The No. 1-ranked Villanova Wildcats (20-1, 7-1 Big East) will tip-off the month of February against the Creighton Bluejays (17-5, 7-3 Big East), a team that they will be playing for the first time this season
The Bluejays enter Thursday night after winning three of their last five games. Meanwhile, Villanova currently holds a seven-game winning streak.
A victory over Creighton would not only extend that run, but it would also signify the best 22-game start in program history. KenPom believes there’s a good chance of that happening, listing the ‘Cats as an 89 percent favorite to win.
Villanova’s current 20-1 record ties the 2009-10 squad for the best 21-game start in the season. However, those Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher-led Wildcats would end up losing the following game to Georgetown.
Tip-off is slated for Thursday, at 6:30 p.m. Here are three things to watch for:
No McDermott or Wragge
It was four years ago, and yet the name Ethan Wragge or Doug McDermott can easily trigger some painful memories of the last time Villanova and Creighton played each other at the Wells Fargo Center. Since being decimated from beyond the arc on that fateful Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2014, the Bluejays came to play the Wildcats at the Pavilion each year after that--until now. Fortunately, McDermott or Wragge graduated a while ago, so they won’t be able to reenact that beatdown in South Philadelphia. However, Creighton does have a highly-skilled scorer in Marcus Foster, who is at the forefront of a run-and-gun style of attack--one that contrasts the slow, half-court tempo of the McDermott ‘Jays.
Foster has hit the 20-point mark in five of his last six games, including a streak of four straight--a feat that hasn’t been replicated since McDermott himself. So far this season, Foster is averaging a touch under 20 points per game, while shooting 50.8 percent on the floor and an impressive 44.9 percent from deep. As great as he is, Creighton is far from being a one-man show. This is a team that has a number of different guys that can chip in buckets. Aside from Foster, there’s Khyri Thomas, who has taken a Mikal Bridges-type of jump this season. He was primarily known as a lockdown defender in the past and just so happened to share the Big East Defensive Player of the Year honor with Bridges (as well as Josh Hart). He’s become a more well-rounded player, making more of an impact offensively than before. In the frontcourt, the Bluejays have Toby Hegner and Ronnie Harrell Jr., two forwards that can go down low or stretch the floor out to the perimeter. Mitchell Ballock is another nice asset off the bench, but the true freshman has been quiet as of late.
Overall, this is a solid, balanced Creighton team. It moves the ball well and scoring seems to come fairly easy for it, but the Bluejays can also play tough defensively and keep the three-point line on lockdown.
On Sunday, Jalen Brunson matched a career-high 31-point game. He’s done that twice this season, and both times were followed by some great performances.
After unleashing his wrath on his dad’s former team, the Temple Owls, he helped Villanova to a 95-71 victory over Hofstra. He scored 14 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and dished out seven assists.
Then there was the Butler loss, in which he was a bright spot in an ugly game. After dropping 31 points on the Bulldogs, he came back with 27 points, eight assists, and four steals in the Wildcats’ bounce back win against Marquette.
Jon Rothstein of CBS/FanRagSports called Brunson a “computer generated point guard” with “no flaws and no emotion.” Right now, the video game Villanova guard is climbing up the all-time program high score list. He currently sits at 38th in program history, with 1,318 career points. Dante Cunningham is right above him with 1,334 points. After that, there’s former teammate Kris Jenkins, who racked up 1,383 points.
Brunson doesn’t make very many mistakes and hasn’t had anywhere near a 12-turnover game--unlike Oklahoma’s Trae Young, the other point guard that he is constantly in National Player of the Year conversations with.
Based on the other 31-point games, expect another nice performance from Brunson. However, definitely don’t expect a quiet game. He has yet to score in single digits this season.
The previous game against Marquette was the first full game without Phil Booth this season. With hand injuries keeping him and Jermaine Samuels sidelined on the bench, Villanova is running seven-deep. Its starting five is pretty darn good (and experienced), with all five Wildcats averaging double-digit scoring numbers. With Donte DiVincenzo promoted from the “sixth starter” to official starter, that left true freshmen Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Collin Gillespie to close out the rotation. They are playing in a much bigger role now, as the only sources of production off the bench.
Say what you want about their performances, but the Marquette game was simply not one of their best outings. Against the Golden Eagles, they combined for 34 minutes and only logged three points (from a Gillespie trey).
Cosby-Roundtree fell for a number of pump fakes and found himself with four fouls, while Gillespie struggled at times with Andrew Rowsey and keeping up with players off-ball. Yes, they’re only freshmen, but they have shown an ability to contribute so much more and play much better than they did last Sunday. They will get another test against a solid Creighton team, one that’s a lot more balanced in terms of offense and defense compared to Marquette. Will they get back on track and provide meaningful minutes?