NEWARK, N.J. — Creighton coach Greg McDermott did not need to peruse the box score or ponder some intellectual response. Standing outside the visiting locker room Wednesday night at the Prudential Center after his team's seventh straight victory -- a 75-62 win at Seton Hall -- the Bluejays' coach instantly identified the key to his team's dominant run with the game on the line.
"We defended without fouling in the second half," he said.
Of all the things to be known for as a program, being the team that rarely fouls is among the most obscure and least marketable. But for No. 23 Creighton (16-8, 10-3 Big East), it's a trait that is central to explaining the team's rally from ato Big East title contention.
The Bluejays have consistently fouled less than most teams during McDermott's 13-year tenure. This season, they have taken it to extreme heights, committing fewer fouls than anyone in the country at just 12.8 per game.
"We emphasize it a lot, especially because we have (Ryan) Kalkbrenner back there to alter shots," Creighton wing Baylor Scheierman said. "So we don't really need to strip or get dumb fouls."
The way the Bluejays see it, if you happen to beat them off the dribble, they aren't going to foul while trying to recover. Instead, they dare the dribble penetrator to try and score at the rim against Kalkbrenner. The 7-foot junior leads the Big East in blocks at 2.4 per game and alters numerous more.
It's no coincidence that he is also elite in the under-appreciated skill of foul-avoidance. In 86 career games, Kalkbrenner has never fouled out, and he's finished with four fouls only six times. This season, he is averaging just 1.6 fouls per game, which has allowed him to log 31.1 minutes per contest.
Only twice this season has anyone in a Creighton uniform fouled out of a game. For a team ranked No. 350 in bench minutes, per Kenpom.com, limiting fouls also allows McDermott to keep optimum lineups on the floor.
"That's helped us," McDermott acknowledged.
Creighton is No. 2 nationally behind only Purdue in opponent's free-throw rate, and it's hard to argue with the philosophy. The four times when Creighton has committed 17 or more fouls this season, it has lost.
Conversely, the Bluejays are 7-1 when committing 10 or fewer fouls.
In the 12 games since Kalkbrenner returned from missing nearly three weeks with illness in December, Creighton is 10-0 when making more free throws than its opponents and 0-2 when it doesn't.
"It's something we take pride in and we practice," McDermott said. "When you have a rim protector back there like Kalkbrenner, you certainly don't want to foul anybody at 15 feet on the way to the basket. You want to make them deal with him on the back side."
But Kalkbrenner did pick up two fouls in the first half against Seton Hall, with the second coming at the 1:38 mark. McDermott benched him for the final minute of the half, inserting 6-10 freshman Fredrick King with Creighton ahead by a point.
What came next embodied the Bluejays' foul-avoidance culture under McDermott.
King, who has been foul-prone at times early in his career, elevated and successfully contested a lay-up attempt from Seton Hall's Kadary Richmond just before the halftime buzzer. Best of all, he didn't foul.
McDermott is not normally among the most animated Big East coaches in terms of sideline demeanor, but King's foul-free rim protection elicited some exuberance. He bounded onto the floor, pumping his fist and embracing King before Creighton began its trot to the visiting locker room after denying the Pirates a go-ahead basket.
"You have a freshman in Frederick King that went up with two hands and met the guy at the rim," McDermott said. "To see a freshman grow like that and make a play in a big situation, it was a big moment for Fred. I was excited for our team and also really excited for him."
Kalkbrenner returned to the lineup after halftime and played 19 of the final 20 minutes, picking up just one more foul along the way. As a team, Creighton kept Seton Hall from reaching the bonus in the second half, depriving the Pirates of an essential source of offense.
Avoiding the whistle
The Division I teams that are committing the fewest fouls this season.
|Team||Games||Record||Fouls||Fouls per game|
-- Source: NCAA
Seton Hall entered ranking No. 7 nationally in free-throw rate. Against Creighton, the Pirates did not score a single point from the charity stripe in the second half.
It's a good thing, because the four times when opponents have made more free throws than Creighton this season, the Bluejays lost.
But there is no denying the Bluejays have found a philosophy that works and are enjoying the results while continuing an impressive climb up the league standings and national rankings.
"We are blessed to have one of the best rim protectors in the country," McDermott said, "and our guys have done a good job of making sure we send them to him."