Ryan Kalkbrenner, a mountain of a man living the high life in the Rockies, also is a man of few words.
Pro tip: Get the Creighton star center talking about Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic.
“He's such a fantastic player,” Kalkbrenner was telling me after the 7-foot-1 junior made like the Joker in No. 6 Creighton’s awesome 72-63 win over No. 11 NC State Friday at Ball Arena.
Just to be clear: Was that “Kalk” or Joker leading the home jerseys to a triumph in LoDo?
Try Kalkbrenner’s enormous shoes on for size: 31 points (11 makes, only three misses), seven rebounds, three blocks, two assists with fewer than 2 (out of 40) minutes on the bench. Big fella even swished the only 3-pointer he flicked.
The 6-foot-11 Jokic still owns Ball Arena. The 7-foot-1 Kalkbrenner leased it for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Nothing surprises me from Kalk,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said after the Bluejays advanced to face No. 3 Baylor in what promises to be a barnburner at Ball on Sunday.
The surprise here? If there was a more electric atmosphere than Ball Arena among the eight tournament sites. Goodness gracious, Colorado, You’re the real MVP. I’ve experienced NCAA sites from Auburn Hills to Oklahoma City to Portland to Indy and pit stops in between. Never in my time have I heard an NCAA joint as loud or more festive than Ball Arena on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Tomorrow might be a little slow for them,” McDermott said, referencing the green beer on tap.
Baylor’s fans brought the green. UCSB’s fans brought the NCAA Tournament heartache, sticking with Baylor before falling late and strolling over to applaud its own fans. Next up, the Walmart crowd that’s spending money like crazy on the Broncos needs to bring a domed arena that brings Denver a deserved Final Four.
“Going through the starting lineups,” Kalkbrenner said, “I could barely hear myself.”
“It felt like a home game in Omaha,” he added.
Considering how long it’s been on the hoops scene, some folks might find it surprising Creighton shows only one Sweet 16 on its tournament resume. Two years ago the Jays hummed into the Round of 16 before losing to a Gonzaga juggernaut that finished 31-1. Then last year Kalkbrenner experienced heartbreak, a knee injury in a first-round win over San Diego State. His Big Dance closed early, as did Creighton’s dreams of another Sweet 16.
The mountain of a man was a man on a Rocky Mountain mission Friday.
What didn’t he do? The smooth step-through to score against NC State pickup truck DJ Burns, a 275 pound road block. The baby hook shot over another poor fella from the ACC. The necessary buckets when the Pack built a seven-point lead and threatened to pull away in the second half.
"Got a lead, lost the lead, got the lead back," McDermott said.
Creighton had no answer for N.C. State scorer Terquavion Smith, who brought to mind former Wolfpack and Nuggets guard Julius Hodge. Smith had 32 points and made it look easy.
At least for one memorable night, Kalkbrenner made himself into the two-time NBA MVP who mesmerizes Ball Arena on a weekly basis. His development into a Big East first-team selection didn’t happen overnight. Freshman Kalk and junior Kalk are two different men, I’m convinced. As McDermott pointed out, Kalkbrenner shot 48 percent from the free throw line. These days he’s at 75 percent and fouling out the other guy. Kalkbrenner drew 10 fouls against NC State.
Remember, this is a tournament field that doesn’t feature a 2001 Gonzaga, 2019 Virginia or 2018 Villanova that’s scary from the layup lines on. It’s pretty wide open out there. Get a unique star like Kalkbrenner going, and there’s no one in the bracket that’s going to scare a 6-seed Creighton or 3-seed Baylor. Shoot, the Baylor-Creighton winner goes to the Sweet 16 with the No. 2 seed in their region, Arizona, watching from home thanks to Cinderella Princeton.
“Thirty-two teams left, so there’s a big opportunity,” Kalkbrenner said.
Other than winning a third NCAA Tournament game in three seasons, you know what else “Kalk” loved about playing in Ball Arena? It’s the workplace of your favorite and his, Joker.
“He does everything. I don’t know how he does it. So tall, so skilled,” Kalkbrenner was yammering on inside the Creighton locker room. “If you just look at him, you have no idea what he can do. Then he gets buckets any kind way. He’s out here 'diming' people.”
“He’s more of a facilitator than I am, obviously. He’s definitely someone I try to take a lot of things from. He’s just so good. I love watching him play. Jokic is awesome.”