What can Alabama learn from how Creighton beat UConn in February?

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament  - Practice Day - West Regional
NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament - Practice Day - West Regional / Ronald Martinez/GettyImages

Only three teams have beaten the UConn Huskies all year, and all three did it on their respective home courts. Creighton’s 85-66 win over the Huskies on February 20th was by far the most convincing. 

Alabama is also very familiar with Creighton, having played Greg McDermott’s team earlier this year. Additionally, despite rarely playing each other historically, there is an ongoing tension between the two fanbases going back to a controversial game in 2012. 

In the matchup last November, Alabama ultimately dropped a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair by a score of 85-82. Given that this game was between two of college basketball’s premier offenses, the end result was hardly a surprise. 

So, how did the Bluejays beat UConn so handily?

Creighton’s defensive gameplan

UConn has one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball in recent memory, and yet Creighton was able to hold the Huskies to 66 points on just 3-16 from the three-point line. Creighton’s gameplan was centered around one guy: 7’1” center Ryan Kalkbrenner.

Kalkbrenner is probably the best pure rim-protector in the sport. He finished this season second in the country with over 3.0 blocks per game, and he is even better at “walling up.” He plays with such strict verticality at the rim that he rarely fouls, which eliminates the strategy of attacking him to force foul trouble. 

Creighton’s approach against UConn was to run the Huskies off the three-point line (effectively taking away one of their biggest strengths) and repeatedly funnel the ball to Kalkbrenner. The big man played all 40 minutes, finished with four blocks, and seemingly challenged dozens more in the dominant win. 

Needless to say, this would be a difficult gameplan for Alabama to mimic. The Crimson Tide simply doesn’t have a rim-protector like Kalkbrenner. Still, it could definitely pull from this strategy.

Grant Nelson averages a respectable 1.6 blocks per game and has been playing the best defense of his career in this tournament. He has proven he can protect the rim, blocking nine shots in the last three games including a season-high five rejections against North Carolina.

Alabama could very well try to take away the three-point shot and make UConn finish at the rim. This strategy is appealing because UConn is so dangerous from the perimeter and can shoot opponents right out of the gym with their proficiency. 

However, it is much easier in theory than it is in practice. Additionally, it would be a risky approach given that Nelson is far more foul-prone than Kalkbrenner and could be quickly taken out of the game. 

Creighton’s offensive gameplan

Creighton’s offensive success against UConn is much more replicable by Alabama. The Bluejays were very efficient (nearly 55 percent from the field) and moved the ball well, with 18 assists on 29 made field goals versus just seven turnovers. They also rained threes, hitting 14 triples on a 50 percent clip.

Alabama’s prowess from the three-point line is well-known. Many national pundits are only giving the Tide a chance if they hit an absurd amount of perimeter shots, something they’ve done fairly regularly. 

It won’t be easy against a UConn defense that has throttled some of college hoops’ best offenses. The Huskies held Gonzaga to 63 points, held Creighton to 48 points in Gampel Pavilion, and only allowed 53, 67, and 57 points in three matchups with Marquette. 

Most memorably, UConn suffocated an electric Illinois offense in the Elite 8, holding the Illini to just 52 and limiting Terrence Shannon to eight points. Shannon, one of the nation’s top scorers, hadn’t been held below 25 in his previous seven games.

Still, this Alabama team has more shooters than anybody UConn has seen to this point. With the hopeful and presumed return of Latrell Wrightsell Jr., Bama can trot out lineups with four players shooting over 39 percent from three on high volume. While they are streaky, Aaron Estrada, Grant Nelson, and Jarin Stevenson have also proven they can beat teams from the outside. 

It has been said all year that Alabama can beat anybody if it gets hot. That statement holds true, even as the Crimson Tide prepares to play the most dominant team in college basketball.