When the Creighton Bluejays arrive in Philadelphia on Monday to face No. 6 Villanova, they will walk off the airplane with the nation’s best, most efficient offense, led by the nation’s best, most efficient player.
They will also arrive nursing the wounds of their first loss since Dec. 1, Saturday’s 81-68 loss at Providence in which the Friars helpfully outlined the simple, elegant and vastly difficult one-point plan applicable to any opponent hopeful of stopping the Doug McDermott Express:
Make the Bluejays miss.
Before Saturday, Creighton was the best 3-point shooting team in the country. After Saturday, it ranked No. 2 -- both a testament to its long-range prowess and to the struggles it suffered in the Dunkin Donuts Center. The Bluejays shoot 42.5 percent from 3-point range, and they leverage that skill by shooting 44.1 percent of their field-goal attempts from behind the arc.
This is the underrated key to the top offense in the country, and it goes much deeper than McDermott’s singular offensive greatness. Ethan Wragge is the best long-range weapon in the country, a 6-foot-8 lumberjack (eternal hat tip to Rob Dauster) with 25-foot range, the highest effective field-goal percentage (71.1!) in the country and a hilarious distaste for interior play. Wragge has attempted 140 shots this season. Six of them have come inside the arc. If that wasn’t enough, guards Jahenns Manigat (43.6 percent from 3) and Austin Chatman (45.0) can’t be left unguarded either. Defenses have to respect Creighton’s shooters, McDermott included, which gives him the freedom to poke and prod in the interior and midrange space where aggressive double-teams might otherwise be.
On Saturday, Creighton shot just 4-of-19 from 3, with Wragge going 2-of-8. Those long misses had a direct impact on Providence’s offense, turning missed shots into transition breakdowns and easy baskets on the other end. Creighton doesn’t force turnovers on the defensive end. It prefers to score, get back, set up its foul-free defensive shell, rebound opponents’ misses and assume it will recuperate its losses on the offensive end. It usually does. But those long-range misses broke the first link in the chain, and so Providence turned the ball over just five times, made 60 percent of its 2-point shots, and scored 1.33 points per trip. A rout ensued.
These are the conditions that make scouting reports like “make everything difficult for McDermott” look so half-you-know-what. It’s all of a piece.
The good news for Villanova is that few teams in college basketball are as perfectly designed to break the Creighton efficiency chain. The Wildcats allow just 0.91 points per possession, per kenpom.com. They do so in large part because 6-7 JayVaughn Pinkston, 6-6 James Bell and 6-6 Darrun Hilliard are, despite their size, among the best defensive interiors in the country. (Daniel Ochefu, who blocks nearly 10 percent of opponents’ shots, deserves a nod here, but he plays just 19 minutes a game.) The Wildcats are tough and physical and athletic, and Jay Wright’s defensive strategy -- what SI.com’s Luke Winn recently dubbed “3-point gapping” -- forces opposing teams off the 3-point line and into Nova’s well-defended interior. Villanova opponents shoot just 31.6 percent of their shots from 3 and make just 41.3 percent of their 2s. Add those two facts together, and you’ve got the backbone of one of the nation’s best defenses.
In the lead up to tip off Monday night, and probably throughout the game, you will hear a lot about the individual matchups -- what Pinkston and Bell will do to stop McDermott specifically. This is understandable: On a sheer physical level, the Wildcats are perfectly suited to prevent the kind of mismatches McDermott eats for breakfast.
But stopping Creighton’s offense asks much more of a defense than the awareness that it is playing against the best offensive basketball player of the last five years. Because, well, duh. No, beating Creighton requires something like holistic preventative dedication. Keep the Bluejays from lighting you up on the perimeter, plan to exploit those misses if they come, and not only can you win, at that point you should.
Providence cracked the code. Can Villanova follow?