With the Villanova defense continuing to be a work in progress, the fifth-ranked Wildcats had to make sure Saturday they didn’t allow Creighton and its high-tempo offense to control the pace of the game.
Well, it worked for the game’s first six minutes, then the No. 19-ranked Bluejays got things revved up and shot the lights out of the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. And with the Cats cooling off significantly from their offensive output of the previous two games, they were left in the dust in an 86-70 Big East defeat.
With a crowd of 2,544 making almost as much noise as the 18,000-plus who usually welcome Villanova, the Wildcats (13-3, 8-2) were unable to slow the tempo established by the Bluejays (16-5, 12-4) for much of the game and it showed at both ends of the floor.
After shooting 56% from the field and 54.2% from three-point range in their previous two games, the Cats hit on just 37.5% and 31.3% from deep. Defensively, they allowed a season high for points and field goal percentage (59.3%), and the Bluejays averaged a robust 1.41 points per possession.
Even though it was credited for only three fast-break points, Creighton often beat the Cats down the floor, making them struggle to get their defense set.
“They get into their offensive sets really quick,” coach Jay Wright said. “They play really fast. We struggled with that. We struggled with that against St. John’s, too. It’s something that we’ve got to get better at. It’s something that’s difficult for us to simulate in practice.”
As for the offense, “really disappointing,” he said.
“It was similar to our St. John’s game. I think they really sped us up and we lost our decision-making. We had poor decision-making and I give them credit for it. Our guys were ready, their intensity and speed defensively are what bothered us.”
In the duel of two of the nation’s premier point guards, Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski, the Big East’s preseason player of the year, got the better of Collin Gillespie, scoring a season-high 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting and dishing out five assists. Gillespie made just 3-of-12 attempts and had eight points, six rebounds and three assists.
“He got open shots,” Gillespie said. “He got to the front of the rim. He got his teammates involved so he did a little bit of everything. He’s a great player and you’ve got to respect him. We’ve got to come back and learn from it.”
Villanova came out and crashed the offensive boards with some success, getting out to a 17-13 lead in the first 6 minutes, 41 seconds. But the Bluejays weren’t missing and took over control of the game, leading by as many as 10 in the first half and holding a 42-36 advantage at the break with the help of Zegarowski’s 17 points.
An 8-0 run early in the second half grew the Creighton margin to 13, 54-41, with the help of a three-point basket by Mitch Ballock, one of the Big East’s most proficient distance shooters. Ballock went on to knock down four more threes and scored 17 of his 20 points in the half.
The deficit for the Wildcats got as high as 20, 78-58, with 4:10 to play, their largest of the season.
Justin Moore scored a season-high 21 points to lead the Wildcats and Jermaine Samuels added 16. The Cats’ top two scorers, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Gillespie, combined for 16 points and 6-of-25 shooting.
“They just play really fast,” Samuels said. “That’s just the way Creighton’s offense is. They move the ball really fast, they cut really hard. We’ve just got to adjust.”
Villanova a No. 2 seed in “bracket preview”
The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee ranked Villanova as a No. 2 seed and sixth overall in its selection and seeding of the nation’s top 16 teams through Thursday’s games.
The Wildcats were placed in Region 4 along with No. 1 seed Ohio State, No. 3 Virginia and No. 4 Texas Tech.
The only two remaining Division I unbeatens, Gonzaga and Baylor, were ranked first and second and named as top seeds along with Michigan and Ohio State.