After a gut-punching start to the season, Villanova is starting to experience the success that the Main Line has become used to over the last half decade. Tuesday’s thrilling win over No. 24 St. John’s pushes the Wildcats to 3-0 in Big East play and is further evidence that Jay Wright and co. have steadied the ship.
What’s next is a trip to Omaha — a site that has gained a quick reputation as perhaps the conference’s toughest place to play. The strong start to conference play takes a bit of the pressure off of Villanova, but that won’t do anything to make Sunday’s tilt any easier. Creighton is coming off a devastating overtime loss to No. 21 Marquette and will certainly be looking to replace that negative memory with a positive one. A road win would be an important one for the Wildcats, as Creighton is a Top-50 team in both the NET ratings and KenPom.
If the name Ty-Shon Alexander doesn’t mean much to you right now, you probably aren’t alone. As a freshman last year, Alexander had a bench role for Creighton and didn’t even score in Villanova’s loss to the Bluejays last February. But this year, Alexander has emerged as perhaps the conference’s most improved player. He’s averaging a team-high 17.1 points per game and had 36 points earlier this season against Clemson.
Alexander’s rise isn’t all that surprising. He was a Top-100 recruit from Oak Hill Academy for the Class of 2017. At 6-foot-4, he’s mostly a shooter at this stage of his career, and he’s a pretty darn good one. Alexander connects on 41 percent of his 3-point attempts and hits 80 percent of his free throws. Sunday will likely mark the first of many future encounters for Villanova where priority No. 1 is to stop Ty-Shon.
Since styles of play rarely change, it should come as no surprise that Creighton is again an offensive juggernaut that doesn’t play much defense. Their KenPom offensive efficiency rating is No. 6 in the nation, while their defensive rating is No. 148. Over the years, Villanova has seen the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Creighton on full display, knowing full well that when the shots fall, watch out, but when they don’t, it gets ugly.
On offense, Creighton leads the Big East in several categories — 84.9 ppg, 51.5 percent from the field, 44.2 percent from 3-point range, and 12.1 3-pointers made per game. While Alexander leads the way, sophomore Mitch Ballock is a dangerous 48 percent shooter from deep, while freshman Marcus Zagarowski buries half of his 3-point attempts. And that’s the Bluejays game. They don’t really have an elite point guard or interior presence. They just shoot and keep shooting.
Aside from the dominance of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, the key to the strong Big East start has been freshmen contributions. Saddiq Bey, Jahvon Quinerly, and Cole Swider have all had their moments in the three wins. While Bey has been largely solid most of the season, the progression of Quinerly and Swider is important to watch, especially as Villanova enters their toughest game of the early conference slate.
Quinerly still hasn’t had that true breakout game, but he’s provided a burst of energy at the guard spot that is necessary, especially while Colin Gillespie has struggled to get going in league play. Meanwhile, Swider has seen a significant minutes bump in the past week and looks like a more confident offensive player. Of all the freshmen, he seems most capable of filling a Donte DiVincenzo-type role of instant offense off the bench.
The continued progression of those two and Bey is an important area to watch against Creighton, as Villanova eventually needs players beyond Booth and Paschall to shoulder more of the offensive load. This is the least balanced offensive Villanova team in recent memory, and the freshmen are most capable of changing that.