- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 2012 Las Vegas Invitational tournament is headlined by a Creighton squad that finished fifth in offensive efficiency last season. The Bluejays have cruised through the early portion of their nonconference season, registering scoring margins of 17 points or more in their first four games. But their path to the title demands an opening-round win over a Wisconsin squad that’s won back-to-back games since suffering an 18-point loss to Florida Nov. 14.
Arkansas is fourth in the nation with 91.3 points per game. But the undefeated Razorbacks haven’t been tested. Freshman Jahii Carson (17.5 ppg) has led Arizona State to three consecutive victories against average competition. How will he perform against better programs? We’ll see. This isn’t Feast Week’s most potent field, but with all of the question marks, it’s certainly an interesting and intriguing one.
The set matchups: Arizona State vs. Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET; Creighton vs. Wisconsin, 10 p.m.
The favorite: Creighton isn’t just the favorite because of Doug McDermott. The Bluejays have jumped more than 100 spots in defensive efficiency since last season (178 to 67). This season’s sample size is too small to make any definite assessments of the Bluejays’ defense, but they’re clearly more active than they were a year ago. The biggest concern about the 2012-13 season was the loss of former point guard Antoine Young, who graduated. But Grant Gibbs (5.0 apg) and Austin Chatman (5.8 apg) have been successful ball handlers for Greg McDermott’s team.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: The past calendar year of ASU basketball has been marked by turmoil. Trent Lockett, the team’s top scorer, transferred to Marquette during the offseason. Herb Sendek added new staff members. But Carson (18.7 ppg, 5.3 apg), a non-qualifier in 2011-12, has been a bright spot for a Sun Devils squad that won 10 games last season.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: The preseason All-American is averaging 16.8 ppg and 7.5 rpg. Those numbers are below last season’s averages of 22.9 ppg and 7.5 rpg. But he’s also playing on a more balanced team, and he’s been more active on defense -- both pluses for the program.
Ben Brust, Wisconsin: The Wisconsin backcourt took a hit when Josh Gasser tore his ACL during a preseason practice. But Brust’s effort thus far has taken out some of the sting. He’s averaging 14.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg and 2.5 apg. The 6-foot-1 guard also has connected on 78 percent of his free throws and 65 percent of his 3-pointers.
Marshawn Powell, Arkansas: Powell missed most of the 2011-12 season after tearing his ACL. He’s clearly recovered from the injury. Through three games, he’s averaging 17.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg.
Gregory Echenique, Creighton: Echenique is a vital component to Creighton’s postseason aspirations. The 6-9 center is the only true post man in Creighton’s rotation. The Bluejays can’t really afford many off-nights from Echenique, who’s averaging 11.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 2.0 blocks a game.
FIVE BIG QUESTIONS
Will we see another upset in Las Vegas? This has been a crazy Feast Week. In Maui, Division II Chaminade beat Texas and Butler upset North Carolina. In Brooklyn, Georgetown defeated UCLA and almost knocked off No. 1 Indiana. So it’s not really safe to assume that Creighton or Wisconsin will win this championship without a battle. Arizona State or Arkansas could continue the streak of unexpected results.
Can Creighton withstand a rough stretch from McDermott? That’s been the question about Creighton since last season. The Bluejays didn’t respond well when McDermott struggled in 2011-12. But the 2012-13 team has more versatility. So it’s more equipped to respond if McDermott doesn’t play well. He was 2-for-6 (five points) in a 77-60 victory Nov. 14 over UAB. But Ethan Wragge and Josh Jones scored 30 points combined off the bench.
Has Wisconsin answered the concerns about its point guard situation? Not yet. George Marshall, Traevon Jackson and Brust have all handled the ball for Wisconsin this season. But Bo Ryan’s system thrives when he has a playmaker at that position. Jackson and Marshall are solid distributors but Wisconsin will demand more from both going forward.
What’s Jahii Carson’s ceiling? Before he ever hit the floor, folks around the Arizona State program touted Carson’s potential impact. And he hasn’t disappointed. The athletic 5-10 guard can’t carry the Sun Devils alone. But his presence raises the prospects of the program. This tournament is a chance for Carson & Co. to prove that they’re capable of contending with high-level opponents, a rarity last season.
Does B.J. Young deserve more hype? The Arkansas sophomore hasn’t faced any elite squads this season but his numbers are impressive again. He’s averaging 17.5 ppg and he’s hit 50 percent of his field goal attempts in two games (he was suspended for the season opener). Creighton should win this tournament. Wisconsin could. But Young and Powell could spoil those plans.
Friday: Creighton over Wisconsin; Arkansas over Arizona State
Saturday's title game: Creighton over Arkansas