The Villanova Wildcats will look to pick up their first quad one win of the season this Saturday when they ship out to Omaha for a battle with the Creighton Bluejays.
This will be the first meeting between Creighton and Villanova since March 12, 2022, when the Wildcats edged the Bluejays, 54-48, to secure their sixth Big East Tournament Championship in school history.
After starting BIG EAST play 3-3, Creighton will enter this meeting against Villanova on a five-game winning streak, including two wins over ranked opponents (No. 19 Providence, No. 13 Xavier). The Bluejays have a balanced scoring attack, as all five starters average double-digit points per game. Ryan Kalkbrenner, the reigning conference defensive player of the year, leads all scorers with 15.2 points per game, followed by South Dakota State transfer and leading rebounder Baylor Scheierman coming in at 13.4 points per game.
Creighton was the unanimous preseason number one team in the conference, and were top ten in the preseason AP Top-25 poll, as well. The Bluejays balanced offensive attack is a staple of any Greg McDermott coached team, but what has been winning games for them recently is their defense. For as talented as their starting unit is, Creighton’s achilles heel comes not from their starters, but their depth (or lack thereof). All five starters from Creighton average 31.12 minutes per game, but there are only two players off the bench (Francisco Farabello and Frederick King) that average double-digit minutes per game.
It is tough to play at the CHI Health Center Omaha even when Villanova has had final four caliber teams, and this year will be no different. Creighton, a team that has only beaten Villanova six times since 1950, smells blood in the water and is ready to pounce. Even though this may be a down year for the Wildcats, the target on Villanova’s back, that they have been building for a over a decade now, is still prominently displayed.
They are not the team they were at the beginning of the year ... they’re better
As previously mentioned in the open, this Creighton Bluejays team was a top ten team in the country to begin the year. Respected CBS Sports Insider Jon Rothstein even had them as high as number two on his list of the preseason top-45 teams in the country. There was never any doubt that the combination of talent, coaching, size and strength of this Creighton team would be enough to dominate, the real question would be if they would be able to maintain it with their lack of depth.
To start the year, Creighton looked every part of a top ten team in the country. They won each of their first six games, averaging over 84 points per game as a team. Two of those wins came against power six opponents Texas Tech and Arkansas. The, Ryan Kalkbrenner got sick. It was confirmed by Greg McDermott that the anchor of this Creighton team had been diagnosed with mono, and forced to be sidelined indefinitely.
In Kalkbrenner’s time dealing with the illness and his absence, the Bluejays would drop six games in a row, evening their record at 6-6. While none of those loses were particularly bad (okay, maybe the Nebraska loss was bad), the drought carried into BIG EAST play, getting blown out by Marquette on the road and failing to eclipse the 60-point mark.
Things were looking gloomy for the Bluejays, but since that loss to Marquette, a switch has flipped. According to Bart Torvik (a college basketball analytics website similar to KenPom, but free), Creighton has been the number two team in the entire country since that fateful loss to the Golden Eagles. Not only has their offensive efficiency gone up, but their defensive efficiency has skyrocketed.
Combine Creighton’s new and improved defense and lethal offense with the hostile road environment that is the CHI Health Center Omaha, and you got a recipe for a butt-whoopin’. But things may not seem so bleak for the Wildcats just yet. The Bluejays are extremely streaky shooting the ball and (can’t believe this is getting typed in 2023) Villanova, even without Jordan Longino, is the deeper team. If the Wildcats can get some contributions from the freshmen, this game may be a lot closer than we imagine.
It’s too late for moral victories and silver linings
This season is not what any of us had expected Kyle Neptune’s first year to look like. To his defense, there has been an extreme amount of adversity that he has had to face throughout the season. Whether it be Jordan Longino’s nagging injuries, Angelo Brizzi transferring, Cam Whitmore breaking his hand and so on and so forth, the hand of cards Neptune was dealt has been less than ideal.
Nevertheless, here is Villanova, sitting in seventh place in the conference with a chance to go on a run at home. It can not be overstated what the addition of Justin Moore means to this team, but the time for moral victories has passed. As tough as it is to hear, getting Moore back won’t mean anything unless they turn some of these tough games into tallies in the win column. This game against Creighton would be a great opportunity to do so.
Hear me out.
There is still a path for the Wildcats to play meaningful postseason basketball. Six of Villanova’s last nine games are against quad one opponents, so if they can take care of business at home and steal a game or two on the road, that would not be a disaster of an outcome.
The thought of competing with the teams at the top like Marquette, Providence and Xavier are long gone, but turning into a team like Seton Hall is still on the table. Seton Hall is roughly two and a half games ahead of Villanova in the standings, and the two teams have not met yet. In Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology, the Pirates were in his ‘Next Four Out’ category, with Oklahoma (a team the Wildcats have beaten already), rounded out the ‘Last Four In’.
This is not to say that Villanova is a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament, in fact, doubtful they make it with an at-large bid. This is just to say that it is possible and things are not always as bad as they seem. Then there’s the conference tournament, which is possible but also unlikely. We have seen crazier however, and this team is better than the Georgetown team that made the Cinderella run in 2021. It could happen.
Freshmen trio will be key
That got off on a bit of a tangent so lets reel it in and round it out with the key to victory against this Creighton team on Saturday night.
Justin Moore being back for this team is invaluable and the ones who benefit most from it are the freshmen. Cam Whitmore against a ranked Providence team finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, Brendan Hausen finished with 12 points against a ranked Marquette team, connecting on three of four from deep, and Mark Armstrong continues to make strides as the the main point guard this team desperately needs.
Justin Moore alone will not be able to contain the offensive powerhouse that are the Bluejays, but having him back helps a lot. This game would look a lot different with Jordan Longino suiting up, but again not in the cards. Where Villanova has to win this game is on the defensive end. Switching, smarter movement on screens, and communication will be key.
As previously mentioned, Creighton has little to no depth. The Wildcats will need to rely heavily on Armstrong, Hausen and company off the bench to provide quality minutes in the absence of the starters. Villanova will not win this game in a shootout, so they are going to have to find a way to finally close out a close game on the road, a tall task for any BIG EAST team.
We knew this game was going to be tough before the schedule even dropped in the preseason. However if the ‘Cats can find a way to win, their next three games are all at home against DePaul, Seton Hall and Butler. Let’s start a streak, shall we?