The Wildcats were due for a bump along the road. They had climbed to 16-1 and were elevated to No. 4 in the nation in the latest poll. With Creighton having lost over the weekend to Providence, Villanova was the last undefeated team in the Big East Conference.
Aside from a loss at Syracuse, which didn't hurt either their RPI or their standing in the eyes of the national audience, the Wildcats had been efficient and close to perfect. The roster was proving to be a little deeper than previously imagined and the Wildcats were still winning with their traditional defense-first philosophy.
Then, Creighton got off the team bus shooting three-pointers and it's possible they are still in the empty Wells Fargo Center draining them right now.
"That was one of the more incredible things I've ever been a part of as a coach, the start of that game," Creighton's Greg McDermott said.
No kidding. The Blue Jays scored on their first nine possessions, all three-pointers, with seven of them coming from 6-foot-7 forward Ethan Wragge, who leads the Big East in three-point field goals and three-point percentage. How big a part of his game is the three-pointer? He has taken 154 shots this season and 148 of them have been three-pointers. So it wasn't as if this ability took Villanova by surprise.
"This is what they do. And if you let a team that is already good start feeling it early, and get good looks, you're in trouble," Wright said.
The Wildcats were in trouble before the national anthem got to the part about the perilous night. They trailed by 27-10 before Creighton finally missed a three and were down by as many as 28 in the first half before rallying to trail by just 13 points at the break. Unfortunately, the same Creighton players took the floor for the second half and they hadn't forgotten how to shoot. The Bluejays led by as many as 41 in the second half before easing off to the finish.
"We came out and tried to press them, but weren't aggressive enough. We were tentative on the press. You can't just try to trap with two guys and let them get off easy passes to the open guy," Wright said. "We'll learn from it, but you can win and learn, too. I prefer learning when we win."
Wragge would finish with nine three-pointers on 14 attempts, tying him for the Creighton record with Kyle Korver. The 21 three-pointers made by Creighton set a Big East record. It was such a barrage that it was almost possible not to notice the individual play of Doug McDermott, the Bluejays' all-everything forward. As it was, McDermott made five three-pointers of his own and finished with 23 points. What he did best was command double-team attention around the basket and kick the ball out to an unattended teammate. It seemed as if there were always a few of them available.
What's doubly remarkable is that Creighton, in losing by 13 to Providence, was just 4 of 19 on three-pointers and Wragge just 2 for 8. Perhaps he was saving them up.
"I don't remember being in a game when a team hit its first nine shots," Wright said. "Providence did a better job of sticking with Wragge and not leaving him. They really moved the ball against us."
The last move was always the same, though, or so it appeared. Up into the lights and then down through the net. Some coaches of a team that has been riding high would shrug and say that losing a game or two in January can pay dividends in March.
Jay Wright didn't go for it. He went for Chapter 1 of the coach's handbook instead: Losing is bad.
Even on a night when winning didn't seem like an option, he might have a point there.