No. 1 Villanova faces challenge from No. 9 Creighton (Dec 31, 2016)
OMAHA -- Five years ago, Creighton was a long-standing member of the Missouri Valley Conference with a future NBA first round draft pick in Doug McDermott on its roster.
Fast-forward to the final day of 2016. The Bluejays are one of the final five undefeated teams in college basketball and hosting the defending NCAA tournament champions -- one of those other teams without a loss -- in a pivotal Big East conference game.
That's the dream scenario Creighton coach Greg McDermott and the 13-0 Bluejays -- ranked No. 10th nationally -- find themselves in Saturday when top-ranked Villanova, also 13-0, rolls into CenturyLink Center for a showdown that will trim the list of undefeated teams to four.
"It's going to be incredible," McDermott said. "If I'd have told you five years ago, we're going to play the No. 1 team in the country, we're going to be ranked (10th), we're going to be in the Big East, you'd have told me I was crazy, right?
"It's really cool. I guess it validates all the resources we've poured into our program. Is it as big a game as playing Wichita State for a conference championship? I don't know about that. That was pretty cool as well."
This is Creighton's fourth season as members of the country's strongest non-Power Five basketball conference. Both teams started conference play the right way Wednesday -- Creighton pulling away from Seton Hall 89-75 and the Wildcats surviving with a 68-65 win at DePaul.
Villanova brings a 19-game winning streak to Omaha that began last March with its six-game run to the NCAA title. Many of the key players from that championship team are still on the Wildcats' roster.
Josh Hart is a front-runner for National Player of the Year honors. The senior wing averages 20.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while also shooting 55.8 percent.
Kris Jenkins, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer provided the winning points in the NCAA title game, is averaging 12.8 points and leads Villanova with 35 3-pointers through 13 games. Two more Wildcats -- Jalen Brunson (12.8) and Mikal Bridges (10.5) -- are averaging double-figure point totals this season.
"Creighton has one of the great atmospheres in college basketball," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "It also has one of the best teams in college basketball."
Brunson noted the close call at DePaul and also understands that is life in the Big East.
"Every team is good. Obviously, we have a target on our back because of last year," Brunson said. "As a team, we're just going to have to get better every day -- listen to our coach, listen to our seniors, and really keep grinding and getting better."
McDermott said the strong showing by the 7-7 Blue Demons wasn't a surprise because teams in Villanova's position usually get a determined effort from every opponent, no matter their record.
"Everybody's giving them their best shot," McDermott said. "They got DePaul's best shot. DePaul hadn't been playing well prior to that game."
The Wildcats getting a scare like that prior to arriving in Omaha isn't necessarily an ideal scenario for Creighton's cause.
"That might be the worst thing that happened to us, that DePaul gave them a scare," McDermott said. "I'm sure coach Wright will have his team's attention."
Two of the four Bluejays who are leading an offense that is averaging 89.8 points per game -- guards Maurice Watson and Khyri Thomas -- said this kind of game and anticipated atmosphere are what makes the game special for them. Especially for Watson, who is a Philadelphia native.
"This is what you dream for, play against the No. 1 team in your house in front of your fans," Watson said. "To come out and really, really start your Big East play and solidify some of the things we've done in non-conference against a national champion.
"(With) just a couple of days of preparation we've got to be really focused and locked in. At the end of the day you're playing against the No. 1 team in the country in a New Year's Eve showdown at home."
The senior from Philadelphia said it will be important for the Bluejays to have a focused effort Saturday like the one they had Wednesday against the 10-3 Pirates.
That includes cutting down on turnovers and playing strong defense; Watson gave up the ball just twice after committing 10 turnovers in a Dec. 20 victory over Arizona State.
"As I look I see it's even on the line of turnovers and usually my number is higher than everyone else's," Watson said. "To keep it consistent I think I did a really good job of spreading the ball around. That's really how I judge my games."
A line like the one he had against the Pirates -- 21 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers in 38 minutes -- is one Watson gladly would take against Villanova.
That will be especially important because of Villanova's stingy defense. The Wildcats have held opponents to just 61.5 points per game while averaging 79.8 themselves.
Those numbers won't matter to Thomas once the ball goes in the air just after noon on Saturday.
"We lost to the twice last year so it should be real fun," Thomas said. "A good fight for both teams. I'm sure we're ready; I'm ready."
One impressive quality about Villanova is that the title-winning team is highly adept at handling pressure.
"We're not easily rattled. We're very tough-minded," Hart said. "It's been that way for the past couple of years. We know the position that we are in. We like that position. We'd rather have it that way than the other way around. We've got to keep getting better, and that starts with us, the three seniors. We've got to go back to work tomorrow and get better."