The bracket is out, and now we are searching to see which mid-major team has the ability to make a Cinderella run. Last month, I profiled UC Santa Barbara and broke down if it could make a run in March Madness. When I was writing that piece, Creighton was the exact opponent I had in mind.
The 12 seed Gauchos (22-4) will take on 5 seed Creighton (20-8) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST on TruTV.
The Gauchos came into this game scorching hot, winning 18 out of their last 19. UCSB convincingly won its three conference tournament games by at least eight points, and have gone 14-5 against the spread since the calendar turned over to 2021. Creighton is coming into the tournament fresh off a 25-point beatdown against Georgetown in the Big East title game. Here’s why the Bluejays are in trouble:
JaQuori McLaughlin is the best player in this game
12-5 matchups are known for their upset potential and this matchup fits that mold. The Bluejays lack the interior rim protection to defend the Gauchos inside, which is one of the many mismatches the Gauchos are going to exploit on Saturday. UCSB will also have the best player on the floor with star JaQuori McLaughlin.
Creighton has stars in Marcus Zegarowski and Denzel Mahoney, but those guys are not on McLaughlin’s level as an overall player. Out of high school, McLaughlin was the 79th-rated player in the 2016 recruiting class when he committed to Oregon State. McLaughlin is one of college basketball’s most complete stars. He has recently named an honorable mention to the AP All American team and ranks 15th Heat Check’s Gold Star player rankings, a guide that uses advanced metrics to determine the most impactful stars in college basketball. McLaughlin is averaging 16.2 points 5.4 assists while shooting 48% from the field. McLaughlin also ranks 43rd nationally in assist rate. He is a three-level scorer who excels in the pick-and-roll and gives opportunities to his teammates. He can put up insane offensive production while playing with significantly fewer possessions. When the game is close, McLaughlin will take over the game in the half-court, and give the Gauchos buckets in crunch time. Zegarowski has struggled to come through for the Blue Jays at similar points this season. McLaughlin is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and he will be a tough matchup for Mahoney or Zegarowski. While Zegarowski and Mahoney are great shooters, McLaughlin is more elite in various categories.
UCSB will control the game inside
The Gauchos have one of the best front court duos in this tournament in Amadou Sow and Miles Norris. One of the best ways to complete upsets in the tournament is to make the other team feel uncomfortable, and UCSB can get Creighton out of its skin by simply slowing down the tempo.
Joe Pasternak’s team should be able to control the glass and score efficiently on the offensive end. Pasternak’s squad does not turn the ball over or take bad shots. They will secure rebounds on both ends and they will guard you like hell. They are physical and won’t let you get easy baskets. There are not going to be many easy rebounds that will lead to transition opportunities for Creighton.
The Gauchos have had success controlling the pace of play all year, ranking 295th in KenPom in adjusted tempo and 325th on defense. If the Gauchos can make Creighton run its offense in the half-court, they will be in good shape. Creighton’s tallest starting interior defender is Christian Bishop, who stands at 6’7. The Bluejays have a 7-foot center who comes off the bench, but he is not very skilled down low and was absolutely abused by Georgetown. They are going to have a hard time containing the 6’9 physical monster Sow and athletic 6’10 stretch big Miles Norris. Most of Creighton’s losses happened because it couldn’t compete down low, and the Gauchos have the edge there. UCSB scores multiple ways inside: with the pick-and-roll, lobs, back-door cuts, McLaughlin drives, and Sow’s scoring in the post. Sow is averaging 13.7 points, 7.6 assists, and shoots 57% from the field.
Fade 3-point reliant teams
Fading three-point reliant teams against good perimeter defensive teams has been a profitable betting strategy for years. But it makes even more sense in this year’s tournament given the circumstances. Every single team will have to go through the difficulties of the NCAA bubble. When teams entered their NCAA hotels, each player had to isolate for two days. This week is really going to throw teams off rhythm. Simply, it’s going to affect deep shooting teams the most. Having limited practice times in game arenas is just going to throw teams off.
The Gauchos are coming into this game as one of the hottest teams in this tournament. They are playing a Creighton team that lost two out of their last three games to end the regular season and just got blasted by Georgetown. The one thing you know about the Gauchos is they are not going to come out flat. They have a bench mob that stands up and screams the entire game. It frustrated the hell out of UC Irvine’s Russ Turner in the Big West championship game. The Gauchos are playing with extreme confidence overall.
Really, the only thing the Gauchos will need to do is keep this game close until the final minutes. UCSB has the more efficient half-court offense, and it will be able to beat Creighton in a short-spurted half-court game. Also, the Bluejays are horrific at the free-throw line, which might come into play, too.