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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Creighton

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Alabama returns to the NIT against a familiar post-season foe

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2015-16 regular season now in the books, the fortunate few who have earned the right to continue playing into the post-season get ready to take center stage in March. The attention of the nation will undoubtedly and deservedly be fixed on the NCAA Tournament, but there are a number of quality teams who will be duking it out in the NIT as well. Alabama, obviously, is one of those teams. Avery Johnson's first season has been a successful one, and it will be very beneficial for this program and this group of guys to get some post-season experience and some extra practices.

The Crimson Tide's opening opponent will be a familiar one, as Alabama will head up to Omaha, Nebraska to take on the Creighton Jays (18-14, 9-9 Big East), who the Tide also happened to match-up with the last time they made it into the NCAA Tournament in 2012. The Jays defeated the Tide in a heart-breaker that March, so there is a little bit of history between these two programs. Retin Obasohan was in his redshirt year that season.

Greg McDermott's team had a major bounce-back season this year after completely falling apart during the 2014-15 season. With that said, the Jays will be excited about this game. The NIT Selection Committee didn't do Alabama any favors by sending the Tide to Omaha, because Creighton has a proud fan base that will likely turn out in strong numbers to support their improving team. The Jays have been very solid this season; Ken Pomeroy even has them ranked as the 48th best team in the country, which is good enough for 5th in the NIT field.

The Roster

Starting Line-Up

  • PG 5'10 Maurice Watson Jr. (14.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 6.5 APG, 0.9 SPG)
  • OG 6'2 Isaiah Zierden (10.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.4 SPG)
  • 3G 6'2 James Miliken (9.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.7 APG)
  • PF 6'8 Cole Huff (11.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG)
  • C 7'0 Geoffrey Groselle (10.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.3 BPG)
The Jays have a very balanced, traditional starting five. All five of their starters average double-digit points per game, which makes them a very efficient offense. It all starts with Watson though. The diminutive point guard not only averages an impressive 6.5 APG (to 3.3 TOPG, good for a nearly 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), but he's also the leading scorer on a team-leading 10.9 FGAs per game. Clearly, as Watson goes, the Jays go. Which feels like a bit of an oxymoron considering how balanced the scoring is for this team. Watson's not much of a perimeter threat (28.6% 3P%), but his 47.1% FG% is very good for a guard.

Joining Watson in the back-court are Zierden and Miliken, a pair of strong scorers. Zierden is shooting 40.3% from the field, 38.5% from deep, and a team-leading 83.8% from the line. Miliken is a 40.7% scorer, which includes a 35.2% clip from beyond the arc and a 72.4% rate from the charity stripe. None of the guards are great on-ball defenders, but Zierden does force a decent amount of turnovers a game. The Jays like to run their offense through their guards, so Alabama needs to extend out and put some pressure on these guys.

In the front-court, the Jays field a pair of big, traditional post players, an increasingly rare trait in today's game. Huff is a true inside-out threat, as he scores at a 52.0% rate inside of the arc as well as at a 37.4% clip from three-point land. Combine that scoring ability with his length and McDermott's got himself a heck of a mismatch. Shannon Hale will need to play some of his best defense of the season in order to keep Huff in check. Groselle is one of the most efficient post players Alabama will have played this season. He has a ridiculous 69.4% FG% and is one of the team's leaders both defensively (99.4 DRtg) and on the boards (15.3% RB%). Jimmie Taylor and Donta Hall will have their hands full themselves on both ends of the courts.

The Bench
  • G 6'3 Khyri Thomas (5.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.9 SPG)
  • G 6'1 Malik Albert (2.8 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 1.1 APG)
  • F 6'7 Ronnie Harrell (2.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.9 APG)
  • F 6'9 Zach Hanson (6.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
  • F 6'10 Toby Hegner (5.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.6 APG)
Another attribute that makes Creighton such a dangerous team is how deep they are. The Jays have a full mass-substitution worth of players who can come in and contribute. They have three guys off of the bench that average over 5.0 PPG and 3.0 RPG, which is a nice perk to have if you're Greg McDermott. Hanson, much like Groselle, has a ridiculously good 66.9% FG%, as he is another efficient inside scorer. Harrell, the 6'7 tweener, has the second-best RB% on the team at 14.4%. Hegner, Thomas, and Hanson all rebound in the double-digit percentage as well, which shows that the Jays have a number of guys who can bang on the boards. This is a deep roster. No one off of the bench stands out as a stalwart, but they are all strong players.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Contest Shots. Creighton doesn't have a large number of explosive play-makers on their roster, but their offense is extremely efficient. The Jays are shooting 46.8% from the field this season (42nd in the country), and 54.3% from two-point range (20th). They are mostly a half-court offense, which suits Alabama's 48th-ranked Adjusted Defense just fine. It will be a true battle of strength-on-strength when the Jays bring the ball up into the half-court against the Tide defense, and it's a battle Alabama will need to win more often than not.
  2. Defensive Rebounding. One glaring weakness the Jays have that sticks out (and there really aren't many weaknesses) is their inability to crash the boards after one of their own missed shots. The Jays rebound at a decent rate all-around, but a closer look indicates that they do most of their damage on the boards defensively. Creighton's offensive rebounding leaves a bit to be desired. Alabama has survived a few games this season despite getting crushed on the defensive glass (the Florida game in particular comes to mind), but that trend will not continue against a team as good offensively as Creighton is. Alabama needs to clean up the glass on defense and keep the Jays at a disadvantage in this area.
  3. Find Offensive Help for Retin. Alabama's offense was at its absolute best against Ole Miss last week in Nashville, and that's because other guys stepped up in the absence of Obasohan during most of the first half of that game. Whether it's Arthur Edwards and/or Riley Norris knocking down spot-up threes, Justin Coleman driving-and-dishing with his incredibly quick first-step, Hale showing some assertiveness with the ball, or Hall finding space and flushing home easy baskets around the rim, Alabama has to find some help for Retin. Whenever Alabama establishes a second or third option in a given game, the Tide is really tough to beat.
Alabama has a wonderful opportunity to gain some much-needed post-season experience in arguably the toughest region in this season's NIT field. It certainly won't be easy for Avery Johnson's group, as Creighton is one of the most underrated teams in the country, and they have a strong home-field advantage in Omaha. Both of these programs are trending in the right direction, and both teams are looking to finish out their 2016 campaigns with a strong run in the NIT in order to catapult themselves to big 2017 seasons. The Crimson Tide will need to bring their best game with them if they want to extend Obasohan and Edwards' college careers.

The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CDT and will be televised on ESPN.