After finishing non-conference play on a high note with a win over UCLA, Villanova is now turning the page onto the Big East portion of its schedule.
The Wildcats (7-4) have a tough test to begin the conference slate, as they head on the road to play at Creighton.
The Bluejays (9-2) got caught looking ahead to Alabama and Villanova, suffering a 15-point loss to UNLV. They bounced back with an 85-82 win in their latest outing against the Crimson Tide, in a game where Ryan Kalkbrenner temporarily left the game with an ankle sprain, before coming back and leading the way to victory.
Wednesday’s game is set to tip-off at 9 p.m. ET. Here is a preview:
Trial by fire
Everybody knows the Big East is a gauntlet, and the ‘Cats are going right into it by taking on one of the top teams in the conference in Creighton to start.
The Bluejays had a couple of key departures after last season’s run to the Elite Eight, such as Ryan Nembhard and Arthur Kaluma, but they seem to be doing just fine behind the three-pronged attack of Baylor Scheierman, Ryan Kalkbrenner and Trey Alexander.
Scheierman is en route to a career-best season in his second year in Omaha. He’s averaging a team-best 18.5 points, with 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists, while shooting 45.5% overall and 36.6% from deep.
Kalkbrenner, Creighton’s starting big man for the last few seasons, is averaging 16.1 points, 6.8 boards and 2.3 blocks per game. Despite tweaking his ankle during the Alabama game, he finished with 19 points on an efficient 9-of-11 shooting, with eight rebounds and three blocks.
Last season, he consistently played well against the ‘Cats, averaging 18.3 points and 2.0 blocks per game through three meetings. He shot a combined 23-of-31 (74.2%) against Villanova.
Meanwhile, Alexander has shown continued growth on the court. He is averaging 15.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
After their top trio, the Bluejays have a solid supporting cast, between Utah State transfer Steven Ashworth, Mason Miller, Isaac Traudt and Francisco Farabello — all guys that complement their top players well but can also shoot the ball from long range.
You don’t get to be a top-15 team in the country without solid all-around play. The Bluejays rank 11th in the country for offensive efficiency, and 27th for defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
The Bluejays have the second-highest eFG% in the country, at 60.3%. They also take care of the ball well, with one of the lowest turnover rates in the country.
The Saint Joseph’s game will be a good precursor for Wednesday, as Creighton has a similar knack for chucking up threes and spreading the ball around.
The Bluejays are shooting 38.7% from deep as a team, which is good for 25th in the country.
Almost half of their shots are from three-point range and they have the 52nd highest assist rate. 41.0% of their total points scored this season comes from beyond the arc, which is the ninth-highest in the country.
To compare with St. Joe’s, 43.9% of the Hawks’ total points are from long range (No. 1 in the country), 50.8% of their shot attempts are threes (fourth-highest in the country), and they have the 28th-highest assist rate — so the Bluejays are in the same ballpark.
Inside the arc, the Bluejays are one of the most efficient teams, shooting 62.5% (third-highest in the country).
Defensively, the Bluejays limit opponents to shooting just 28.6% from beyond the arc (29th-best in the country).
Interestingly, Creighton doesn’t force too many turnovers or blocks as a team, the Bluejays just play solid straight-up defense. According to KenPom, they also have the lowest fouling rate in the country, so there won’t be too many freebies.
Eric Dixon, the Bluejay killer?
Kalkbrenner has had some big games against Villanova last season, and in turn, Eric Dixon has enjoyed key performances of his own against Creighton.
Although Villanova lost two of three meetings with the Bluejays last year, Dixon was a consistent bright spot. He scored at least 20 points in all three games, with his best coming in a 79-67 win at home, where he dropped 31 points while shooting 11-of-15 on the floor, including a 6-of-8 showing from beyond the arc.
Dixon had a quiet game offensively against UCLA, scoring just six points on 2-of-7 shooting, but he was active on the glass, racking up 10 rebounds.
Will we see a bounce-back game for the Villanova big man? With no official update regarding Justin Moore’s status, the ‘Cats could use a big boost from the frontcourt.
Last year, he elevated his game against Creighton. Will the trend continue on Wednesday night?