When the Creighton Bluejays decided to flee the coop, better known as the Missouri Valley Conference, they knew that greener pastures were ahead. The BIG EAST Conference was waiting for them to arrive, and they jumped into the mix with a bang.
Carrying the nation's best player in Doug McDermott, and a destructive offense, the Jays rolled through the competition in their first year in the conference. Although it is not as prestigious or powerful as the name would suggest, the adjustments this former mid-major made in a short time were done with tremendous fluidity.
But even then, there was a lot left to be desired. Creighton tripped up slightly in the back half of their league schedule, allowing for Villanova, a team that the Bluejays dominated twice this season, to take the regular season title.
Then, in the BIG EAST Tournament, Doug McDermott & Co. shined inside Madison Square Garden. And when the Jays' primary competition was ousted by Seton Hall's Sterling Gibbs, the path to a BIG EAST Tournament Championship appeared to be ripe for the picking.
Inside the hallowed halls of The World's Most Famous Arena, the Providence Friars had other ideas. The fearless Bryce Cotton and his fellow teammates were a step ahead all night. The Big Apple played host to Providence's first BIG EAST Tournament Championship in exactly 20 years.
Once again, Creighton was the bridesmaid.
Now the Bluejays look to move past those moments of coming up short. The "dream season" is not yet over, and the road to North Texas is just beginning. And the first destination is The Alamo City.
Teams: Creighton Bluejays (26-7) vs. Louisiana Ragin Cajuns (23-11)
Day: Friday, March 21
Time: 3:10 PM ET
Location: San Antonio, Texas; AT&T Center
TV: truTV (Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr (@SteveKerrTNT) and Craig Sager)
Louisiana-Lafayette at a Glance
The Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette got into The Big Dance by winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. They dismissed the Georgia St. Panthers in the final, and made quick work of the UT Arlington and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the previous two rounds.
During the regular season, ULL had one good victory in their non-conference schedule: an 89-80 victory over the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs at the Thomas Assembly Center in Ruston, La. LaTech is ranked 59th in the RPI and 35th via Ken Pomeroy rankings.
On the flip side, the Ragin' Cajuns have a few very bad losses. South Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe and Jackson State are a triad of terrible defeats, with an average Ken Pomeroy ranking of 280. That does not include a horrible loss to Arkansas Little Rock on Jan. 30. But ULL was able to salvage their season with a solid run through their conference tournament.
In fact, they have been streaky since the month of February, having won 11 of their last 13 contests.
Louisiana-Lafayette is a team that has a solid offense, and a mediocre defense. They rank 74th and 70th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and Effective FG% respectively. They are the 55th best team in the country in 3PT FG% and 109th in 2PT FG%. The free throw line, however, is where they struggle the most. The Ragin' Cajuns shot just 66.5 percent from the stripe this season, which puts them at 283rd amongst the 353 schools in Division 1. They do get to the line at a decent clip, with a FTRate of 44.9 percent, 60th best in the nation. And, to round it off, they are 27th in Offensive Rebounding%, grabbing opportunities at a 36.5 percent rate.
The Cajuns though are quite careless with the basketball. Despite being 37th in Adjusted Tempo, their fast-paced style is not aesthetically pleasing. Their TO Rate is 238th in the country at an abysmal 19.1 percent. When facing a team like Creighton, who can consistently attack you from all areas of the court on offense, you have to make your opportunities count. If the carelessness continues in San Antonio, ULL could be in for some trouble. Taking care of the ball has got to be priority number one for Bob Martin's club.
And if that's the case, instituting some semblance of defense has to be priority number two. In regards o Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and Effective FG%, the Ragin' Cajuns are simply average, ranking 193rd and 189th in those categories respectively. While they have a habit for beaten up inside, perimeter defense is their strongest suit. They are yielding a 3PT FG% of 33.0 percent, which is the 98th best mark in the country. With the Bluejays being one of the best teams in the country on the perimeter, this could play right into their strenghts.
But, the Ragin' Cajuns lack in other areas. They yield an inordinate amount of free throws, with a FTRate of 44.1 percent, and do a poor job of limiting offensive rebound opportunities on defense, ranking 217th in that department.
And a big reason for that is their lack of size. Bob Martin's club only has one player that's taller than 6'6" in Shawn Long, who stands in at 6'9". Naturally, he's the team's top player in OR% and DR%, and top rebounder with an average of 10.5 boards per game. But no other Ragin' Cajun has more than 5.9 rebounds per game, and as a result they struggle in that area.
The go-to guy for Louisiana-Lafayette this season has been Elfrid Payton. Payton, a junior guard from Gretna, La. scored 19.1 points per night and dished out six assists per game, and 5.9 rebounds to boot. His shooting from the perimeter and free throw line could certainly use some work, but he has been superb inside, shooting at a 53.5 percent rate. That, combined with Shawn Long's 51.5 percent shooting from inside combines for a solid threat in the paint and at mid-range.
Elsewhere, an X-Factor for ULL this season has been the perimeter play of Xavian Rimmer. A native of Piney Woods, Miss., Rimmer has been stupendous from the three-point line, shooting 43.8 percent on 130 attempts from downtown. With the Bluejays struggling as of late on defense, especially from the perimeter, this could play right into their hands if they get hot from deep.
Three Ways Creighton Can Win
Creighton's success in this game, and the tournament as a whole, runs through Doug McDermott. While that statement might be obvious, it holds true that this is the kind of stage for McDermott to flourish and to help push Creighton farther than any could have ever imagined. With Louisiana-Lafayette's defensive play being more passive than aggressive, the chances of McDermott performing at an outstanding level increase tenfold. While his stellar performance in the BIG EAST Tournament was not enough, they certainly will not face a team the caliber of Providence in this upcoming contest.
Further, the Jays must take advantage of ULL's lack of big men. This has been an issue all season long for Creighton, but facing a team like ULL who might be even more worse off than them could give them some confidence. Especially for big man Will Artino, who has been a solid contributor on their second unit since being thrusted out of the starting lineup for "Lumberjack" Ethan Wragge. Scoring should be easy pickens for the Bluejays if they are able to breeze through ULL's lack of size in the paint.
Thriving off of second chances and takeaways must be a strong suit as well. The aforementioned carelessness of the Ragin' Cajuns could be a big difference in the ball game. The Bluejays are potent and divisive on offense and if they get streaky off of those second chances, this could turn into a rout quickly.
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Simply put, this is a matchup nightmare for ULL. While the Ragin' Cajun offense is quite good, their mediocre defense will most likely be their undoing. The Bluejays should advance to the 3rd Round of the NCAA Tournament, and do so with comfort.
Creighton 85 Louisiana-Lafayette 71