Isaiah Zierden

Isaiah Zierden knows Creighton will have to be tough to succeed in the Big East.

Creighton’s bounce-back abilities could be tested to the limits in Wednesday’s visit to Villanova.

Reeling a bit after back-to-back losses to Georgetown and Seton Hall, the Bluejays open the second half of Big East play facing a Wildcat team that could be grinding its way to another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Villanova’s only blemish on its Big East record is an overtime loss to Providence. The third-ranked Wildcats are seventh nationally in scoring defense, allowing 61.2 points per game, and 10th nationally in field-goal percentage defense at 38.1.

While acknowledging the challenge, Creighton coach Greg McDermott also sees an opportunity to take another step toward respectability as the Bluejays wind through their third season in the Big East.

His players do, too, especially coming off their subpar effort in Saturday’s 75-65 home loss to Seton Hall. The Pirates dominated every physical aspect of the game to avenge an early January loss on their home court to the Bluejays.

“It’s disappointing that we came out and laid such an egg because we know we let so many people down,” forward Toby Hegner said. “That’s not what we want to do.

“Now we just have to turn the page. We have to keep on doing what we have to do and keep moving forward. We can’t dwell on what’s happened in the past.”

It was no secret when Creighton joined the Big East for the 2013-14 season that the Bluejays would have to adapt to a tougher, more physical league than they were used to in the Missouri Valley.

They’ve shown signs of progress this season. With the exception of the final 2½ minutes of their second game with Georgetown, the Bluejays demonstrated they were tough enough to match up against one of the league’s annual bullies.

They defeated a Butler team that prides itself on toughness. They held Georgetown, Seton Hall and Providence to 183 points in a three-game span.

“It’s not like we can’t do it,” guard Isaiah Zierden said. “But when you have a whole game when they out-tough you like Seton Hall did, you really have to step back and look at it.

“For the most part, we’ve shown we can do that against tough teams. It’s just a growing process.”

McDermott agrees.

“Defensively, through nine games in three years of the Big East, we’re in a better spot than we’ve been in the past,” he said. “We’re making strides. We’re certainly not all the way there, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

With a roster filled with skilled players rather than boot-tough defenders, McDermott knows there will be ebbs and flows to any progress through a long season.

“You don’t ever play 32 games where everything goes right or exactly the way you want them,” he said. “You play about average a third of the time. You play great a third of the time. And the other third, you don’t play great but you hope to find a way to win.

“We ran into a Seton Hall team that played well and we didn’t. That had something to do with that, but some of it was self-inflicted. And we want to knock that stuff out of the system as quickly as we can.”

Which gets the Bluejays back to Wednesday and Villanova. The Wildcats defeated Creighton 85-71 in Omaha on Jan. 2, making 68 percent of their field-goal attempts and an amazing 88 percent of their shots from inside the arc.

McDermott expects Villanova once again to attack the basket, especially because of a recent diminished reliance on the 3-point shot. In their seven games since beating Creighton, the Wildcats have shot an average of seven fewer 3-pointers (21) than they have averaged during the season (28.2).

“They have so many guys that can take it off the dribble and make a play for themselves or a teammate,” McDermott said. “When they go small, it becomes very difficult to guard because you have five guys out there doing the same thing.”

In the first meeting, Creighton had trouble stopping junior guard Josh Hart, who torched the Bluejays for 25 points. Three other Wildcats scored 10 points or more, including senior Ryan Arcidiacono.

“They have the head of a snake in Arcidiacono,” McDermott said. “He makes sure the ball gets to the right place at the right time.

“Statistically, his numbers aren’t as good as they were last year. But his impact on winning hasn’t changed.”

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