Can Creighton beat Alabama? Blue Jays make statement vs. Baylor

Passing the team from his shoulders to the next pair, Ryan Kalkbrenner approached Ryan Nembhard seeking guidance.

“What do you want to do on those midrange shots?” the 7-foot-1 Creighton center asked the (generously measured) 6-foot point guard. Baylor’s stellar guard play was matching Creighton’s, and the Blue Jays needed to figure out an adjustment.

Nembhard’s career-high 30-points were the attention grabber in Creighton’s 85-76 win Sunday at Ball Arena, but his intelligence and leadership have been every bit as valuable to the Blue Jays’ second trip to the Sweet 16 in three years.

His relationship with Kalkbrenner is simple. Nembhard is the communicative floor general; the soft-spoken Kalkbrenner diligently makes himself useful. “I don’t have to talk to him too much because I take a look at him and I kind of know what he means,” Kalkbrenner said, “and he doesn’t have to direct me too much because he says one thing to me and I (get it).”

This particular NCAA Tournament adjustment worked wonders. Nembhard suggested that Kalkbrenner step up to provide higher weak-side help defense. “We knew that they had their roller, so we were a little bit concerned about that,” Nembhard said. “Weakside help and him stepping up a little bit to make those shots a little tougher.”

“I don’t know if they hit a midrange after that,” Kalkbrenner said.

This Sweet 16 is every bit sweeter for how the Blue Jays accomplished it, and against whom. Nine years ago, Creighton was a No. 3 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference led by coach Greg McDermott’s sharpshooting son, Doug. Baylor was the burgeoning No. 6 seed. But the Bears ended the McDermotts’ dream season with a 30-point rout.

The seeds were swapped this time, but the same number advanced in the bracket.

“I know they’re taking a lot of pride in what happened tonight,” Greg McDermott said of the 2014 team.

The connections even extend to a personal level. Nembhard’s older brother, Andrew, was a starter for the Gonzaga team that lost to Baylor in the 2021 national championship game. (Ryan Nembhard said that hadn’t occurred to him, however.)

Heck, Creighton even has a guard named Baylor Scheierman. According to a December 2022 article in the Omaha World-Herald, he was literally named after the university. “I was?” the Aurora, Nebraska, native said, laughing. “I couldn’t tell you.” He scored eight points in the win.

What could be more satisfying than all those layers of revenge? The excitement of what awaits in Louisville. These Blue Jays are marching toward a regional date with the darlings of the dance, 15-seed Princeton. It’s a lip-smacking opportunity for the program to advance to its first Elite Eight, where the tournament’s top overall seed, Alabama, could stand tall between Creighton and the net-cutting ladders.

None of the Crimson Tide’s suitors so far have proven that Alabama can be beaten, or is even mortal. Why couldn’t it be Creighton? In a tournament where teams are often done in by their one-dimensionality, Creighton has passed its first two tests in resoundingly different ways. The amped-up Jays hanging out in the locker room after Sunday’s win were insistent that they have the versatility to be a Final Four team.

“Each night, it could be a different guy,” Scheierman said.

Kalkbrenner dropped 31 against North Carolina in the first round. Nembhard, 13 inches closer to the ground, almost matched it, scoring 30 on 13 field goal attempts.

“We look up to him even though he’s shorter than us,” Arthur Kaluma said.

“Personally, I don’t look up to him,” deadpanned 6-foot-4 guard Trey Alexander, who added 17 points and eight rebounds vs. Baylor.

Nembhard, nicknamed “R2” by his teammates, is playing in his first NCAA Tournament as a sophomore — he was unable to play last season after breaking his wrist. So this is his first opportunity to show off an IQ beyond his years.

He developed it riding the bench in high school. On a Montverde super-team featuring Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes and Moses Moody, Nembhard listened, learned then applied it when the garbage-time opportunities presented themselves. (Those chances were pretty common.)

“The practices were harder than the games,” he said.

The confidence and competitiveness came from backyard clashes with his brother, who’s playing solid minutes for the Indiana Pacers now. Nembhard’s dad always told him “you’re probably not going to play a dude in college better than your brother.”

So when Nembhard notices a defensive adjustment needs to be made, he’s not avoiding it. There’s also another factor, which McDermott pointed out: “R2 was tired of getting scored on. So of course he wanted to come up with a different idea.”

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