Creighton Bluejays need to overcome major injury issues when they face the Kansas Jayhawks

While the Creighton Bluejays earned a hard-fought win over the San Diego State Aztecs in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it came with a price.

Sophomore center Ryan Kalbrenner is out for the rest of the tournament, most importantly including Saturday night, after suffering a knee injury in the opening-round win. It shouldn’t keep him out going into next season, but it’s severe enough to severely impact the Bluejays as they look for their second consecutive Sweet 16.

“It’s kind of sad that he went down the way he did,” senior forward Keyshawn Fezell said. “But it’s kind of what we’ve been doing all year, just figuring it out, next man up. You know, we’ve been battling injuries and adversity all year. So we’ve been figuring it out to this point, I feel like we’re going to continue to do the same thing and just keep going.”

Adopting a “next man up” mindset and actually replacing the previous man’s production are considerably different tasks. The 7-foot-1 Kalkbrenner is Creighton’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per contest. He’s also been the Bluejays’ most efficient scorer, shooting from the field at a 64.6% clip.

It’s on the defensive end, though, where Creighton may have the most trouble replicating his impact.

“Not often do you build your defense around one guy,” Creighton coach Doug McDermott said. “And we’ve totally changed what we’ve done defensively in the past because of his skill set. And his ability to anchor our defense at the basket, and anchor it with intelligence.”

With or without Kalkbrenner, McDermott knows that facing top-seeded Kansas will be a major challenge for his team.

“Obviously, we’ve got a heck of a challenge ahead of us,” McDermott said. “Not only playing a team as good as Kansas and as well coached as they are by coach Self, doing it without the anchor of our defense, obviously, provides a lot of challenges. But obviously, we’re still excited to be in this position, excited to play the game. Our guys aren’t afraid of anything.”

The Jayhawks are coming into the weekend after cruising in their tournament opener, an 83-56 blowout win over 16-seed Texas Southern.

McDermott and Kansas coach Bill Self are long-time acquaintances, and these programs are fairly familiar with one another after facing off in Lawrence last season.

However, this is a much difference Bluejays team than the one that played at Allen Fieldhouse in December 2020. In fact, a majority of Creighton’s starting lineup wasn’t on the team a year ago. For Self, that means he didn’t even look at tape of last year’s meeting in preparation for Saturday’s game. For McDermott, it’s the latest chapter in the story of numerous players from numerous backgrounds growing together.

“We’re going to play tomorrow with three transfers, two that are in their first year, and Alex [O’Connell] in their second year, and four freshmen,” McDermott said.” That’s all we have left for scholarship players. But they’re going to give their teammates their best shot. I know that for a fact.”

O’Connell, who’s in his second season with the Bluejays but didn’t play in the game at Kansas last season, is still familiar with the Jayhawks after facing them while he was at Duke. He offered up what he thinks Creighton needs to do to combat the top seed in the region.

“…Just handle their pressure and just be ready for everything that they’re bringing,” O’Connell said. “They’re a tough, talented team. They’ve got a lot of depth. They’re long and athletic. So just for us to continue to play with the resilience that we have is going to be pretty key for this next game.”

When Saturday’s game tips off at 1:40 p.m., Creighton will have a chance to knock off a higher-seeded team for the second time in three days to reach the fifth Sweet 16 in program history. It’s not just any higher-seeded team that they’re facing though, and the Bluejays will have to do it without their defensive anchor and a leading offensive contributor.

McDermott said his group is excited for the opportunity they have in the second round, but admitted to how big of a challenge this game is.

“You know, they’re one of the best programs in college basketball,” McDermott said. “And any time you have an opportunity to kind of test your meddle against a team like that, it’s a lot of fun.”