Since the beginning of the KenPom era in 2002-03—college basketball's own little Copernican Revolution, during which the laws of the universe finally began to piece themselves together—there hasn't been an offense as efficient or as skilled as the 2014 Creighton Bluejays. But exactly how it operates is even more fascinating than just an onslaught of made threes.
The onset of this Creighton offense is more ridiculous when you consider the context. From last season to this, coach Greg McDermott and his staff have squeezed another 10 points per 100 possessions—from 115 to 125, a monumental improvement—with essentially the same team, and while moving from the historic but ossified Missouri Valley conference to a realignment-ravaged but still BCS-caliber Big East. This is a team that lost only one contributing player from last year (Gregory Echenique), and that is made up of juniors and seniors—two of them fifth-year seniors—so sudden evolution along the bench isn't likely. So just what the hell happened?
How Creighton Works
Creighton's offensive philosophy is simple: We're going to beat the shit out of you with threes, make up for 0ff-games with dribble penetration and cuts, and use the space created by one to kill you with the other.
You know the basics. The Bluejays are led by Doug McDermott, the senior forward who's scored 3,000-plus points and is now ranked fifth all-time on the NCAA's scoring list. Then there's Ethan Wragge, bearded, 6-foot-7, nearly-50-percent-from-three marksman, and the backcourt trio of Grant Gibbs, Austin Chatman, and Devin Brooks, who can run the offense or create shots for themselves.
Four Bluejays have attempted eighty or more threes in 2014, and the team leads the NCAA in three-point percentage. This strategy wasn't always evident—Creighton was taking too many long two-point jumpers a year ago, so the coaching staff exorcised the inefficient mid-range game (roughly 19 percent of the squad's attempts are twos), and instead invested in more threes and more lay-ups. Creighton still doesn't draw free throws the way you'd like, but cutting out the fat has done wonders.
The Creighton offense allows players to freelance in isolation, and the team moves off the ball better than any other team in the tournament, 94 feet of undulating blue and white flashes. But there are a handful of sets that CU has consistently run throughout the season.
Work Off McDermott
Nearly 40 percent of the team's shots are taken by McDermott, and while that high of a usage rate would normally indicate an unbalanced offense, the forward has been completely dialed in this season—he cracked the 180 club in 2014 (52.5 percent from the field, 45.4 percent from three, 86.6 percent from the line). Creighton's offense has benefited from McDermott's defensive attention.
Obviously, this is a little extreme. But it features multiple aspects of the Creighton offense. The Bluejays screen away on McDermott, who then tries to dive to the rim, before being bumped off course. Chatman gets the ball to him anyway, before all five Villanova defenders crash into him, as he tosses the ball out to Wragge for an easy corner three.
Work With McDermott
What makes McDermott so difficult to guard, and why there are so many different sets run for the senior, is his constant movement when on the court. He's never clutching his shorts, or taking a play off in the corner. If he isn't active, the team stalls—McDermott and junior guard Devin Brooks are the only two Bluejays who can effectively break their defender off the bounce and finish—so he never stops working for a shot. But Creighton also has ways to make things easier for him.
Here's Creighton against Seton Hall in late February, and McDermott working an iso against Patrik Auda. He drives by him with a few power dribbles for a relatively easy layup, which seems like it had to be a breakdown. Except, realistically, no Seton Hall defender could help. Wragge was the lone Bluejay on the weakside, camped out in the corner. And almost comically, the other three Creighton players were huddled up outside the arc on the strongside, totally away from the play. That left McDermott, alone at the top of the key, and free to drive right, where the help defense had to decide if it wanted to give up a drive to the hoop or an open corner three.
That doesn't mean the other players on the floor just stand around on every play, though.
Creighton thrives on passing and screening away. A favored set for coach McDermott is to have either a guard or Wragge set a screen for McDermott at the top of the three-point line, which he'll run off of and immediately catch and shoot. Here, Providence actually reads the play correctly and jumps the screen to run McDermott off the shot, so CU simply runs the play twice. They regroup and run the exact same screen, and McDermott, this time from a little farther out, splashes a three.
