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Game Preview: No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 18 Creighton

The Wildcats head to Omaha looking for revenge against the Bluejays, in the most important conference matchup of the entire season.

Mitchell Leff

Game Preview: Villanova vs. Creighton

The Teams: Villanova (22-2, 10-1 BIG EAST) 6 Game Winning Streak vs. Creighton (20-4, 10-2 Big East) 1 Game Winning Streak

The Date: Sunday, January 27

The Time: 5:00 p.m. ET

The Location: CenturyLink Omaha Center; Omaha, Neb.

TV: Fox Sports 1

Radio: CBS Sports Radio 610 (Villanova) or 1620 KOZN-AM (Creighton)

The Story of the Season (Villanova)

The Wildcats have been looking forward to this rematch with revenge on their mind for almost a month. At the same time though, they have not let it distract them. This has resulted in a 6-0 record since getting trounced at home by Doug McDermott and Co. almost a month ago, and the team seems to be playing with a new-found fire. Villanova has looked extremely focused and has kept up its end of the bargain to set up what seems to be a regular-season conference title-game.

One reason that Jay Wright's squad has been playing so well as of recently has been senior guard James Bell.  A case could actually be made that he's playing better than any other player in the conference not named Doug McDermott.  Since the Creighton loss, Bell has led the Wildcats in scoring five out of the last six games, and he's eclipsed 15 points in every one of those contests.  To be exact, he's been averaging 21.3 PPG while shooting an outrageous 54.0 percent clip from the field and 47.0 percent from the free throw line.  If it were not for McDermott running away with National Player of the Year, I would say that Bell would be making his case for BIG EAST Player of the Year himself.

Daniel Ochefu has been another important name for the Cats this season, especially in league play.  Ochefu has been one of the most efficient shooters in the entire conference since conference play began. Ochefu has shot, get this, 78.0 percent from the field in conference play this season. Even though he has not taken that may shots, Creighton may be the perfect time for him to break out and have his biggest game of the season.  With Creighton's lack of a true big man in the post, I believe Ochefu can have his way with whoever is guarding him with relative ease.  If The Wildcats want to avoid another embarrassing loss, they need to establish an inside presence with Ochefu right off of the bat.

Speaking of big men for Villanova, I cannot stress enough how important that Nova going inside for offense will be tonight. Last time these two teams met, the Wildcats got away from their offensive game plan extremely early, due mostly to the hot outside shooting from the Bluejays.  Nova ended up shooting 29 three-pointers in the game. Now granted this is a team has attempted the most trey balls of any team in the BIG EAST, but that style of offense plays much more into what Creighton wants to do, as the best shooting 3-point shooting team in the conference (41.7 percent).  Jay Wright's crew needs to play much more into what it wants to do today or else the game will be in risk of getting out-of-hand once again.

The Story of the Season (Creighton)

Creighton has been quite a confusing bunch this season to say the least.

There are some games where Greg McDermott's team looks like the BlueJays are far and away the best team in the BIG EAST, and then they lose a mind-baffling game that they would win eight or nine times out of 10.

For example, coming off of an embarrassing 13-point drubbing by Providence only two days earlier, it seemed as if they had little to no momentum built up heading into the first matchup against big-bad Villanova. Then, bam, the Bluejays put in one of the most impressive performances of any team this year, piling it on and beating the Wildcats by 28, on the road the no less.

You then think, okay, this team is riding high and is primed to make a run for the regular season title.  It continued to look that way for a whole one game.  Then, Creighton barely beat St. John's at home, let lowly DePaul stick around for way too long, get beat by the same previously mention St. John's team and then barely sneak out a win over last place Butler.

Senior forward Ethan Wragge, who was the star of the first matchup between these two, has been underwhelming since. In the five games since his outburst in Philly, Wragge has accumulated a total of 32 points, only five more than his output against Villanova alone. This comes with the inherit risk of strictly being three-point shooter.  Despite being listed at 6-7 and 225 lbs., Wragge has yet to attempt a 2-point shot since Jan. 1, 2014 against Seton Hall. It will be interesting to see if he resorts to a different shot selection if the trey bombs don't fall early and often in this one.

