Prior to the formation of the American Athletic Conference in 2014, the University of Memphis was primed to become a member of the Big East. Complications surrounding the original seven non-football playing members of the league ultimately derailed those plans. In their second-round game of the NIT, the Tigers will travel to face one of the teams that replaced them in one of college basketball’s most historically rich conferences. It’s worth noting that at the time this article was written, it was not announced when and what time the two will match up.
The second seeded Creighton Blue Jays, who have reached the NCAA tournament in three of the last five years, finished their regular season 18-14 and knocked off Loyola-Chicago in their opening round game. Although they may not have had as successful of a run as they are accustomed to recently, Greg McDermott’s team still boasts impressive wins over Marquette and Clemson.
Since November, Penny Hardaway has consistently preached the importance of defensive effort and how it translates to team success. In a hostile environment, it will be critical for the Tigers to come locked in and ready to defend with intensity and togetherness.
While Creighton is led by sophomore guard Ty-Shon Alexander, who scores 16 points per game, their deep roster also features three other players who all average at least double figures. Forward Martin Krampelj leads the Blue Jays in rebounding with seven per contest and his 13.8 points per game (ppg) is good for second on the team.
The Blue Jays will have the advantage from beyond the arc as they come into this one with nine players shooting above 35 percent from deep. For the sake of comparison, the only Tigers shooting the long ball at that same clip are Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, and Antwann Jones. Creighton shoots nearly 40 percent as a group from downtown, and they’ll surely be aiming to shoot their opponents out of the gym.
In their biggest win over the year, a 66-60 win at then 10th ranked Marquette, the Blue Jays did not have their best shooting percentage night but forced 22 turnovers and won the rebounding margin by three. Despite an early exit from their league tourney, McDermott’s group has shown they can win close games even when they aren’t playing their best, a hallmark of good programs.
For Memphis, this matchup represents a chance to show how far they’ve come as a unit since the start of the season when they struggled to hold leads and close out games. For Jeremiah Martin and the rest of the seniors, this may be the last time they ever get to suit up in a Memphis uniform. Three Tigers poured in at least 15 points in the win over the Toreros, and Hardaway knows that his team is much harder to beat when the production is spread out evenly among the lineup.
Against the Blue Jays, they cannot afford to get beat on the glass like they did in their first-round contest. If they do get down in the rebounding column, it will be hard for a team with such well-documented struggles in road games to overcome their opposition’s lethal three-point shooting. Look for Hardaway’s bunch to try to chase shooters off the perimeter and force them to try to win with dribble-drives inside.
Regardless of the outcome of this one, it cannot go without saying how drastic the transformation the program has undergone in the last calendar year has been. If they do end up getting eliminated in Omaha, Memphis fans can feel comfortable knowing the future is bright.