs off a screen and is able to seal his defender to get an easy bucket.
Nathan Mensah is more athletic and fleet of foot, so he has the capability to give Kalkbrenner problems. The Aztecs also have a lot of big man depth in case someone needs a rest or gets in foul trouble. Kalkbrenner will get his points, but as a unit the Aztec bigs should be able to make him less efficient.
What will be interesting is if the Aztecs decide to switch ball screens the way they’ve done all season. The ability to switch defenders without losing much on the perimeter is part of what makes this defense so dangerous. Doing so will hurt the Aztecs inside though. Expect them to play similar to how they played against Orlando Robinson. They’ll switch sometimes but try to keep their bigs assigned to Kalkbrenner, while double teaming him after he turns his head.
With Kalkbrenner accounted for, the next biggest threat is Ryan Hawkins. He is a 6’7” power forward who is athletic, and capable of scoring at the rim as well as behind the arc. Creighton uses him in a multitude of ways. They post him up with Kalkbrenner on the weakside block, they have him run off screens to get open shots from deep, and they have him space the floor to give Kalkbrenner room to operate. Hawkins is the team’s leading scorer and most accurate shooter, connecting on about 36% of his 3-point shots.
The Aztecs have a couple of players in Keshad Johnson and Aguek Arop who are used to guarding skilled power forwards. They matched up against players like Justin Bean and David Roddy multiple times this season, so guarding Hawkins is a task they are equipped to handle. Similar to Kalkbrenner, it will be interesting to see how much the Aztecs switch vs try to keep the ideal personnel matched up. It won’t be as important with Hawkins, but if he has Lamont Butler guarding him outside he can simply shoot a jumper over Butler with no contest. Finishing the right amount of switching to prevent penetration but not get burned from outside will be key.
Outside of those two there aren’t many real threats. Players like Arthur Kaluma or Trey Alexander can get hot, but most of Creighton’s scoring is done inside by the bigs.
Their lack of perimeter accuracy should mean the Aztecs can really pack the paint and double team anyone who gets the ball in close. It should favor their style of defense of cutting off driving lanes and forcing perimeter shots.
The Aztecs can also be more aggressive trying to steal the ball on drives and post ups. Creighton doesn’t draw a lot of fouls on their own, and if an Aztec overcommits they are less likely to get burned by a 3-pointer. They still need to play solid defense, but forcing turnovers should be a priority against a team with no true point guard.
Lastly, a team that does not have a point guard, and who plays only 6 1/2 players, should be a prime target to run a full court press against, right? On tape Creighton looked adept at breaking the press even without a point guard, so as always it will be a high risk-high reward situation.
It can of course work sometimes, and against such a shallow team is more likely to work in the second half. The Aztecs will just need to be careful about running it too much and letting Creighton get used to it. They will want to run it sporadically as a way to get Creighton out of their rhythm, and mix it up with a soft press to wear on the legs of their guards.
Overall the Aztecs seem to matchup well against Creighton, as the Aztecs have the size and athleticism to make it hard on the Bluejays in the paint. Barring them getting uncharacteristically hot (as Aztec fans have seen happen against teams like Michigan, or Syracuse in last years tournament), the Aztecs should be able to hold Creighton to a low scoring total.
Plays to watch for –
Stagger screen – Creighton uses a number of different stagger screens where Hawkins and Kalkbrenner set a series of screens for the ball handler. When this happens Kalkbrenner always rolls to the basket and Hawkins always pops behind the three point line.
Roll and replace – Creighton will roll their center towards the hoop and also have a player in the paint flash to the top of they key. The defender in the paint then needs to choose to help on the roll or stick with his man. The right choice is usually helping on the roll.
How to attack Creighton –
Creighton’s defense is built around their big man Ryan Kalkbrenner. They park him in the paint and have guards run over every screen in an effort to funnel ball handlers into their big man who is 40th in the nation in block percentage. It tends to force the midrange shots defenses are okay with giving up.
Their defense at the rim is excellent, and the Aztecs have struggled to finish at the rim all season. Attacking the rim likely won’t be a viable option.
The Aztecs have a number of players that like to take midrange shots though. Players like Matt Bradley and Chad Baker-Mazara like to take a couple dribbles then hit a midrange jumper. Trey Pulliam loves to shoot floaters coming off the screen in the pick and roll. They will be very encouraged to take the shots they love.
The problem is the shots are very inconsistent. CBM and Pulliam both shoot less than 40% on their preferred shots in the midrange. Whether or not they can hit them may determine the outcome of the game.
When the Aztecs do want to score inside they need to get Kalkbrenner to move his feet first. He is very heavy footed and not very quick laterally. Using a Spain pick and roll could work if he comes out high enough as he likely isn’t used to going around screens. The cross screen play where Bradley sets a screen for Mensah before popping out behind the arc could work as well.
Overall though, what will need to happen is Aztec bigs will need to set hard screens to free up guards who will then need to hit open shots from the midrange or behind the arc.
The scoring inside will mostly come from transition when the Aztecs get out and run after a turnover. They are athletic enough to beat Kalkbrenner and the other bigs down the floor, so scoring off turnovers will be important to get those easy points.
The main concern with this defense is how long they are. The Aztecs struggled scoring against teams with length this season (Michigan, USC, Boise St. x3). In those five games the Aztecs never totaled 60 points. Creighton can pose similar matchup problems.
Key Players –
Ryan Kalkbrenner #11 – This is the player that makes everything go for the Blue Jays. The 7’1” center is an excellent post scorer and rim protector. Slowing him down in the post is the top priority defensively.
Ryan Hawkins #44 – Creighton’s starting power forward is a matchup problem. He is a capable scorer at the rim as well as behind the arc. He is the only player for Creighton who is shooting an above average percentage from deep, and can do it standing still or coming off screens.
He is Creighton’s leading scorer, although he is not as efficient as Kalkbrenner. He is a large and versatile player. Keshad Johnson and Aguek Arop will have their hands full trying to contain him.
Arthur Kaluma #34 – Kaluma is the younger Brother of Adam Seiko, and they both played on the Ugandan National team this summer. He is very athletic, has great size, and can get hot in a hurry. He still makes some freshman mistakes, but he is a dangerous weapon when he’s feeling it.
X Factor – Depth
Creighton plays essentially 6 1/2 or 7 players. They have their starting five, a back up center, and sometimes throw out a backup point guard. This could affect the game in a number of ways.
Aztec teams have worn down opponents by throwing waves of defenders at them before, and this is an excellent candidate to do that against. The press defense especially could wear down their guards and help them miss jump shots.
Foul trouble could also come into play. Creighton is very good at defending without fouling, but if the Aztecs can draw a couple early the Bluejays won’t have many replacement players. Despite struggling to finish at the rim they should get Matt Bradley running down hill early in the game to see if he can draw a couple fouls.
Depth issues and tired legs will be most likely to show up in the last 10 minutes of the game. If the Aztecs are losing expect them to make a comeback then, and if they’re winning expect them to pull away then.
The Aztecs are the better team, as evidenced by their greater KenPom ranking (22 vs 53). Their defense should also be able to wreak havoc on a team that struggles to shoot from the perimeter and coughs the ball up one out of every five possessions. The Aztec defense should prevent Creighton from ever gaining a large lead, similar to how they prevented Boise St. from ever pulling away in the conference championship.
Creighton’s defense will lure the Aztecs into taking shots they like to take but are not good at. Missing those shots may prevent the Aztecs from ever truly pulling away if they get a lead.
It will likely be a close game, but the Aztecs will score enough in transition to make up for poor half court offense and will leave with their first tournament win since 2015.