Therefore, with the recent lack of production from Wragge, and really the supporting cast as a whole, the weight of the second-best scoring offense in the conference has been squarely on the shoulders of Doug McDermott.  Dougie McBuckets, as some people fondly call him, is quickly turning the Naismith Player of the Year voting into a one-man race. He has been nothing short of spectacular all season averaging an absurd 25.3 PPG and 7.0 RPG, as he leads his team in both categories.  Since the last Villanova game, he's been even better than his season averages. Over his last five games, the senior forward has averaged 27.2 PPG on 46.0 percent shooting. This includes a game where he accounted for more than half of his Creighton's points.

Against a much more talented team such as Villanova, McDermott will need all the help that he can possibly get.

The Players to Keep Your Eyes On:

Villanova: Senior forward JayVaughn Pinkston has not been playing well as of late for Nova. But Jay Wright and the Wildcats need him to play of out of his mind against Creighton.  Since conference play began, Pinkston has accumulated 20 points only once, and that was back in the first conference game of the season, against Butler. The key for Pinkston will be his ability to get to the charity stripe early and often. In the five games in which Pinkston has reached at least 20 points so far this season, he has reached the free throw line at least seven times.  It will be especially important in this contest because Villanova has an obvious size advantage inside over McDermott and Wragge. The latter seems much more comfortable outside the three-point line.  The Cats need to pound the ball to avoid another blowout at the hands of Creighton, and it starts with establishing Pinkston inside from the minute that the ball is tipped.

Creighton: Yes, McDermott is going to get his, there's no denying it. Yes, Wragge has the ability to reach double figures on a pretty consistent basis with the chance of an occasional outburst, but he's extremely streaky. If the Bluejays want any chance of keeping up in this matchup of the two best offenses in the conference, they will need another scorer to emerge and help McDermott and Wragge on offense. That's the role that they'll be looking for senior guard Jahenns Manigat to fill.  Manigat has blown teams away with his scoring this season (only 8.0 PPG all year), but he has shown the ability to explode.  Most notably, he went off for 19 points, a career high, the last time that these two teams met. In fact, over his four-year career, Creighton is 29-5 when Manigat reaches at least double digits in the scoring column. With that being said, the Bluejays would welcome another big scoring performance from him this time around if they want any chance of winning.

Beasts of the BIG EAST Once Again:

It seems as if conference realignment is just the boost that the Villanova Wildcats needed to propel themselves right back up to BIG EAST supremacy.  Right now, Nova has a half-game lead in the conference standings, and if the Cats can hold off Creighton, it would be their first outright regular season BIG EAST title since the 1981-82 season, when they finished a half-game above Georgetown.

Home Sweet Homaha:

Omaha, NE has been especially kind for Creighton lately, as the team has only lost 2 games in the CenturyLink Center this season. In fact, the Bluejays have not lost a game in Omaha in 372 days.  The last time they dropped a home game was February 9, 2013 in a 75-72 shocker to the Illinois State Redbirds.

The Prediction:

So it's all come down to this. For all intents and purposes, this game will determine the first ever-regular season champion in the "New BIG EAST." Now I want to establish one thing before making my pick: this game is going to be an absolute shootout to the fullest extent.  With that being said, I honestly believe that a shootout favors Villanova.  If you look at the first matchup, yes Creighton won by almost 30, but it was on the back of the greatest team 3-point shooting performance in BIG EAST history.  I just don't think that the Bluejays have another 21 long balls in their bag of tircks, and I don't think Ethan Wragge has another 27-point performance in him.  Therefore, I believe the Wildcats are more balanced on offense and I think they leave Omaha with a huge conference win that propels them to the BIG EAST regular season title.

Villanova 86 Creighton 81