- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Creighton.
1. Yesterday's Three Big Things covered the Duke Blue Devils. In case you didn't read it, or are addicted to Reddit and prefer summaries on anything longer than 150 words, your TL;DR on the Dukies was pretty straightforward: The 2011-12 Blue Devils scored the ball at a high rate, but -- uncharacteristically for Coach K teams -- were merely so-so on defense. That imbalance held them back from being truly elite and made them vulnerable to their eventual (if still shocking) first-round upset at the hands of Lehigh.
But as offense-defense efficiency imbalances go, Duke had nothing on Creighton.
The Bluejays were the fifth-most efficient offensive team in the country last season. Yep. True story. Only Missouri, Kentucky, Florida and Indiana (in that order) put the ball in the basket in a more efficient manner than did Greg McDermott's team. And that, being a Pomeroy adjusted efficiency ranking, is, you know, adjusted. It wasn't a product of a soft non-conference schedule, or a forgiving Missouri Valley Conference (which wasn't the case anyway). The Bluejays were that good.
2. The complete offensive explosion of forward Doug McDermott had much to do with the Bluejays' scorching offensive work. After a good freshman season, McDermott went nuts, well, brace yourself for numbers: He averaged 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on 48.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 63.2 percent shooting inside it. His effective field goal percentage (65.4) and true shooting percentage (67.8) were the sixth- and third-best in the country, respectively. McDermott took (get this) 33.3 percent of his team's available shots, but that didn't hurt his efficiency one lick: He still put up a 123.5 offensive rating, second-best (behind Weber State's Damian Lillard) of any player in the country with a usage rate higher than 28 percent.
He was, in a word, crazy good. All right, that's two words. Whatever. You get the point. (The point is that Doug McDermott gets buckets. You did get that, right?)
Which is not to say McDermott didn't have his fair share of help on the offensive end. Guard Grant Gibbs, besides having excellent taste in Ghostface Killah verses, frequently worked inside-out with McDermott when McDermott posted and isolated and re-posted on the block. As Luke Winn pointed out during the MVC tournament in March, Gibbs' sublime bounce-passing from the wing helped McDermott get easy looks, in the process earning Gibbs the highest assist rate (27.4 percent) on his team. Big-bodied forward Gregory Echenique was a force on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, and point guard Antoine Young kept everything in sync from the point guard spot.
Young is the only Creighton regular not returning this 2012-13 season. Even if McDermott can't keep his insane scoring pace -- and I think he can, even if it is a lot to ask -- there's little reason reason to expect this offense to do anything but dominate. There will be points. Lots and lots of points.
3. The only problem with everything I just wrote: None of it has much to do with the defensive end. And that side of the floor will determine -- perhaps more for the Bluejays than for any other highly touted team this season -- what the Bluejays are eventually able to accomplish.
Because Creighton wasn't like Duke; it wasn't merely defensively mediocre. The Bluejays were actually ... kind of bad. They ranked No. 178 in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency; on average, they yielded more than a point per trip over the entire season. They allowed opposing teams to average 49.7 percent effective shooting, good for 204th in the country. They were one of the very worst teams in the country (seriously: they ranked No. 343) in their rate of turnovers forced, and weren't much better blocking shots or ripping steals or defending teams beyond the arc.
There was some good news here. Greg McDermott's squad protected its own glass very well, and it traded a lack of turnovers for a lack of fouls.
But at the end of the day, the positives of Creighton's defense were outweighed by the negatives. For a team so very elite on the offensive end, the defense didn't even come close.
That makes this analysis, like Duke, pretty straightforward. Creighton is bringing back the heart -- including a hyper-efficient preseason All-American scoring star -- of a team that was already good despite playing substandard defense. To meet or exceed last season's already-high standards, the Bluejays don't need to suddenly become Alabama (even if they did that briefly in the NCAA tournament). If they can maintain their offensive pace and just play better on the defensive end -- if they can lower that adjusted efficiency to, say, a point per trip -- they have a huge opportunity to improve.
And really, at the end of the day, this team's prospectus is about the NCAA tournament. This is a very good bunch; Creighton will get back with ease in 2013.
Now it's about what the Bluejays can do when they get there, when the intensity goes up and possessions seem more valuable and opponents are more athletic and one game -- one 48-hour scouting session by a highly paid coaching staff scheming to shut your vaunted offense down -- is what stands between you and advancement. You have to get stops.