#1 Villanova Wildcats (13-0) vs. #10 Creighton Blue Jays (13-0)
When: Saturday, December 31, 2016 at 1 p.m.
Where: CenturyLink Arena, Omaha, Neb.
Coverage: Fox Sports 1
KenPom Prediction: 77-76, Villanova (56%)
Creighton’s Previous Season Record: 20-15, Lost to BYU in NIT Quarterfinals
Key Players for Creighton: #10 Maurice Watson Jr. (5-10, 165) Sr., G; #22 Marcus Foster (6-3, 210) Jr., G; #0 Justin Patton (6-11, 215) Fr. C
Scouting Report: Coach Greg McDermott put Creighton on the national map in 2014, when his son Doug McDermott, now of the Chicago Bulls, was named the consensus National Player of the Year. However, where that team was taken down in the Round of 32, this team is even more talented, well-balanced, and poised to make a deep run come March. Leading the team is senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr., a second-year Creighton player after transferring from Boston University, who leads the NCAA in assists per game (9.1). He’s an amazing facilitator, the sixth highest assist rate in the nation (44.2). While he’s great at setting up his teammates and dishing out passes, he can certainly get his own. He’s the second-highest scorer on the team, with 13.5 points per game and is capable of scoring at an efficient rate. His style of attack leans more towards being a slasher, making 48.7 percent of his shots from inside the arc. He doesn’t shoot threes often, but can convert those too, if left wide open. He’s 10-of-19 (52.6 percent) from long range this season. Watson’s wild success despite his diminutive stature–stands in at 5-foot-10–has drawn comparisons to Chris Paul, although it remains to be seen if his skills can translate as well to the next level. Thanks to Watson, Creighton has a top 10 offense in terms of offensive efficiency according to KenPom, but it’s far from being a one-man show. Keep an eye out for one of Watson’s favorite targets, Marcus Foster—a transfer from Kansas State who can light it up from anywhere on the court. He’s averaging a team-high 18.8 points per game. Foster uses his slashing prowess to force defenders to give him space when he has the ball, opening up opportunities to pull up from three (39.3 percent from deep, while 61.1 percent from inside the arc). As great of a backcourt Creighton has, its frontcourt is looking pretty good too. Freshman center and Omaha native Justin Patton has dazzled so far on both ends of the court. He is Creighton’s top rebounder and shot blocker, averaging 6.2 boards and 1.5 blocks. Offensively, he’s a model for efficiency. He averages 12.7 points per game, while shooting an insane 74.2 percent on the floor–the third-highest shooting percentage in the country. Patton looks to be a building block for the Bluejays’ future, but comes with one caveat: his horrendous 47.2 percent performance at the free throw line this season. Surrounding these core three players are sharpshooters Khyri Thomas and Cole Huff, who combine to shoot around 51 percent from 3-point range and are reliable contributors to complement Watson, Patton, and Foster. Lastly, Isaiah Zierden might have drawn the short straw to get booted from the starting lineup in favor for Foster, but the senior guard contributes great minutes off the bench along with Toby Hegner.
Outlook: Creighton is likely to be battling with Villanova for the Big East crown until mid-March, and this game will be a great barometer for how this battle will end. While Foster has sliced through every defense faced so far, Villanova has a player who is practically designed to stop him in sophomore swingman Mikal Bridges. Even if Foster is neutralized, however, Creighton’s shooting prowess (best 3-point shooting team in the country, 44.6 percent from beyond the arc) will not allow them to go quietly. Watson has proved himself to be one of the best pure point guards in the nation, and even if his shot is not falling, expect him to rack up close to double-digit assist totals against the Wildcats. However, the X-factor for this game is the matchup between Patton and Darryl Reynolds. If Reynolds can contain Patton, Creighton goes from hyper-efficient to rather one-dimensional. That one dimension can still beat anyone in the country, and cannot be underestimated. Creighton is somewhat as great defensively as it is on the other end of the court, and if Bridges, Jalen Brunson, and scoring extraordinaire Josh Hart can attack hard in transition, they will need to capitalize on easy points. I think Villanova can beat anyone anywhere, and will pull this out in a close game, but don’t be surprised if Villanova suffers its first loss to a great team on the road in conference play.