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Final Four Sleeper: Creighton or Murray St.?

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A surprise, non-BCS conference Final Four entrant from a non-power conference seemingly has become an annual rite of March. George Mason upset Connecticut to make the 2006 Final Four, Butler has earned spots in the last two national title games - and was joined in the last year’s Final Four by VCU.

With that in mind, we try and locate the identity of this year’s Final Four party-crasher after having narrowed down the choices: Creighton or Murray State (we don’t consider UNLV a Cinderella)? We debate.

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Murray State Will Be Cinderella: Here’s what I love most about the Racers: They have the experience of getting to March Madness and winning there but also the pain of losing a heart-breaker in the Big Dance; seeing both sides of the tournament is invaluable experience that will serve them well this March.

We all remember Danero Thomas’ jumper in the 2010 tournament to shock No. 4 seed Vanderbilt, but Murray State also came painfully close to defeating a Butler team that almost won the national title that season. The Racers then suffered through the disappointment of being relegated to the NIT last year.

It’s clear that this team full of upperclassmen that went through both experiences is determined to make a memorable run this March. They remind me a lot of the 2006 George Mason squad and 2011 VCU team that reached the Final Four with experienced guys without NBA futures. No, the Racers don’t have any NBA hopefuls like Doug McDermott, but they have a very balanced team and a clutch shooter in leading scorer Isaiah Canaan (18.5 PPG).

Not only have the Racers defeated solid teams like Southern Miss and Memphis so far this season, they seem to never take a night off in conference play by winning each of their games by double digits until Saturday. That’s exactly the mindset you need in the tournament, which is an absolute grinder that can wear out inexperienced teams.

I’m worried that Creighton may fall to the “Northern Iowa Syndrome” we saw in 2010: Pull a big upset like UNI did by knocking off Kansas, then fall flat the next game because it seemingly wasn’t prepared for stepping its game up even another level to reach the Final Four.

If the Racers go undefeated all the way up until Selection Sunday, a very real possibility, they have a great shot at a No. 3 seed and even conceivably a No. 2. I also especially like the Racers if they face up with a No. 1 seed full of freshmen and sophomores that seem to just be playing street ball with future lottery picks. Murray State is exactly the kind of team that someone like Baylor doesn’t want to face - a team that is mature and experienced enough not to get intimated by the Baylor’s lineup of future lottery picks.

I’m not going to lie that it makes me a little nervous the Racers are guided by a first-year head coach in Steve Prohm. I would be more comfortable predicting the Racers to land in New Orleans if Billy Kennedy were still in western Kentucky instead of College Station, TX, but then again, who had heard of Shaka Smart before last March? – Jim Weber

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Creighton’s Slipper Will Fit: It seems sometimes that there really is no rhyme or reason to March Madness. But if you still believe in a true winning formula in college hoops’ big month, the Blue Jays certainly can provide one.

They have a true go-to scorer who can take over at the end of games. This is important at any level of basketball; as we witnessed in last June’s NBA Finals, it’s about finishing the games. While LeBron James did not, I think that star forward Doug McDermott can on college basketball’s biggest stage.

From a tournament perspective, eventual champion Connecticut came into last year’s postseason struggling to a 9-9 regular-season Big East record before sweeping the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

The main reason? Kemba Walker, who knew how to grab a game by its throat - in whatever manner necessary - and carry the Huskies to the finish line. That’s what McDermott can do for Creighton.

No, he does not play for a power school like Connecticut nor was he a super recruit like Walker, but he’s certainly a legitimate NBA prospect who could be the best player on the floor on most nights in March. The 6-foot-7 forward averages 24.5 points - good for second in the nation - and 8.3 rebounds.

But don’t mistake the Blue Jays for Davidson with Stephen Curry, who had so many defenders shadowing him that he shot some 3-pointers from the parking lot.

Creighton has others options, and that’s why I think they will make it to the Final Four - unlike Davidson. Bruising 6-foot-9 center Gregory Echenique (9.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG) provides a presence in the middle, while senior point guard Antoine Young (12.1 PPG, 4.2 APG) - who led the Missouri Valley in assists last season - gives the team a steady floor general.

So Creighton has a go-to player, supporting cast and a style of play that lends itself to March wins. The Blue Jays are second in the nation in team assists per game (19.9), tied for second in 3-point percentage (45.2%) and tied for eighth in team scoring average (81.9).

We know that cohesiveness and a potent offense are good in any basketball game, but shots from the arc can slay any NCAA Tournament giant.

And I think Creighton will slay enough to arrive in New Orleans with a shot at the big prize. - Anthony Olivieri


 
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