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Creighton Usually Wins With Offense. This Year, It Has A Defense Too.

In one of the most consequential games in school history, the Creighton Bluejays picked apart a top-10 opponent and its top-30 defense, then irked its head coach by cutting down the nets. It was a fittingly odd and astonishing way for Creighton to capture its first Big East title in program history. Greg McDermott’s team was picked in the preseason to finish seventh in its conference and instead ascended to seventh in the AP Poll to tie the highest mark in the centurylong record of Bluejay basketball.

While Doug McDermott and Kyle Korver might like a word before this season is branded as Creighton’s pinnacle, it is unquestionably rounding into shape as one of its most extraordinary. Only Kansas has been more efficient over the past 10 games, and the Bluejays are currently projected as a No. 2 seed in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology.

Since Greg McDermott arrived in Omaha, Creighton’s identity has been one of fruitful offensive sets and insipid defensive schemes. This figures to be the fourth-consecutive season in which the Bluejays will post an effective field-goal percentage north of 55 percent and rank between the 93rd and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency. But Creighton’s effort and performance on the defensive end this year is what makes a potential tournament run so tantalizing. That’s embodied in the skillset of one player in particular: Ty-Shon Alexander.

Creighton’s win over Seton Hall on Saturday was the perfect showcase for the shooting guard. On the opening possession, Alexander fought over a screen, anticipated a swing pass, tipped it to force a turnover and finished a lay-in on the other end. Minutes later, trailing by a step as his assignment streaked toward the basket, Alexander made up the space in the air and swatted the lay-in off the backboard to jump-start another transition opportunity.

This wasn’t a deviation from the norm. The junior has routinely drawn the toughest on-ball assignment and locked it down. In wins over Marquette and Seton Hall, games in which he shadowed preseason All-Americans Markus Howard and Myles Powell, Creighton had a defensive rating of 103 with Alexander on the court and 114.2 when he sat, according to Pivot Analysis. Howard and Powell each average better than 20 points per game, but both failed to hit the mark against the Jays.

Powell and Howard aren’t the only players getting the straitjacket treatment. Alexander has allowed 197 points on the 316 defensive possessions in which he was the primary defender, according to Synergy Sports. That’s the third-best mark of any Division I player who has logged at least 250 defensive possessions.

There is seemingly no shot that Alexander is willing to let go uncontested, and despite a heavy workload on the offensive end that includes averaging a team high in shot attempts, he taxes his assigned opponent, forcing him to scurry continuously around screens to find available space.

On the other end of the floor, Alexander ranks third in the Big East in scoring (16.9 per game) and is a marksman from the perimeter, one of three Creighton players shooting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc. But he’s grown more comfortable breaking down a defense on the drive and has developed a clever flip pass that he deploys on lobs. Alexander also has a hand in Creighton’s assist rate skyrocketing down the stretch in conference play. And while his assist total doesn’t jump off the stat sheet, he rarely seems to make the wrong pass.

“If there’s a better two-way guard in this league, I don’t know who it is,” McDermott said in February.

Synergy Sports has identified 219 Division I players who has logged at least 300 offensive plays and scored at least 1 point per possession. There are 78 who have logged at least 300 defensive possessions and allowed less than 1 PPP on them. Only four major-conference players appeared on both lists: Alexander, his teammates Mitchell Ballock and Marcus Zegarowski and LSU’s Skylar Mays.

Alexander’s performance has elevated Creighton’s defense to new team-best marks. In the half-court, McDermott is overseeing the second-strongest defense of his Bluejay tenure, allowing 0.85 points per possession. For a unit that ranked in the 22nd percentile in the metric last season, jumping to the 52nd is a sizable leap. Creighton opponents have an effective field-goal percentage of 48.4 this season, the team’s best mark since 2012-13, when the Jays advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

To be sure, a lot of this season’s tourney run will depend on the health of Zegarowski, Creighton’s point guard. The program has struggled too often to accumulate wins in March, and the demons of atrocious perimeter-shooting outputs or off nights from a leading scorer are never far from memory.

But in Alexander, the team has a lockdown wing capable of swinging a game on both offense or defense. From overlooked to conference champions, Creighton is no longer a team that can be ignored. With Alexander excelling on both ends of the floor, Creighton no longer needs to strip a defense down to its studs on the offensive end to stand a chance.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.