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Preview: No. 14 Iowa State and No. 25 Villanova both have something to prove

It’s still too early in the season to tell how good the Iowa State Cyclones and Villanova Wildcats will be. The outcome Sunday’s matchup between the two will give us a better sense of where these teams are headed.

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Iowa State has big goals this season.
Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

The No. 14 Iowa State Cyclones have a ton of talent and are really hoping this is the year they make it back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2009. Ashley Joens is back for her fifth year and is leading the team with 19.6 points per game to go along with 9.1 rebounds. Emily Ryan is once again near the top of the nation in distributing to go along with 12.3 points per game on 42.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Lexi Donarski’s scoring and efficiency are down, but she’s averaging a career-best 3.9 assists per game and we all know she’s got the talent to get back on track in those other areas. Then there’s the newcomer who could make the difference this year and that’s Stephanie Soares, a 6-foot-6 center who can stretch the floor. She’s averaging 16 points, 9.1 boards and 3.3 blocks.

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Stephanie Soares (with ball) could be the missing piece Iowa State has been searching for.
Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

So the Cyclones have all the pieces and for the most part, those pieces are putting up their typical stellar numbers. The preseason No. 8 team is still in the Top 15, has a solid 7-2 record and remains the highest-ranked team in the Big 12, a conference that it is favored to win now that Texas has struggled.

But Iowa State has yet to pick up a ranked win; its most impressive victory remains its 99-76 triumph over now-receiving votes Columbia on Nov. 20. It missed out on an opportunity to defeat a ranked rival when it lost to now-No. 12 Iowa 70-57 on Dec. 7. Now, it the opportunity to erase that memory when it faces another ranked opponent in the No. 25 Villanova Wildcats on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET (ESPN). The game is part of the Invesco QQQ Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase and will be played at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

The Wildcats are also looking for their first win against a team that is currently ranked; they defeated then-No. 24 Princeton on Nov. 11. The Tigers are no longer receiving votes. In their two games against currently ranked teams, the Wildcats lost 75-70 to No. 18 Baylor and 67-46 to No. 16 Creighton. The Creighton loss was on Dec. 2, so like Iowa State’s loss to Iowa, it wasn’t too long ago. Villanova has won three blowouts since; the Cyclones have won one blowout since Dec. 7. Both teams will be hungry to pick up a signature win.

Last season, we saw that the greatness of Villanova superstar Maddy Siegrist was enough to win a tournament game, as the No. 11 seed Wildcats defeated No. 6 seed BYU in the first round behind Siegrist scoring 25 of the team’s 61 points. Siegrist is at it again this year — she is third in the nation with 27.4 points per game — and she has Villanova clinging to a spot in the Top 25. The Wildcats have been at No. 25 three weeks in a row. In order to truly compete with the 24 teams ahead of them and make it to the Sweet Sixteen or further in March, they are going to need Siegrist’s supporting cast to step up.

Sophomore Lucy Olsen has already been doing some stepping up. She is second on the team in scoring with 12.8 points per game and first with 3.9 assists. If she can make her big games happen more frequently, Siegrist may have a legitimate co-star. She’s had four games with 18-plus points and could use another one against the Cyclones. She has reached her season high of six assists three times.

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - BYU v Villanova
Lucy Olsen (with ball) has shown improvement as a sophomore.
Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Villanova’s third-leading scorer is Maddie Burke (7.5 points per game). Burke has taken 57 of her 61 field goals from beyond the arc and is connecting at a 45.6 percent, which is 46th in the country. So she is quite the weapon. Sophomore Cristina Dalce is another specialist of sorts for the Wildcast; she excels in the rebounding department with 8.1 boards per game, which is second on the team behind Siegrist’s 9.4. Dalce also averages 7.1 points.

We’ll see who has the edge when the quartets of the Cyclones and Wildcats collide.

Game information

No. 14 Iowa State Cyclones (7-2, 0-0 Big 12) vs. No. 25 Villanova Wildcats (9-2, 1-1 Big East)

When: Sunday, Dec. 18 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT

How to watch/listen: ESPN/The Varsity Network App (Iowa State)

Key to the matchup: Iowa State’s 3-point shooting. The Cyclones are eighth in the nation with 9.8 threes made per game, but 131st with an efficiency of 32.2 percent. If they can up that percentage on Sunday and make a few more threes than they usually do, they should be able to outscore the Wildcats. And they should have the opportunity to shoot a better percentage because Villanova allows its opponents to shoot 35.4 percent from beyond the arc (319th in the nation). Iowa State is even worse, allowing a percentage of 37.4 (340th), but at least Villanova doesn’t take as many threes. The Cyclones should have the advantage at getting to the line, making their free throws and rebounding the basketball. If they can add a hot night from distance, they should be in good shape.