By Mark Brown
Cincinnati Herald Contributor
When it comes to the 2017-18 Xavier women’s basketball program, it might be most appropriate this season if the team simply ask for forgiveness rather than permission. After all, when you have a team that comprises six incoming freshman; and your two seniors have very limited on-court experience, perhaps there is some reality to the notion…..you don’t know what you don’t know.
Upon losing four contributing starters to graduation, there’s a very mild expectation for veteran leadership on Xavier’s youthful roster this year. And while it is much too early to evaluate the season-long effect of the team’s inexperience, thus far knowing what they don’t know might not be a bad thing for head coach Brian Neal’s young group.
As Neal enters his fifth season as head coach, he is not naive to the reality of limited veteran leadership on his team, but remains optimistic that senior forwards Jada Byrd and Anniina Aijanen will grow into their respective roles as the season progresses. “Anniina has stepped-up and been more vocal,” says Neal. “When Byrd is fresh she can be a leader as well.” That said, his plans early-on are to keep the game as simple as possible—allowing Byrd and Aijanen time to find their collective voice, as well as let the freshman find their way under the bright lights of Division 1 basketball. “We have a very limited package (of plays) in right now,” said Neal, when addressing the team’s on-court responsibilities. However, he’s confident the freshman have what it takes to compete at this level. “I’m not too worried about the freshman….they’re competitors. I might be worried about them blowing assignments, but they’re not afraid.” Neal’s brief assessment may be spot-on; and if their first two games are any indication of how the team might adapt over time….so far, so good!
In the season opener, both Byrd and Aijanen led the way; which turned out to be a comeback victory in overtime against a tough New Hampshire team, 71-66. Byrd poured in 13 points and 5 rebounds, followed by Aijanen’s 12 points and 6 rebounds. Junior forward Imani Partlow added 9 points / 6 rebounds to support the win as well. In their second game versus Mount St. Mary’s, two of the six newcomers made the profound statement ……We got this! Freshman point guard, Aaliyah Dunham scored a game-high 16 points in only 19 minutes, while forward, A’riana Gray followed her lead with 9 points / 10 rebounds in 15 minutes—leading Xavier to an impressive 66-45 win. Once again, the steadiness of Partlow (in the paint) was on display with 12 points / 7 rebounds.
It’s a long and competitive season ahead for Xavier, but thus far knowing what they don’t know could prove positive for Neal and the Musketeer program. As for senior leadership and grooming the incoming freshman, both Aijanen and Byrd do know what success, and failure looks like at Xavier; having been in the system for over 3 years, “They (freshman) need somebody to look up to,” says Byrd. “It’s up to us to provide that example. We know we are not perfect, but every day we strive to be better and better so they can have a good example. Whether it’s how to set a screen (on court), or how to communicate with each other…..both on and off the court.”
Next up for Xavier is at Minnesota (Nov. 22), then home versus Fort Wayne (Nov. 29) and Wake Forest (Dec. 4).