It should be another close matchup typical of the 8-9 game as San Diego State takes on Creighton in Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday night. The Big East faces off against the Mountain West, pitting two of the better conferences outside of the Power 5. Defense figures to be the name of the contest as both are stout on that side of the ball.
Creighton is 22-11 and is coming off a 54-48 loss to Villanova in the Big East Tournament championship game. The Bluejays went 8-3 during the non-conference portion of their schedule, with their best wins coming over BYU (83-71) and North Dakota State (80-55). Even their losses were respectable: two were to fellow NCAA Tournament teams Colorado State (95-81) and Iowa State (64-58), and the Pac-12's Arizona State barely came back to win 58-57.
Creighton is making its 23rd NCAA Tournament appearance and has 14-23 record in those games. Last season saw the fifth-seeded Bluejays beat UC Santa Barbara and Ohio before falling 83-65 to eventual national runner-up Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
San Diego State (23-8) also lost in the championship game of its conference tournament, falling by just one point (53-52) to Boise State for the Mountain West title. The Aztecs lost to fellow Tournament teams USC (58-43) and Michigan (72-58), as well as BYU (66-60) in non-conference play, but defeated Saint Mary's 63-53 in the Jerry Colangelo Classic in Phoenix on Dec. 17. The Gaels from the West Coast Conference are the No. 5 seed in the East Region.
This is San Diego State's 14th NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. The Aztecs are 6-13 overall, including last year's 78-62 upset loss to Syracuse in the 6/11 game.
Midwest Region: No. 9 Creighton Bluejays (22-11) vs. No. 8 San Diego State Aztecs (23-8)
Time: Thursday, March 17 at 7:27 p.m. ET
Where: Dickies Arena (Fort Worth, Texas)
Spread: San Diego State -2.5
Keys for Creighton
The Bluejays' predicted demise when freshman point guard Ryan Nembhard suffered a season-ending wrist injury on Feb. 23 has not materialized. The team is 3-3 since that game with wins over Big East rivals and fellow Tournament teams Providence, UConn, and Marquette.
Creighton's offense last year was full of shooters, but this year's bunch struggles from distance, ranking 314th nationally in 3-point percentage (30.7 percent). Fortunately, the Bluejays are much more effective inside the arc where they shoot nearly 54 percent. But even before Nembhard's injury, turnovers have been a problem with Creighton coughing it up on 20.5 percent of their possessions.
The ball security issues are mitigated by the Bluejays' stifling defense. They are ninth in the country against two-point field goals (43.5 percent) and 73rd from 3-point range (31.7 percent). They don't force a lot of turnovers but have a weapon in the paint in center Ryan Kalkbrenner, who averages 2.7 blocks per game. He also is one of four players averaging at least five rebounds per game and one of three available double-digit scorers.
Keys for San Diego State
The Aztecs have been built on defense for years under head coach Brian Dutcher, and this year's version is no different. They are second in the nation in points allowed per game (57.7), rank sixth overall in two-point field goal shooting percentage allowed, and are 33rd from beyond the arc. SDSU has held opponents to 60 points or fewer in 20 of their 31 games. The Aztecs force more than 14 turnovers per game, which could be a factor with Creighton missing its starting point guard.
It's a good thing that San Diego State is so strong defensively because points are typically hard to come by. The Aztecs are 307th (out of 350 Division I teams) in scoring offense at 65.3 points per game. That's the worst of any team in this year's field of 68. They struggle to shoot from any spot on the floor and are at 43.3 percent overall as a team, which ties them for 206th. SDSU also ranks 253rd from the free-throw line (69.5 percent).
The bulk of the offense comes from senior guard Matt Bradley, the team's only double-digit scorer (17.0 ppg). He still manages to produce despite the fact that's he's item No. 1 and No. 2 on opponent scouting reports. Four other Aztecs average at least seven points per game, including senior forward Nathan Mensah, who leads the team in rebounding (7.1 per game) and blocked shots (2.2).
This will be a low-scoring game because both teams have offensive weaknesses and defensive strengths. I also think the loss of Nembhard will be felt by Creighton more in this matchup because of the pressure San Diego State can apply. It's been a great season for the young Bluejays but it ends here in the Round of 64.
Prediction: San Diego State 65, Creighton 61
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.