Villanova vs. Creighton recap: 3 things we learned

Nov 11, 2016; Villanova, PA, USA; Villanova Wildcats guard Jalen Brunson (1) against the Lafayette Leopards during the first half at The Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 11, 2016; Villanova, PA, USA; Villanova Wildcats guard Jalen Brunson (1) against the Lafayette Leopards during the first half at The Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

This New Year’s Eve gave us an epic battle of two unbeaten Big East Teams. Here’s what we learned from it.

Villanova and Creighton met Saturday in Omaha to see who would carry an unbeaten record into the new year. This matchup of two offensive powerhouses delivered a barnburner – the score at halftime was 42-41, and finished 80-70 – but Villanova managed to hold on and secure its 2nd true road win of the season against a top 15 team.

Here’s what we learned from Saturday’s heavyweight battle.

The Big East still runs through Villanova

If there was anywhere the reigning champs might slip up, it’d be in this stretch. Having just squeaked by a middling DePaul at home by 3 points, they were up against two road games against two of the other three best Big East teams – Creighton and Butler. Away, against an undefeated team that did this to them just a few years ago, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see them go down.

Welp – so much for that. Villanova’s veterans, after falling behind by double digits in the first half, would not allow the Wildcats to lose after a late charge by Creighton tied the game at 66. Seniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins finished with 18 and 21 points, respectively, and sophomore Jalen Brunson went for a career high 27 points. Villanova has just six regular season losses in the Big East since the new version of it formed, having gone 16-2 in each campaign, and have just completed a calendar year in which they won 38 games. Winning one of their biggest road tests, in an electric atmosphere that was jumping before the tip, bodes well for their chances to continue their run atop the conference. They’re playing like a team determined to win back-to-back championships – and it’s showing.

As noted, though – the going doesn’t get any easier. A trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse against a Butler team that will still fuming after dropping a game at St. John’s is on tap.

Creighton is a force to be reckoned with.

Even in a loss, Creighton displayed why they’re among the most dangerous teams in the Big East. Coming into the game with an offense that currently ranks in the top 10 in the country, the Blue Jays posed serious problems for Villanova’s top 20 defense, repeatedly blowing past the perimeter defense into a back end that has gotten a lot softer with the departure of Daniel Ochefu. While the perimeter shooting of Creighton wasn’t up to their typical standards (they only hit 6 of their 24 shots from the perimeter), Creighton managed to hit 16 of their 20 shots from in close, good for 80%. They finished with an offensive efficiency of 1.04 points per possession, scoring 70 points on 67 possessions.

Behind the continued stellar play of diminutive point guard Maurice Watson (averaging a near double-double with 13.5 PPG and 9.1 APG) and impact transfer Marcus Foster (averaging 18.8 points per game while hitting over 50% from the field), Creighton has the horses to make a long tournament run this year. They have outstanding shooters everywhere, with 7 players hitting more than 39.3% of their outside shots, and a solidly deep rotation, with 9 players contributing minutes in non-garbage time this year. This loss does not write them off as contenders for the Big East, or for the rest of the season. /

Jalen Brunson,  unsung superstar

While much of the hype – rightfully – on Villanova goes to Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson is having himself a season. For much of the year, he’s been on pace for a 50/40/90 season – a mark that, per Sports-Reference’s player season finder, has only been hit 3 times (by players that have played the whole season) in the last 24 years. While he fell behind on his free throws (and from 3) after a meh game against Depaul, Brunson hit another level today.

He poured in points, scoring 27 on just 15 shooting possessions. A number of these came in the first half, when Creighton jumped out to an early lead. Per my count, Brunson hit 3 pull-up 3’s in a row, finished a layup, and then dished to Kris Jenkins to pull Villanova to a 1 point lead at halftime. He then canned two crushing pull-ups near the end of the 2nd half, and hit 2 clutch free throws to ice the win. Brunson carried the team today, hitting 5 of his 7 3 pointers, and dishing 5 assists. His season slash line is currently at 52.7%/43.75%/86.05% – and while he won’t necessarily get the plaudits some point guards with higher counting stats will, he deserves recognition for being on of the nation’s most efficient point guards (his offensive rating of 126.5 is currently 78th in the country) on the #1 ranked team.