By Nick Stavas
Tues. 4 P.M. CT – Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, KS – ESPN
Spread: Kansas (-4)
#5 Kansas Jayhawks (4-1)
Not often do we see a team that has won 14 league titles in the past 15 years play in the shadow of a conference counterpart, but that seems to be the case for Kansas so far this season. While No. 2 Baylor is garnering the vast majority of national attention out of the Big 12, the Jayhawks have quietly had a solid start to their 2020-21 campaign.
Kansas has been a victim of tough scheduling, having played five games in the past 10 days. Since losing the season opener to consensus No. 1 Gonzaga, they’ve grinded their way to four straight victories, including a three-point win over Kentucky and a four-point edging of winless North Dakota on Saturday. The scare from North Dakota came as a product of inefficient offense and overall fatigue, as the Jayhawks struggled from the field all night.
The Jayhawks are led by the dynamic backcourt duo of Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji. Garrett, an early candidate for defensive player of the year, is an elite on-ball defender and floor general who typically locks down the opposing team’s best guard. Agbaji complements Garrett well as the top scoring option, averaging 16.2 PPG and shooting over 40% from three-point land. In the frontcourt, true freshman Jalen Johnson has quickly emerged as the team’s leading big man, as he averages 15 PPG and just under nine rebounds.
The Jayhawks don’t stand out in any particular statistical category, which is largely due to the nearly 200-point barn burner with Gonzaga skewing the numbers. Outliers aside, Kansas prides itself on tough man-to-man defense in the backcourt and getting second chances on the glass, which is consistent with Bill Self teams of the past and could prove valuable against a team like Creighton.
#8 Creighton Bluejays (3-0)
The cancellation of March Madness was a major bummer for everyone, but it was especially brutal for teams like Creighton, who were surging toward the end of the regular season. Good news for Bluejays fans: they’re even better this year. Greg McDermott’s squad has seemingly picked up right where it left off in February with three blowout wins over mid major teams to start the season.
Junior guard Marcus Zegarowski is undoubtedly the Bluejays best player and might even be the best player in the Big East. While his numbers through the first three games haven’t lived up to that of last season, Zegarowski is still the focal point of a highly efficient Creighton offense. That offense ranks in the top 30 in the country in FG% and TS% (true shooting percentage), as well as 5th in the land in turnover percentage. Needless to say, they take care of the basketball.
The issue for this Creighton team comes in the frontcourt and on the boards. While junior forward Christian Bishop (15 PPG, 5.3 RPG) has been fantastic scoring down low, the entire team struggles to get rebounds. This is typically negated by the fact that they play at such a fast pace, but it could end up being a problem against teams that have dominant big men.
The small sample size always comes into play when picking college basketball games early in the season. Kansas has certainly shown us that they have the firepower to compete with the best teams in the country, but their outing against North Dakota on Saturday was anything but impressive. On the other hand, Creighton has yet to be tested this season, so regardless of the outcome, this should be a good gauge for the Jays as they approach Big East play.
As for the game itself, the lack of crowd will be something to consider. Allen Fieldhouse is one of the best home court advantages in all of college basketball and typically serves as a deafening sixth man for the Jayhawks. Without fans, all of that is null and void.
The backcourt talent in this game is abundant, but the advantage in the paint lies with Kansas. That said, Creighton’s ability to drain shots from outside allows them to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country. Kansas certainly has all the tools to win this game, but laying four points against a fellow top 10 team is a lot to ask from a squad playing its sixth game in two weeks.