After a tough loss at Marquette, the Villanova Wildcats take on another tough road opponent tomorrow when they travel to Omaha to face the Creighton Bluejays. Creighton is also coming off a tough road loss at Butler, leaving both teams 1-1 in Big East play. In other words, this is a big game for both teams. The winner will be a game out of first place with a win over one of the best teams in the conference. The loser will have a losing conference record in a year when the Big East is up for grabs. Let’s get into it.
Beating Villanova would be Creighton’s best win
The Wildcats have a victory over Kansas to hang their hats on when Selection Sunday rolls around. The Bluejays on the other hand are still looking for that signature win. Creighton has certainly been impressive so far this season and have been just outside the Top 25 for the past three weeks. The reason they have yet to break in is that they’ve missed on three of their four attempts to beat a currently ranked team. Their losses include at Michigan, against undefeated San Diego State on a neutral court, and at now #6 Butler. Their lone win over a ranked team came against Texas Tech, who was in the middle of a three game losing streak and quickly fell out of the rankings.
So not only does Creighton want this win, they need it. With only Butler and Villanova ranked currently in the Big East, they’re running out of chances to take out an elite opponent. Now they get a Top 20 team on their home court. If we thought Omaha was a tough place to play before, get ready for Tuesday.
The Big East’s best backcourt
For a very long time Villanova was perennially crowned as having the best backcourt in the Big East. While Nova’s backcourt is still a key to their success, they no longer wear the crown. Despite National Player of the Year candidates at Marquette and Seton Hall, it’s Creighton that has the most potent backcourt. And that might be true for all of college basketball too.
It starts with point guard Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton’s point guard who leads the team in both points and assists. He’s as crafty as they come, and is a plus shooter both off the dribble or spot up. He can dribble penetrate, has an excellent eye for kick-outs, and is going to make a lot of Nova guards look silly. I’d expect him to draw one of Nova’s faster wings like Samuels or Bey rather than have Gillespie or Moore try to guard him. Don’t worry, they’ll be plenty for them to do with the next guy.
Mitch Ballock may not be as athletic as the other guards in this trio, but he’s by no means simply a spot up shooter. You may think that because he’s shooting over 44% from three on the season, but he can also penetrate and create for his teammates. If Zegarowski is the floor general, Ballock is the heart and soul of Creighton. He can jack it up from anywhere and has a knack for hitting momentum changing threes when his team needs them most.
And if that wasn’t enough, Ty-Shon Alexander may be the best of the three of them. At 6’5”, he’s the team’s leading rebounder and is also second in scoring at 16.4 PPG. For most teams this would make him a matchup nightmare, but Villanova should be able to slow him down with their own athletic wings. Notice I said slow him down, not stop him.
Against Marquette, the gameplan was to shut down Markus Howard and make the other guys beat you. That didn’t work so well. Against Creighton, I expect the Wildcats to try a defense that others have been running against them all season. Deny the three-point line and make the smaller team try to beat you one-on-one inside. Which leads me to where Villanova will have their biggest advantage in this game.
Big games coming for Bey, Samuels, and Robinson-Earl
While Creighton is going to want to turn this into a three-point shooting contest, I suspect Villanova is going to relentlessly attack the paint against the Bluejays. Creighton isn’t an especially big team, having just two players over 6’5”. The biggest guy is backup Kelvin Jones (6’11”), who’s averaging just 5 minutes a game since coming back from an injury in early December. Creighton’s starting “big man” at just 6’7” is Christian Bishop. That means when Villanova has the trio of Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl on the court, they’re going to have a size advantage in two if not three of their individual matchups. Considering that trio has been on the court together for nearly half of minutes played in Nova’s last 5 games (thanks kenpom.com), it’s a good bet they’ll stick with that attack.
The best part about it is that Villanova gives up nothing on the defensive end. In fact, against Creighton’s guards they’re going to need Samuels and Bey to play smart, athletic defense to stay in front of them or force them off the arc. In order for Villanova to win, at least two of these three are going to need to have big games at both ends.