The Delayed Double Screen
McDermott and another big—either Wragge or Will Artino—will often both flash to the free throw line, and use a delayed double pick that presents several scoring options. In this GIF, McDermott, the second screener, is left open for a three, but there are other occasions where the opposing big hedges and stays too long, and Artino is available for an ally-oop. It is Creighton's most efficient play call, a set that almost always results in a made basket.
This play is so good, in fact, that in the second half, against Xavier in the Big East tournament, Creighton ran this play four straight times, and scored on all four:
You see everything here. The first screener slipping to the basket for a layup, defenders crowding the ballhandler and leaving McDermott open from three, and even the defenders staying home, but not recovering fast enough to prevent one of the screeners from rolling to the hoop and establishing position for an easy feed. We have to stress this: The Bluejays ran the same play, on the same side of the court, four straight times against an NCAA tournament at-large team, and made four field goals.
Defensive Rebounding and Transition
When I spoke to coach McDermott during the preseason, he was worried about how the team's defensive rebounding would translate after the conference swap. Since he took over the Bluejays in 2010, they've consistently kept teams off the offensive glass, and the prospect of giving up that advantage in the bigger, tougher Big East concerned him.
McDermott had two basic fears. 1. Allowing too many offensive boards is generally a shitty way to play defense, and 2. dominating the glass jumpstarts Creighton's transition. The Bluejays don't run often, but they love getting out for those quick-hitting, defense-breaking shots—an outlet to a guard while the other four Bluejays fill the lanes and camp out on the three-point line. McDermott is a wrecking ball on these plays, but McDermott is a wrecking ball on most plays. On top of him, Wragge—whose jumpers are so pure they have their own nickname, Wragge Bombs—is at his best here.
In transition, Wragge is typically the trailer, dragging behind waiting for his defender to sink below the three-point line to help with penetration. The rest of the geometry is simple enough; he saunters across half-court, cozies up to the arc—or if his man hasn't sagged far enough, maybe just queues up from 28 feet—and lobs in a three at something like the 47.3 percent he's shooting on the season.
Here, Austin Chatman pushes the break before swinging it to Jahenns Manigat, who doesn't find room to drive, but McDermott dives toward the hook, bringing three defenders with him, leaving the trailing Wragge open once he's in place for a long three. Wragge doesn't get much lift on his shot, but more than makes up for it with height and picture-perfect shooting form.
Moving Away From The Ball
We can't describe Creighton's offense, and McDermott's, without talking about how well McDermott runs off cuts. DVDs should be made of how McDermott directs his man into the Creighton screener, shoulder meeting shoulder, hip at hip, and McDermott looking like a man running from the cops across a narrow ledge. He tip-toes at full speed before the catch, and then uses his quickness and positioning to clear space for a shot.
Not every play is designed for McDermott—the big guy's got to take a breather every once in a while—and Creighton has developed an efficient pick and roll game for when he isn't in there. Once given a step, Brooks can easily get to the rim, and Artino's hands and coordination have improved immeasurably in his three CU seasons. He rolls well to the basket, and can not only catch the ball in traffic, but finish above the rim.
Notice Wragge camping out away from the action, and the other Creighton players running their men away from the play, like in the McDermott ISO.
And if teams attempt to follow Providence's lead and implement a 2-3 zone to slow down Creighton, the team has an ingenious play where the top of the zone is cross screened, allowing the CU ball-handler to split the zone unmolested and then, when the center/forward rises to prevent penetration, lobs to either Artino or McDermott.
Of course, all of this action is only possible because of Creighton's very specific team makeup. Surrounding the national player of the year with four three-point shooters is a defense's nightmare, and affords the coaching staff a massive advantage when scheming against various defenses. But those two things working in unison, roster and play-calling, make Creighton almost fundamentally unstoppable within the confines of college basketball.