IHTIT: Tennessee Vols vs. Creighton Bluejays NCAA Sweet 16 Preview (3/29/24)

It's Sweet Sixteen Time in Tennessee: After surviving a horrendous shooting night against Texas in round two of the NCAA tournament, Tennessee (26-8, 14-4 SEC, 15-8 vs. Quad 1&2) turns its eyes on Creighton (25-9, 14-6 Big East, 16-9 vs. Quad 1&2). It will be a game of strength vs. strength as the Creighton offense, one of the top-rated in the NCAA, faces Tennessee's defense, also one of the best in America. 

This will be the second meeting between the schools ever. The Bluejays will certainly be out to avenge the previous contest, a 34-28 UT win in 1937. 

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  • All three Creighton players pictured score 17+ PPG, all three were 1st or 2nd team All-Big East, and both Scheierman and Kalkbrenner average 7.5+ rebounds/game. 
  • For the second straight game, Tennessee faces an all-conference big man--typically the Vols' kryptonite this season. I was surprised Texas didn't attack the rim more with Dylan Disu, but I guess when you've got a 6'9 guy that can shoot 3s, that's a mismatch you try to exploit. Kalkbrenner can shoot 3s (he shot 30% on 53 attempts this season), but expect him to play much more around the basket. 
  • Trey Alexander draws comparisons to Alabama's Aaron Estrada in how both have scoring ability and a nose for creating space and assists. Alexander is a better defender, however. 
  • Baylor Scheierman is one of the top 3-point shooters in the country, but is also the NCAA career leader in defensive rebounds
Here's an excellent video that breaks down these "Big 3" players for the Bluejays: 

One line early in that video stands out for me: "[Creighton] can only reliably play six or seven guys on a nightly basis. So it becomes imperative for Alexander, Scheierman, and Kalkbrenner to play like stars in every game" (emphasis mine). I don't know that you have to shut down all three of them--I don't know that you can--but limit the damage from one or two of them, and their offense becomes manageable. 

Keep in mind that when I say manageable, that's exactly what I mean. This is the #11 offense nationally in offensive efficiency at 1.2 points per possession. They're the third best team nationally in effective field goal rate at 57.48%. They've shot the 3rd-most three-pointers of any team left in the tournament, and they've made 36.6% of their threes this year. They're gonna get theirs. 

So here's the good news. The three best defenses in the Big East this season were UConn, Villanova, and Providence. Creighton went a combined 3-4 against those teams. Of those teams, measuring by defensive efficiency (AdjDE), only UConn has a top 10 defense at #8. Tennessee's AdjDE is #3. The Vols allow just .899 (repeating of course) points per possession. And the Vols have achieved that ranking while facing some of the top offenses in America. Of the defenses in the top 10 nationally, only Tennessee has faced a top-10 schedule of offensive opponents. Tennessee is used to seeing great offenses, Creighton isn't used to seeing great defenses. 

I'd also mention that Creighton is bad at offensive rebounds--really bad--a bottom-third team nationally in offensive rebounds. They are also literally the worst team in college basketball at creating turnovers defensively--#362 out of 362 in that category. They only turn their opponents over on 11% of possessions. The national average is 17% and Tennessee creates a turnover on 19% of opponents' possessions, for comparison. These are significant points because, as good as the Bluejays' offense is, you cannot allow them to create extra offensive opportunities through turnovers and offensive rebounds. 

Of course how Tennessee handles Creighton's offense won't matter if the Vols can't solve their own offensive problems. UT's shooting, especially from 3, was absolutely moribund against the Longhorns in round 2 Saturday (12% on 3/25 attempts behind the arc). And the Bluejays aren't going to make it easy. They are a top 25 defense themselves, and they play a style that invites teams to rely on the least-efficient shot in basketball: the midrange jumper. Here's an excellent primer on the Creighton defense: 

For a five-out style team like Alabama who only shoots layups and threes, facing that kind of defense is a nightmare scenario. Tennessee is decently equipped to handle this though. Of teams that made the Sweet 16, UT falls around the middle of the pack in both midrange shots as a percentage of the offense (22%) and shooting percentage on midrange shots (41%). Of players in the Sweet 16 with at least 25 midrange attempts this year, Tobe Awaka (52%) and Jahmai Mashack (48%) are both top-10 shooters, with Josiah-Jordan James (44%) and Zakai Zeigler (43%) also in the top-30. 

Of bigger concern might be how much Tennessee relied on points from the free throw line last weekend. The Vols got 23% of their points from the stripe in rounds 1&2, more than any other team that advanced to the Sweet 16: 

The trouble here is that Creighton is elite at keeping teams off the free-throw line. Their defensive free-throw rate is 15.7%, the national average is 32.9%, and the next-best Sweet 16 team is Purdue, at 22.9%. Interestingly, Creighton has the nation's worst defensive free throw percentage--teams shoot 79% at the line against the Bluejays, seven percentage points higher than the national average. It seems like when they do foul, they're fouling the wrong guys.

They say styles make fights, and these two clubs have punches and counterpunches galore. I'll admit, when I first started looking into Creighton, I got pretty spooked. But the more I've thought through how this game could play out, the better I've felt. Creighton has a great offense, but Tennessee is built specifically to handle great offenses. Tennessee shot horribly against Texas, but the Vols have only shot under 40% in back-to-back games once this year, in Maui against Purdue and Kansas. And they've only shot under 30% from three in back-to-back games twice: those two Maui games and in February against Texas A&M and Arkansas--and the Vols blew out Arkansas in spite of it. Creighton wants to force mid-range shots, and while that's not the Vols' preferred spot to shoot from, they can make those shots. By the way, Tennessee's best midrange shooter by percentage (admittedly with a small sample size) is Tobe Awaka, who despite playing just 10 minutes in the Texas game was arguably UT's best player last weekend. He could be poised to have another big one against the Bluejays.

This shapes up to be one of the best games of the weekend and it could simply come down to who has the ball last. However, I believe that as long as the Vols play within their own game, and don't give Creighton unnecessary advantages like offensive rebounds and turnovers (don't let teams be good at what they're bad at--a theme I've written about before), then Tennessee should be playing in their second Elite 8 in school history on Sunday. 

Prediction: Tennessee 74, Creighton 70. 
Mediocre Betting Advice: Tennessee -2.5, Under 146
Prediction Record YTD: 14-5 SU, 10-9 ATS, 10-7-1 O/U


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