Northwestern faces its second ranked opponent of the non-con and hopes to get a big win against a quality opponent heading into a stacked early part of the conference schedule. Between NU and a satisfying conclusion to the pre-Big Ten portion of the schedule are the No. 21 Creighton Bluejays. (One word.)
Last year, Northwestern smoked Creighton, but this team is, well, better, and where last year's game was in Evanston, this year's is in a difficult-to-play-in CenturyLink Center in Omaha.
Are they good?: Creighton's resume isn't significantly better than Northwestern's: they've got no wins over ranked opponents, only one over a top-100 team in Kenpom - an 85-83 comeback victory against San Diego State after trailing by 17 - and lost to St. Joseph's, who lost against a Seton Hall team that Northwestern beat. But all the evidence points to Creighton being one of the best offensive teams in the country. They've destroyed all mid-level competition and have two wins over Big Ten squads.
Who they got?: Doug McDermott is quite possibly having the best statistical year of any player in college basketball. He somehow manages to be one of the highest usage players in the country - the No. 6 highest percentage of possessions end up in his hands - and one of the most efficient - the no. 11 EFG% in college basketball. That almost never happens. In part out of curiosity and in part because it's something I hope to do more often, I scouted an earlier Creighton game by watching the ESPN3 replay of the Bluejays' game against Nebraska, and, well, McDermott is the real deal. The son of coach Greg McDermott, the power forward combines a vicious three-point shot - he's shooting 57.5 percent from downtown, yes, 57.5 percent - with a polished post game, able to spin and finish over either shoulder. You hate to say he plays like a coaches' son, but, well, he plays like a coaches son: he hits all his open looks and free throws, has clearly worked on every possible shot on the court, and despite being 6-foot-7, 210 pounds, gets a lot of rebounds due to his sheer knowledge of where he needs to be when the ball goes up for a rebound, always finding the right guy to put a body on. He's only put up under 20 points once on the year, in the season opener against North Carolina A&T where he only played 17 minutes, and is coming off a 16-for-23 performance that saw him put up 35 points and 12 rebounds against Tulsa.
McDermott's not a great interior defender for a power forward, but he's paired with Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique, whose offensive game is shaky thanks in part to an inability to hit free throws, but who makes a real difference down low on defense. (He also wears pink sneakers.) The guy keeping defenses honest is Jahenns Manigat, who has hit just a tad under half of his threes on the year.
What are they good at?: Thanks to McDermott, who uses nearly 40 percent of the team's offensive possessions, the team is one of the most efficient scoring squads in the country, shooting 43.5 percent from downtown and 55.8 percent from within the arc. Like Northwestern, the team puts a lot of faith in its offensive sets: unlike your typical team with a dominant scorer, this isn't a unit built on isos and clearouts. In fact, when McDermott try to create his own look or force a shot, he seems uncomfortable and it often doesn't work out. 66 percent of Creighton's buckets come off of assists, the tenth most in the nation, part in thanks to an offense always picking and finding the open space on the floor. They also really know what they're doing on transition.
What are they bad at?: Creighton is completely mediocre defensively out of a man set, except for one of the best opposing free throw rates in the country (meaning they never foul). Just from watching the one game, two flaws appeared to me that aren't necessarily spelled out in their Kenpom stats, in part because Nebraska is one of the better teams Creighton has played: they have a definite tendency to try and force the perfect pass on offense which leads to occasional spats of extreme sloppiness, and they give up a good amount of three-point looks.
Us and them: NU is 3-1 against Creighton, including last year's victory at Welsh-Ryan.
Why is this team so much better than last year?: Simply put, McDermott. Last year, a lot of Creighton's offense went through Kenny Lawson, a fifth-year center who you may remember from doing a very good job against Northwestern before getting into foul trouble. This year, McDermott went from using 28.4 percent of Creighton's possessions to 37.6, the sixth most in the country. He's the centerpiece of the team and has earned it by being one of the best scorers out there.
Do they have any more Korver brothers?: I wish, boldface questions guy. I wish. If only the Korver family had as many children as Ashton Kutcher has ads for whatever camera company it is he does ads for.
When was the last time Northwestern played and/or won an important game in the state of Nebraska?: Dunno. Probably at least a few weeks ago, though.
Why does Eli Manning always yell "OMAHA! OMAHA!" every time he snaps the ball?: I don't know, but as a Jets fan, I want to find out what city Mark Sanchez yells out before every snap so I can never ever go there. "MOGADISHU! EAST ST. LOUIS! THAT ONE CITY IN RUSSIA WHERE SAMUEL ETO'O PLAYS THAT'S TOO DANGEROUS FOR HIM TO LIVE IN YEAR-ROUND SO HE FLIES IN FROM (whistle for delay of game penalty)"
Names?: I really have no clue what is going on with Jahenns Manigat, since neither Jahenns nor Manigat are really names. Until someone tells me otherwise, I will assume he is of Kyrgyz descent.
How can NU win?: Stopping McDermott is obviously the key. A lot of commenters have highlighted Drew Crawford as the key offensively and I can't disagree, although I still think more depends on the somewhat inconsistent of late John Shurna. How to handle McDermott on the other hand, is a good question. I feel like a team as good at shooting as Creighton, even one with a tendency to turn the ball over, will murder a 1-3-1 zone, but I feel like leaving a scorer as good as McDermott up against John Shurna without help is just as bad an idea. Last year, NU switched in and out of the 1-3-1 and matchup zone to win, this year NU has gone more and more straight man-to-man, I think NU's best bet is to hope to confuse Creighton by switching in and out and hopefully forcing some unwarranted turnovers. NU would also be wise to slow the tempo against a Creighton team that gets a lot of easy buckets from layups and from pullup jumpers in transition. Either way, this will be a shootout. If NU does win, it will be more on the strength of spectacular gunning by Shurna and crew than it will any defensive effort against McDermott.
Should NU win?: The ranking, location, and kenpom factors disagree with me, but I think so. Creighton has a very high ranking for a schedule without much meat on its bones. This would be a quality win, but I like Northwestern's chances better than Creighton.