On Wednesday, March 3, Villanova will return to the Finn for its last time this campaign, looking to maintain its spotless record at home against Big East rival Creighton. The powerhouses boast two of the most high-powered offenses in the country and a win for Villanova would seal a piece of the Big East regular-season championship, the ‘Cats seventh in eight years.
The Wildcats will be bidding farewell to seniors Kevin Hoehn, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Jermaine Samuels and Cousy award finalist Collin Gillespie. The latter three veterans began at Villanova on the legendary 2017-2018 team, traveling to San Antonio to deliver Villanova its third-ever National Championship. Wide-eyed freshmen during the season, the three trained as apprentices under the master guidance of Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and the rest of a great team. Four years on from that legendary season, the trio has grown into the leaders.
For sophomore Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, this game may be the last time he plays in a Villanova home game. The former top-20 recruit leads the ‘Cats in scoring and could declare for the 2021 NBA Draft, following in the footsteps of seven other Wildcats drafted since 2016. Although he has spent less time in west Philadelphia than his senior teammates, his impact on and off the court is a big reason Villanova boasts a top 10 ranking going into Wednesday’s matchup against Creighton. His draft status is uncertain, but more than one outlet has the Kansas native as a late first round pick or early second rounder. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for Robinson-Earl to only spend one season on the Mainline, so a departure after two seasons wouldn’t be shocking to many.
Jay Wright has navigated this rendition of the Wildcats through rough waters during the entire season. It opened with an endless stay at the Mohegan Sun, where the ‘Cats picked up big wins over Boston College and Arizona State to start the year. Villanova decided to extend its visit in “Bubbleville” with games against Virginia Tech and Hartford. After wobbling in its third game of the season with an overtime loss, Villanova flew to Austin to take on a red-hot Texas team before opening conference play. The Wildcats snuck out of the Lone Star state with a four-point victory before heading back northeast to secure a win over Georgetown.
Villanova rose to #3 in the AP Poll for five consecutive weeks, but the program faced a lengthy shutdown period following multiple positive COVID-19 diagnoses. Over winter break, the Wildcats waited 27 days between its last game of 2020 and the first of the 2021 calendar year. Conference play rolled on as the ‘Cats accumulated 10 conference wins in the lead-up to Wednesday’s clash.
However, this game will provide one of the toughest challenges for Villanova this season. After all, the Bluejays are responsible for one of the three Wildcat losses this season. Creighton guards Mitch Ballock and Marcus Zegarowski caught fire in their February meeting, combining for 45 points and 13 three-pointers. In Villanova’s four losses this season, superb guard-play from the opposition links the three. Whether it be Nahiem Alleyne from Virginia Tech early in the season or Posh Alexander with the pesky St. John’s team, Villanova will have to step up defensively to avenge its 16-point defeat in Omaha.
The Wildcats will also need to be prepared offensively. Despite Wright’s potent offensive system, lapses in shooting, particularly from three-point range, have sunk the team at points during the season. In the two teams’ last contest, Villanova shot 24/64 (37.5%) from the field, much lower than its season average of 46%. The Wildcats hit a cold streak during their most recent outing against Butler, making only two threes of 27 attempts in one of their worst shooting performances of the season. The team will need to bounce back with confidence from three-point range if it hopes to win on Wednesday.
Caleb Daniels and Justin Moore will need to help Gillespie neutralize the firepower Creighton can bring from beyond the arc. Daniels has struggled some since returning from the pause, while Moore is currently shooting just 30% from three. Turnovers will be another factor to watch Wednesday night. One hallmark of Wildcat losses has been high turnover outings, a rarity for a team as disciplined as Villanova. Ball security is a staple of Wright’s offense, but the slow tempo of the system can worsen the effect of turnovers in any given game.
It is number one vs. number two - the Big East leaders against the Big East contenders. Despite the fireworks bound to erupt from either end of an empty Finneran Pavilion, the game is more than a five-on-five. Villanova vs. Creighton bookends one of the strangest seasons on record. Whatever the outcome, the game will author the beginning of the conclusion for the illustrious careers of several key Wildcat mainstays.