‘Matured’ Jays ready to avenge loss to reigning national champion Villanova on road trip

‘Matured’ Jays ready to avenge loss to reigning national champion Villanova on road trip
“We’re in a pretty good spot,” coach Greg McDermott said. “We’ve got a tough road trip ahead. It’s going to tell us a lot — what’s going to happen in March is going to depend a lot on what happens these next three games.” BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Creighton’s players don’t need any reminders about why things unraveled after they’d built a nine-point lead early in the second half of last month’s game against Villanova.

The Jays fell for two pump fakes, gave up a back-cut layup and let a shooter take an in-rhythm 3-pointer. Their own aggressiveness abruptly vanished offensively — they settled for jumpers and lost the battle for a loose ball (three Wildcats hit the floor in pursuit).

The lead vanished in 96 seconds. Control was completely ceded to the reigning national champs about five minutes after that. Villanova won comfortably, 90-78.

But that was 3½ weeks ago.

CU players think they’ve progressed considerably since. And now they get to find out if that’s truly the case. They play the Wildcats again Wednesday.

“We’ll see how much we’ve matured as a team,” senior guard Kaleb Joseph said. “I think we’ve taken a few steps in the right direction, and now it’s the time to capitalize on it. As a senior, I’m telling these guys to seize the moment because these games, they’re huge for our season.”

It starts with the Villanova rematch. The Jays then play two more road games — at Seton Hall and at Xavier.

This could be a season-defining stretch.

It’s certainly the kind of moment that this CU team has been working for. The Jays have been navigating through an up-and-down season with a big-picture vision, always convinced that they could absorb a few disappointing results as they groomed themselves for a strong stretch run.

They needed time to define roles and develop an identity. They figured that by February, inexperience wouldn’t be an issue. They’d be well positioned to peak.

Well, here’s their chance.

“We’re in a pretty good spot,” coach Greg McDermott said. “We’ve got a tough road trip ahead. It’s going to tell us a lot — what’s going to happen in March is going to depend a lot on what happens these next three games.”

The most pressing problem, however, is Creighton’s injury report.

Freshman guard Marcus Zegarowski broke a bone in his right hand Sunday. He’s in a cast. He’ll surely miss the next two games, and most likely will still be sidelined for next week’s trip to Xavier.

Senior guard Connor Cashaw hurt his shoulder last week and missed Sunday’s game. Sophomore forward Damien Jefferson (ankle) hasn’t played since Jan. 9. Both did return to practice this week on a limited basis — the hope is that they could contribute some Wednesday.

Their absence has already had an impact, though, according to McDermott.

“It’s been a challenge to get better just because of all the injuries,” he said. “We haven’t had everybody healthy for practice, and it’s tough to move forward as quickly as you’d like to when you don’t have healthy bodies on the floor.”

Yet the Jays are still tied for fourth place in the Big East. Most analysts consider Creighton to be sitting on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble — but its postseason fate isn’t sealed just yet.

CU just can’t afford to take any steps backward. The players understand that.

They showed discipline, tenacity and persistence during a 76-54 win over Xavier on Sunday. That’s the team they want to be. They hope to show it this month.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Joseph said. “The important thing is we have another opportunity. We get to play a lot of (Big East) teams that we lost to the first time around. Now, if they’re going to beat us, they’re going to have to beat us at our best.”

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