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Villanova Basketball 2021-22 game preview: Creighton Bluejays

It’s the highly anticipated rematch!

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t happened often so far this season, but the Villanova Wildcats are finally back in the comfort of their own home.

The No. 19-ranked Wildcats (9-4, 2-1 Big East) are playing in just their fifth home game this season, and their third since mid-November. After picking up back-to-back wins, Villanova will try to keep the streak rolling and avenge an earlier loss to Creighton.

The Bluejays (10-3, 2-0 Big East) also enter Wednesday night’s showdown with back-to-back wins. They defeated the ‘Cats, then survived in double-overtime against Marquette. Creighton had lost out on games against DePaul and Georgetown for COVID-related reasons and definitely looked rusty as it collapsed late to allow Marquette back into the game. What will happen on Wednesday night?

Villanova-Creighton is set to tip off at 8:30 p.m. ET and will be on Fox Sports 1.

Bluejay breakdown

After nearly choking away a game against the Golden Eagles, expect Creighton to come into the Finneran Pavilion much more focused.

The Bluejays heated up late but also took advantage of the ‘Cats faltering down the stretch to pull away for a 79-59 win at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, but the game was much closer than final score indicated — until the ‘Cats froze over in crunch time.

There hasn’t been much to assess on Creighton since that night, as it only played one game since then due to COVID-related cancellations.

However, they left enough of a first impression in that Dec. 17 meeting. It’s clear that this is a team that’s likely better than its eighth-place preseason Big East coaches’ poll showing.

A relatively easy non-conference schedule allowed this team, filled with plenty of new faces, to gel. When the moment came for the Bluejays to face tougher teams, they remained competitive in defeat, but they’re hoping their recent December wins over KenPom top 30-ranked teams will be the start of a leap forward.

Ryans run Creighton

Ryan Hawkins, the Division II All-American and three-time national champ, has certainly transitioned just fine to the D-I level. He’s turned into one of the top forwards in the conference and had a game-high 19-point, 11-rebound double-double in the win over ‘Nova. He leads the Bluejays with 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and has the ability to stretch the floor.

Ryan Kalkbrenner, the 7-foot-1 center, has elevated his game in every way in his second season, averaging 12.9 points, 7.2 boards, and a Big East-best 2.9 blocks per game and conference-leading 71.9% on the floor. Although he didn’t hurt in the ‘Cats in the scoring department, he was more than a handful on the glass and with a game-high five blocks.

One last Ryan to watch for, Ryan Nembhard, continues to play well as a freshman. The leading man in a strong recruiting class, Nembhard has delivered so far as a two-way guard that’s averaging 12.5 points, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals.

Also keep an eye out for Alex O’Connell. He hasn’t found his three-point shot yet, but he remains a steady contributor and did come through with a clutch three to keep the Bluejays alive against Marquette. He’s averaging 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

They’ve also depended on freshmen and newcomers to fill out the rotation, and these new players have answered the call. Arthur Kaluma and slasher Trey Alexander play big minutes for the ‘Jays, and they also have Rati Andronikashvili, who was injured last season, and McNeese State/Mississippi State transfer KeyShawn Feazell.

Paint touches

It’s not the run-and-gun Creighton teams of the past. Sure, the Bluejays still have some players that can knock down threes when left open, but they operate at a slower pace than in recent years and they’re not as reliant on the perimeter.

The Bluejays have instead gotten it done inside the arc. They shoot 56.7% as a team from two-point range, the 16th best clip in the country. Against Villanova, they bullied the ‘Cats around inside, outscoring them 42-28 inside the paint.

With this forward-dependent or interior-minded approach from Creighton, the Wildcats have to be ready to grind it out again and win it on the defensive end — or by taking it inside with twos and free throws.

If the ‘Cats are able to rediscover their three-point shot back in the comfort of home, that will certainly make the job easier. If not, they’ll need to be ready for another physical battle.