The offensive connection is obvious for No. 5-ranked Villanova in its last two games: 90 points per contest, 56% shooting from the field, 54.2% on three-point attempts, 26 threes made, 46 assists on 61 field goals.
But to Jay Wright’s chagrin, the defense isn’t at that point. Even though they outscored their last two opponents by 42 points, the Wildcats allowed 48.6% shooting and 38.2% from three. In Big East games, their defensive percentages are 46.3% on field goals (last in the league) and 39.6% on threes (10th).
With 19th-ranked Creighton up next for the Wildcats Saturday at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Wright has a lot to think about with the Bluejays’ three-point shooting balance and their up-tempo style. And he worries his defense hasn’t yet caught up with his offense in this pandemic-interrupted season.
“I think we are clicking offensively,” the Wildcats coach said Friday. “We learned some things against St. John’s that helped us. That’s why I’m a little disappointed that our defense isn’t at the same pace in terms of clicking.
“You’ve got to be more connected defensively actually than you do offensively. I feel like we’re really connected offensively but we’re not connected defensively yet the way we should be.”
A better-connected defense would help with the Bluejays’ proficiency from deep. They average 9.6 threes, second in the league to Villanova’s 10.2. Their most productive shooters — Marcus Zegarowski, Mitch Ballock and Denzel Mahoney — have combined for 145 threes, more than seven per game.
“They’ve got all the answers,” Wright said. “We’re going to have to really be ready to adjust to see which one gets it going, and then try to play off stopping that guy, because they find the hot hand really well, and see what we can do defensively.”
The Wildcats have had a team full of hot hands lately from the three-point line. Jermaine Samuels went 6 of 7 while scoring 32 points in Sunday’s win over Georgetown. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl hit all five of his attempts from three en route to 27 points in Wednesday night’s rout of Marquette.
One of Saturday’s most interesting story lines will be the battle between two of the nation’s best point guards, Zegarowski, voted the Big East preseason player of the year, and Villanova’s Collin Gillespie.
They have gone head-to-head three times with Gillespie’s team prevailing twice. Gillespie impressed last year in Omaha, scoring 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting in a game that Creighton led for more than 34 minutes but one that the Wildcats pulled out, 64-59.
Zegarowski came to the Wells Fargo Center three weeks later and had 14 points and four assists in the Bluejays’ 76-61 victory.
Statistically speaking, Gillespie might have a slight edge. He is first in Big East games in assists (6.1), assist-turnover ratio (3.44) and free-throw shooting (97.1), and enters the game with 32 consecutive made free throws. Zegarowski has a slight lead in threes made per game, 2.54.
“You’ve got two of the best in the country, and guys that have gone against each other for a couple of years now,” Wright said. “They know each other so well. I know Collin has great respect for Marcus. You’re going to see two of the smartest and most skilled point guards in the country.”
A different twist Saturday for Villanova will be fans in the stands. Creighton permits approximately 12% of the arena’s capacity of 18,320 to attend, marking the second time the Wildcats have played in front of people, and the first since their Dec. 6 game at Texas. A program spokesman said about 2,000 spectators are expected.
“I think it’s going to be cool,” Samuels said. “It’s going to be nice to have somewhat of a taste of normalcy. But at the same time, it’s 94 by 50 feet and we’re still locked in to Villanova basketball and locked in to each other.”