#21 Villanova Wildcats (11-2) vs. Xavier Musketeers (8-5)
When: Friday, January 5, 2018, at 7 p.m.
Where: Jake Nevin Field House
Coverage: Big East Digital Network/Fox Sports Go
Xavier’s Previous Season Record: 12-18
Key Players for the Musketeers: #45 Imani Partlow (6-1) Jr., F; #25 Anniina Aijanen (6-2) Sr., F; #12 Jada Byrd (5-9) Sr., G
The Musketeers are hoping for anything but a repeat of last season, when they only won four Big East games. As a result, they were projected to finish dead last in preseason polls. However, they’ve made it work so far and seem to be doing well for themselves at this point in the season, especially with only one starter back from a year ago.
Imani Partlow and Anniina Aijanen are two forwards that played a substantial amount of minutes last season and are now thriving in a much bigger role for the Musketeers. Partlow is one of Xavier’s top scorers and is its leading rebounder, despite playing in only six games this season--averaging 10.8 boards and 5.8 rebounds. While her numbers might be a tad inflated as a result, she’s shown an ability to finish inside and get to the free throw--where she converts 73.5 percent of the time. She is one of the top Musketeers when it comes to drawing fouls and leads a rotation that can go as high as 10-deep.
As for Aijanen, she has scored the most points for the Musketeers this season, but doesn’t even average in double figures--just missing the mark by a few ticks. She’s a tough forward that can occasionally stretch the floor out to the perimeter, where she can take and make the three. She’s another dynamic forward that can do-it-all for the Musketeers--rumble inside, drain shots from deep, and play hard-nosed defense on the other end. Another versatile player in the frontcourt, much like what Creighton, Butler, Princeton, Temple, and La Salle featured. She might not be as big of a game-changer as some of those aforementioned schools, but she’s still one of the Musketeers’ key players and can pose as a threat. She has turned up her play since Xavier began its Big East schedule and has shot close to 60 percent over its first two conference games.
Also keep an eye out for Kindell Fincher and Jada Byrd. Fincher is the only returning starter from last season and provides more of an offensive presence at the guard position. Meanwhile, Byrd is another guard, one that’s looking to get back on track after a slow start in conference play. She’s turned the ball over nine times, which is also the same amount of points she has in the first two Big East games. She hasn’t hit a single three and is 4-of-13 to begin conference play. She’s usually much better than this, a threat when attacking the basket or pulling up mid-range. Lastly, Aaliyah Dunham seems to be the only Musketeer to be able to consistently hit from deep. For a lot of her teammates, it’s a volume thing versus efficiency. She comes in off the bench and knocks down the perimeter shot at a 46.9 percent clip. Dunham can relish in the opportunities when teammates get her the ball at the three-point line, but she’s also a creator for her teammates. She boasts a 34:9 assist-to-turnover ratio, and no one comes close on a team that’s turnover-prone for the most part.
Xavier averages around 16 turnovers a game, with only three rotational players averaging more turnovers than assists. This is a team that isn’t the best offensively and as a result, tries to use numbers and depth to compensate. Instead of having one or two dominating presences that blow up the stat sheet, it’s a matter of many individual parts coming together.
The Wildcats are coming off of an ugly game, one that got out of hand after halftime. It’s unlikely that another 20-point blowout occurs and that Villanova tolerates such an anemic performance again in which it shot just 1-for-14 from deep in the second half like it did against Butler.
Villanova is a heavy favorite here, and it should be able to get back on track defensively. The key here is keeping an eye out for how the Wildcats do from deep. The three-ball is a very big part of what they like to do, and Harry Perretta leans to a more perimeter-oriented type of game. The guards are so important. Players like Adrianna Hahn and Kelly Jekot, two players that helped spark such a hot start to begin the 2017-18 season are currently in the middle of a shooting slump since Big East play began. Together, they’re a combined 6-for-30 from deep, and neither of them were able to bury a single three-pointer in eight attempts against the Bulldogs. Alex Louin was also quiet from deep, going 0-for-4, but she found other ways to contribute that resulted in a double-double and team-highs in points and rebounds for that loss.
Is this the game where they--and the rest of the team--turn it around from beyond the arc? Three-pointers are so big for what Villanova does and how it brings confidence or demoralizes opponents when they drop. A fourth-straight game marked by shooting woes from deep seems unlikely, but we shall find out on Friday night.