Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
The Missouri Valley has had a difficult start, from an NCAA resume perspective, with several teams picking up surprise losses and the top contenders beating up on each other. So, a game that only a couple of weeks ago looked like it might match-up contenders for the conference title, now is a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water, as #126 Evansville (12-5, 4-3) hosts #58 Creighton (14-5, 4-3)
The 2005-2006 season, when the Valley sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament, seems like a long time ago; the Valley has sent just three teams since, and is on track for another lean year. Creighton is one team that held serious hope of an at-large bid coming into the conference season, with an excellent win over Dayton, solid victories over New Mexico and St. Joe’s, and two losses by a combined four points. Things have gone south since the New Year, however, with back-to-back losses to contending teams in Illinois St. and Northern Iowa, and a bad road loss to a last-placed Wichita St. team on Saturday. Evansville put together a strong non-conference record, with some respectable losses to UNC and Butler, but didn’t have any noteworthy victories. Like Creighton, the Aces have had a tough start to 2009, losing heavily at Illinois St. on New Year’s Eve, and dropping games to Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa over the last week.
Creighton fits the stereotypical mid-major role of a strong shooting team with a limited interior presence, and it manages to be fairly effective within that role. The Bluejays shoot nearly 40% from behind the arc, and nearly 80% from the free throw line, but don’t make a lot of two-point shots, and are very weak offensive rebounders. Evansville isn’t well equipped to stop this style of attack: it struggled defensively against two of the other strong three-point shooting teams in Illinois St. and Southern Illinois. The Aces will cause Creighton a lot of trouble on the glass, as they tend to limit opponents’ second chances, and they defend well inside, but Creighton’s shooting advantage will put Evansville under pressure.
Evansville will need to hold off the Bluejays’ attack, because its offense has been a major weak point so far this season. The Aces take fewer shots from three than any other team in the country, but this doesn’t lead to success inside, as they are well below average on shots from two. Evansville does get to the line often, but that’s pretty much the extent of its success, as offensive rebounding and ball control have been trouble spots. Creighton won’t be too effective defending the glass, but should be able to force a lot of turnovers, it is the best team in the Valley at getting opponents to cough up the ball. The Bluejays are only average at stopping shots, but given Evansville’s struggles, average may very well be enough. To score enough to get a victory, Evansville will have to get to the line, and will be helped by Creighton’s tendency to be foul prone.
Senior Booker Woodfox is Creighton’s most important player, leading the Bluejays in scoring, and is one of the nation’s most efficient shooters. The Bluejays’ depth has hurt his pure numbers somewhat, as he has one of the highest points/40 minutes rates in the country, but plays just 25 minutes a game. Woodfox has hit 49% of his numerous three point attempts, and has hit more than 90% of his free throws. He doesn’t have a ton of value outside his shooting, but that is more than enough to make him one of the conference’s elite players. Beyond Woodfox, the Bluejays present a deep group of effective guards. P’Allen Stinnett takes a lot of shots, and makes just enough of them to justify the volume. Josh Dotzler does very little scoring, but he leads the Valley in steals, and the team in assists, along with posting a solid 2.5 A/TO ratio. Cavel Witter is a solid three-point shooter, but is under 40% on two-point shots and commits a lot of turnovers. Justin Carter starts, he’s one of the teams’ better rebounders, but hasn’t shown much offensive value. Kaleb Korver comes off the bench, and, just as you’d suspect, he is a three-point specialist, making 48% of his threes and attempting just four two-pointers so far this season. The Bluejays have just one player over 6-5 who gets significant minutes, 6-9 sophomore Kenny Lawson. Lawson leads the team in rebounds, and the Valley in blocks, while also shooting over 50%. Chad Millard and Kenton Walker provide some size in limited minutes off the bench, while Casey Harriman is a more perimeter oriented forward who has been an effective rebounder, but struggled with his shot.
A couple of undersized forwards are critical to Evansville’s play, led by 6-4 Shy Ely, the Valley’s top scorer, who is effective inside and grabs over 6 rebounds per game, but shoots under 30% from behind the arc. Nate Garner also starts, a 50% shooter who also averages more than 6 boards a game, and gets to the line quite frequently. 6-11 Dutchman Pieter van Tongeren is another starter down low, but he rarely manages to play more than 15 minutes a game, and has seen his role shrink with the start of conference play. Freshman James Haarsma is another forward option, he’s come off the bench to shoot over 50% from the field and be a force on the offensive glass. The backcourt has neither the strength nor the depth of the frontcourt, and its been a source of a fair number of the Aces’ offensive woes. Jason Holsinger is the only player on the Bluejays who takes more threes than twos, but he has been ice-cold lately, just 4-of-25 in 2009. Kaylon Williams is Holsinger’s freshman backcourt partner, an unimpressive shooter who gets to the line a lot and is a strong ball distributer, second in the conference at nearly 5 assists a game. Williams also averages nearly two steals a game, and if he could just improve his shot selection he’d be a very effective player. Kavon Lacey is the only guard who plays significant minutes off the bench, he takes most of his shots inside, and can run the offense ably.
The statistics suggest that there isn’t a whole lot between these two teams, but I don’t like the match-up very much for Evansville, all their losses so far (except for the loss to UNC, which is not really a reasonable comparison) have come against good three-point shooting teams, just like Creighton. However, the Aces’ defense has been stalwart at home, and if they can keep that up they will be right in it. To win, Evansville must attack inside and force fouls from the Creighton defense, and win the rebounding battle fairly clearly, two areas where it should have an advantage. Ultimately, though, Creighton’s shooting should win the day.
Winner: Creighton Margin: 3-7
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.