Big West meets Big East in one of the most intriguing matchups of the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
UC Santa Barbara returns to the Big Dance for the first time in 10 years, seeking its first win since the 1990 Gauchos came just a few buckets shy of reaching the Sweet 16. Much has changed in the three decades since then — UCSB shared a conference with the national champions that year, UNLV — but the 2021 Gauchos have the pieces to advance to the Tournament's second weekend.
Getting past Creighton is a tall order, though. The Bluejays have one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball and built an impressive resume with regular-season wins over UConn and Villanova. Creighton aims for its first Sweet 16 since the expansion of the Tournament in the late '70s, but must get past an opponent with just one loss in 2021.
West Region: No. 12 UCSB (22-4) vs. No. 5 Creighton (20-8)
Time: Saturday, March 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Creighton -7.5
Keys for UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Barbara closed out the calendar year 2020 with back-to-back losses to UC Irvine — the last Big West Conference team to play in the NCAA Tournament and winner of a first-round game in 2019 — then proceeded to win every game in 2021 but one.
Few teams come into the field as hot as the Gauchos. Few teams in the Tournament can get as dangerously hot from 3-point range, too. UCSB features three 3-point shooters in Miles Norris, JaQuori McLaughlin and Ajare Sanni who are hitting better than 38 percent for the year. The Gauchos don't rely on the 3-point for their main source of scoring but effectively work from inside-out.
UCSB ranks among the very best interior scoring teams, utilizing their length in the paint to draw in defenses and setting up the long-range shooters. Big man Amadou Sow shoots almost 60 percent from inside the arc, and Norris at 6-foot-10 balances his outside shooting with a 54 percent average inside.
Creighton defends shooters well, allowing just 46 percent shooting on field goals, so something will have to give.
Keys for Creighton
Oftentimes, first-round matchups between power-conference programs and mid-major champions have size mismatches. That's the case here, but with roles reversed: UCSB is the much taller team on average, but Creighton counters with effective perimeter play.
Marcus Zegarowski can take over with his scoring, whether operating as a slasher or bombing away (better than 41 percent from 3-point range). Damien Jefferson is an outstanding complement to Zegarowski with similar skills, and Christian Bishop mixes it up effectively on the inside.
A critical need for Creighton, particularly in a matchup like this, is for the long-range shot to fall. The Bluejays' distribution of 3-point offense is nearly 38 percent, one of the highest such ratios in the NCAA Tournament field per KenPom.com metrics. Drawing out the rangy UCSB defense with some made buckets early could open the rest of the floor.
Creighton's offensive efficiency is beautiful when it's clicking. UCSB isn't necessarily the kind of opponent equipped to drag the Bluejays into a rock fight in the way Georgetown did successfully during the Big East Tournament championship game, but the Gauchos' length could cause problems.
A game in the 70s works to Creighton's advantage; in the 60s plays to UCSB's benefit.
Prediction: UCSB 66, Creighton 64
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.