Creighton Bluejays vs. Akron Akron Pick & Prediction MARCH 21st 2024

PITTSBURGH — Creighton is one of the most experienced teams in not only the NCAA Tournament, but Division I as a whole.

The six-man rotation that plays the vast majority of the Bluejays’ minutes is comprised of four seniors, junior Trey Alexander and sophomore Mason Miller — all with prior tournament experience. ranks Creighton the eighth-most experienced lineup in the country based on minutes played.

That means Creighton, the third seed in the Midwest Region, is wise enough not to overlook No. 14 seed Akron in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

“This is my third time, (Ryan Kalkbrenner’s) fourth time in an NCAA Tournament,” Alexander said. “We’ve grown to know that you have to take it one game at a time and focus on the game at hand, because the moment you start to look forward, then that’s when teams tend to lose and get upset.”

Creighton (23-9) enters its fourth straight NCAA Tournament with plenty of credibility. The Bluejays won a game in each of the past three tourneys, including a Sweet 16 trip in 2021 and a run to the Elite Eight last year.

The Bluejays retained most of last year’s roster and added Steven Ashworth, who had 12 points, six rebounds and four assists in Utah State’s tournament loss to Missouri in 2023.

Creighton is powered by an offense that scores 80.5 points per game. Thanks to Kalkbrenner, the 7-footer with 97 blocked shots and averaging 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, Creighton ranks third in the country in 2-point shooting percentage (60.6). Meanwhile, Baylor Scheierman (team-high 18.4 points, 9.0 rebounds per game), Alexander (17.6), Ashworth (10.7), Miller and sixth man Francisco Farabello are all threats from the outside.

The Bluejays’ first test is against MAC champion Akron (24-10), whose fans will have less than a two-hour drive to get to their first-round site in Pittsburgh.

“Akron was one that I felt was probably deserving of a higher seed than 14, because I think they’re a really good basketball team and I know how well-coached they are,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “And then you’ve got to play them in their own backyard.”

The Zips were the second seed in their conference tournament and survived rival Kent State in the championship game, winning 62-61 when a Kent State player intentionally fouled by mistake after his team took a one-point lead in the final seconds.

Ali Ali tallied 18 points, five rebounds and five assists with three 3-pointers in the title game for Akron. He’s second on the team with 15.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest.

The Zips are anchored by Enrique Freeman. He may have a 5-inch height disadvantage to Kalkbrenner, but standing just 6-foot-7 didn’t stop Freeman from being the leading rebounder in Division I, averaging 12.9 per game to go with his 18.6 points.

Freeman also led the country with 30 double-doubles in his 34 games.

Like Creighton, Akron can take a “been here before” mentality. The Zips made the tournament two years ago, and coach John Groce has guided three different schools (Ohio, Illinois and Akron) to March Madness.

Freeman, Ali, Greg Tribble and Mikal Dawson were on the tournament team that lost to UCLA in the first round in 2022.

“Those guys having been through that, obviously, I think it’s made them hungrier,” Groce told the Akron Beacon Journal.

–Adam Zielonka, Field Level Media

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