By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
No. 6 seed Creighton University brings something to the table that No. 3 seed Baylor men’s basketball hasn’t seen before. Creighton’s junior center Ryan Kalkbrenner stands at an imposing 7-foot-1, 260-pounds and is coming off a career-high 31 points in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
Baylor (23-10) head coach Scott Drew said the team hasn’t gone up against a traditional “big man” like that since the University of Kansas had David McCormack.
“I go back to the Kansas teams with David McCormack,” Drew said. “I think that size probably simulates him a lot more than current basketball. There are several great centers, but in the Big 12 this year we were a little smaller than we normally have been.”
Kalkbrenner, nicknamed “Big Fella,” shined in the Bluejays’ (22-12) 72-63 first round win over No. 11 seed North Carolina State University on Friday in the Ball Arena in Denver. The 7-footer’s 31 points were not only a career high, but also a program record in NCAA Tournament games.
In order to prepare for that size, Drew joked that “we have cowboy boots for Flo [Thamba], so we’re good.” Drew said he believes the forwards on his team have given the squad a good way to emulate what it will be like to go against Kalkbrenner.
Fifth-year senior forward Flo Thamba, who stands at 6-foot-10-inches, said the most important thing will be to keep the ball out of Kalkbrenner’s hands.
“The best thing we can do is just limit his touches,” Thamba said. “Usually if somebody gets the ball and they’re not able to make any kinds of moves and stuff like that. But limiting his touches and limiting other players from scoring the ball, that will definitely play in our favor.”
Thamba will likely be the first matchup Kalkbrenner sees, so he will get the first chance to defend the high-profile “big man.” Junior guard LJ Cryer said the backcourt still has to play a role by applying pressure to Creighton’s guards.
“We see that they like to throw the ball to the posts,” Cryer said. “‘Big Fella’ is pretty good, so we have to be real physical with them and be physical with the guards, as well, to not have those post touches [be] so easy.”
Drew said the hardest part will be trying to juggle focusing on Kalkbrenner or playing a balanced defense. He said ultimately something will have to give and that it may be a “pick your poison” situation.
“Like any good team, they have two or three things,” Drew said. “If you collapse on them, they can hit the three; if you stay out, they hurt you inside. With us, this time of year in one-day prep, you are who you are, you do what you do, and you make a tweak here or there. But definitely everybody sees them on the court, you can’t miss 7-foot-1-inch, 260 [pounds].”
Sunday marks the sixth time that Baylor and Creighton will meet in program history, and second time in a tournament setting. The Bears won the last two meetings against the Bluejays, including an 85-55 shelling in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Baylor shot 63.8% against the Jays in that game, a mark that still stands as the all-time highest FG% in an NCAA Tournament game.
The green and gold’s guard trio continues to lead the way offensively. Baylor is the only Power Six team to have three guards each averaging more than 14.5 points per game. The Bears are also 11-10 in games against quad-one opponents, while CU is 3-9. Baylor’s 11 quad-one wins are the fourth-most in the nation.
Creighton’s sophomore guard Trey Alexander said the Bears’ backcourt of Cryer, freshman guard Keyonte George and redshirt senior guard Adam Flagler stands out in a big way. Alexander said he doesn’t think the Bluejays have faced three guards quite that good.
“I think the Big 12 is a very good conference in terms of guard play,” Alexander said. “I feel like each guard that they have on their team averages over 15 points a game, and they shoot the ball from three very well. It’s going to be a challenge for us just to be able to guard all three of them and contain all three of them.”
CU’s senior guard Baylor Scheierman ironically has the same first name as the school he will be squaring off against. Scheierman said the game should be “a lot of fun” and that preparation has been a bit weird.
“[For] the past 24 hours the coaches have been saying Baylor a lot and it’s kind of thrown me off a little bit,” Scheierman said.
Scheierman joked that when fans are cheering for “Baylor,” it just means he’s getting love from both sides.
Creighton’s head coach Greg McDermott has lots of experience coaching against Drew and the Bears. McDermott not only had the 2014 NCAA Tournament loss to Drew, but he coached at Iowa State University from 2006-10.
McDermott gave lots of praise to Drew and Baylor’s program, but agreed with Alexander that stopping the guard trio will be the focal point for his team.
“Their shot making ability is elite,” McDermott said. “Some teams have two [elite guards], very few teams have three. [Baylor] can afford one guy to have an off-night and still be at a pretty high level on the offensive end. [They have] great 3-point shooters, electric flying off screens and shooting the basketball. We’ll have to be on point defensively and try to be there on the catch as well as we can.”
Tipoff is set for 6:10 p.m. CT in the Ball Arena in Denver. The contest can be watched on TBS, and the winner will advance to the Sweet 16 and face No. 15 seed Princeton University.