#18 Villanova Wildcats (10-0) vs. Creighton Bluejays (6-4)
When: Thursday, December 28, 2017, at 8 p.m.
Where: D.J. Sokol Arena, Omaha, Neb.
Coverage: Big East Digital Network/Fox Sports Go
Creighton's Previous Season Record: 24-8, Lost to Oregon State in the Second Round of NCAA Tournament
Key Players for the Bluejays: #45 Audrey Faber (6-2) Jr., F; #14 Sydney Lamberty (5-10) Sr., G; #5 Jaylyn Agnew (5-11) So., F
Creighton has had a bit of a rocky start to the 2017-18 season. After making their first appearance at the NCAA Tournament since shifting to the Big East, the Bluejays come in 6-4. They topped off non-conference play with a loss to No. 13 Florida State, which put an end to their three-game winning streak. However, it's tough to discount the Bluejays, because they were in the same exact situation last season--6-4 to begin Big East play. What happened next? A 16-2 record to finish the season and to capture a share of the Big East regular season title.
The Bluejays have two starters back from last season's run--Audrey Faber and Sydney Lamberty. Faber, a first team All-Big East player last year, leads the team once again as Creighton's top scorer. She's averaging just under 19 points per game. Faber is capable of scoring from almost anywhere and is also a solid defender on the other end of the court. The junior, 6-foot-2 forward is coming off of a 30 point game against the Seminoles. She is Creighton's go-to player for scoring and will be another tough forward for the 'Cats to deal with. As for Lamberty, the senior point guard is a dangerous all-around player. She's been starting for the Bluejays since her freshman season and is capable of doing a little bit of everything--score, rebound, facilitate, and defend. Lamberty primarily played off-ball in the past, but an opening left by the graduation of Marissa Janning resulted in head coach Jim Flanery going with his all-around talent. She's relished in the role so far, boasting a 2.49 assist-to-turnover ratio. She can chip in points when she needs to, but ultimately thrives in the other areas of the game.
Also keep an eye out for sophomore sharpshooter Jaylyn Agnew. She's building off of last season, in which she was named the Big East Freshman of the Year. Now a full-time starter, Agnew has only elevated her game. She's Creighton's second-highest scorer, averaging just under 17 points per game. Agnew takes a majority of her shots from deep, where she converts a blistering 46.1 percent of her takes. The 5-foot-11 wing also is the team's top rebounders and one of the better defenders--also leading the team in blocks and steals.
Lastly, the Bluejays have gotten some pretty good production from their younger players, especially redshirt sophomore Olivia Elger and true freshman Temi Carda. Elger didn't make too much of an impact in her freshman season back in 2015-16, then she redshirted last season. After an injury in the season-opener put her back on the sidelines, she finally returned a few weeks ago and has done a good job since. She's coming off of back-to-back 20-point games against South Dakota State and Florida State. She can sling it from deep and is a great scoring weapon off the bench. As for Carda, the freshman guard has impressed to start the season. She contributes a hardnosed attitude on both ends of the court, particularly on defense. She was rewarded for her hard work on the floor with a starting gig against the Seminoles. Carda has shown plenty of promise and toughness so far, even though she's not yet seasoned, she only seems to be getting better.
Put the records aside, the Wildcats are getting a pretty good test to begin conference play. Harry Perretta's squad is going into D.J. Sokol Arena, where the Bluejays have only lost three times since the start of the 2016-17 season. Creighton swept Villanova in both regular season meetings last year, although the second meeting later in the year was a lot closer than the first.
Faber, Creighton's talented leading scorer, reminds me a lot of another do-it-all forward that 'Nova faced earlier in the season--Princeton's Bella Alarie. Alarie went off on the 'Cats, dropping 29 points off of 10-of-13 shooting. She also had nine rebounds and three blocks to go along with them. Villanova was able to escape Jadwin Gymnasium with the win against the Tigers because although they let Alarie get hers, they shut down everyone else. The rest of the Princeton players combined for 13-of-44 (29.5 percent). Villanova might have to use a similar strategy on Thursday night.
The Wildcats have done a great job of keeping opposing perimeter threats quiet with their stifling defensive effort. It's the players down low that can pose potential threats.
On the other end of the court, Villanova can't afford any dry shooting spells. Adrianna Hahn, Kelly Jekot, and Alex Louin are going to need to keep up their hot shooting and get it going from deep. This Creighton squad is good at locking down the three-point line, but with such great interior presence for the 'Jays, the three-ball might be the Wildcats' ticket to another victory. It might just have to be a volume approach, it might not seem pretty on the stat sheet, but it'll be necessary to shoot ‘em up, sleep in the streets.
Maybe let Faber get hers and shut everyone else down, while getting buckets on the other end from deep. If the 'Cats can't do this, it might be a long night for them.