PHILADELPHIA — Creighton faces its first big-stakes game as a Big East member in Monday night's meeting at Villanova.
Win, and the No. 20 Bluejays will salvage a split of a two-game road trip and move into a share of first place. Lose, and they will find themselves trailing the sixth-ranked Wildcats by two games in the championship chase.
“We're going to the No. 1 team in our league, so we just have to be ready for a fight,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “And we have to have a short memory. We can't dwell on this one.”
Saturday's 81-68 loss at Providence exposed some of the deficiencies many observers saw in CU. Most of its new conference brethren are more athletic, so the Bluejays must be on task when it comes to defense and rebounding.
They weren't against the Friars, who hit the boards to pick up 15 valuable second-chance points. More important, the offensive rebounds allowed Providence to retain possession and control the tempo, a key against Creighton.
Let the Bluejays get their transition game in gear, and the results can be lethal. Providence turned the contest into more of a halfcourt battle that allowed it to take advantage of its edge in athleticism and negate what Creighton does best.
“We have to pick this tape apart and figure out why it happened,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “Then, as quickly as we can, we have to learn from those mistakes and try to fix it before Monday.
“I don't think it's anything we can't take care of, but we need to have a really short memory. This obviously is a big game for us.”
The loss to Providence snapped Creighton's 10-game winning streak, which included victories in its first five league games. The Bluejays' quick start has the attention of the Wildcats, said their coach, Jay Wright.
It starts with their respect for Doug McDermott, the Bluejays' two-time, first-team All-American and the Big East's leading scorer at 24.9 per game.
Wright was out recruiting a week ago and didn't see Creighton defeat Xavier. The next day, Wright met with his players and asked if they had watched the game.
“I asked what was the difference in that game and they all said, 'McBuckets,' ” said Wright, referring to one of McDermott's nicknames. “As a team, they all respect him. In this age, players are confident and cocky, and they don't want to give anyone their due.
“I really like that our players like that kind of player, and it shows me something about our guys' basketball IQ. From what I've seen, I don't think anyone has more of an impact on his team. I don't think anyone is a better player than he is.”
The Wildcats (16-1) have won five straight since their only loss of the season, a 16-point setback against second-ranked Syracuse. Villanova opened the season with 11 victories in a row, including back-to-back wins over ranked teams in Kansas and Iowa at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
Wright said the win against the Hawkeyes might rank as his team's most important of the season. The Wildcats won 88-83 in overtime, and Wright said his team was forced to go with some younger players late in the game.
“The Kansas game was a great win, but it took so much out of us,” he said. “We had to come back and play Iowa the next day, and we were physically done. Daniel Ochefu was mentally spent.
“We're playing at the end of regulation with two freshmen, and we found a way to win. That built great confidence in our young guys, and it was a great experience for our team.”
Ochefu, at 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds, could present big problems for Creighton. The sophomore is coming off a career-high 14 points in Saturday's victory against DePaul, and is shooting 76.3 percent from the field in his last nine games after making 9 of his first 31 shots this season.
He scored 24 points in the Wildcats' last two wins after averaging 4.0 points in the first 15 games.
Villanova, with four starters back from last season's NCAA tournament team, was picked fourth in the preseason poll, one spot behind Creighton. Monday night, the teams square off in one of the few marquee matchups the league has been able to offer in its inaugural season.
Statistically, the difference between the teams is razor thin. Creighton leads the league in scoring (81.8 points per game), while Villanova is second (81.3). The Wildcats are second in scoring defense (65.4), the Bluejays third (65.9), and they are tied for the lead in scoring margin (plus-15.9).
The teams also are separated by a spot in rebounding margin, assists and 3-pointers. The Wildcats have built their résumé by relying on balance: leading scorer JayVaughn Pinkston (15.6) is one of four players averaging in double figures.
Creighton relies heavily on McDermott but has demonstrated it's far from a one-man show. Now, the Bluejays need to show they can band together and bounce back from a disappointing showing at Providence.
“We got punched in the face and never really stepped back up,” Doug McDermott said. “We weren't our best as a group, but we'll be ready on Monday.”