I contemplated writing the briefest of brief previews for Thursday’s Missouri Valley Conference opener at Southern Illinois. Simply stating that Creighton is really good and SIU is really bad. Rather than writing a preview short enough for a tweet, I opted instead to offer a cautionary tale to you the reader and to the Bluejay women’s basketball team. It’s no secret that the Creighton women have put together a sparkling non-conference résumé and as the preseason MVC favorites, the Bluejays are expected to stroll through their first two Valley road games this week.
On the other hand, you have a traditionally bad SIU team which put together a horrible non-conference schedule and performed horribly against that slate. While Creighton is picked to win the MVC, the Salukis were tabbed for an eighth-place Valley finish by media, coaches and SIDs. The Salukis have finished higher than eighth in Valley play just once since the 1997-98 season (a bizarre 16-2 MVC Championship season in 2006-07). Missy Tiber begins her fourth season of MVC play looking for her first ever win over the Bluejays. She’s 0-6 against Creighton and in her first three Valley seasons is a combined 8-46 against MVC foes.
So with all these numbers and SIU owning a horrid 3-8 record against a schedule which ranked 324th (of 345) in NCAA Division I, why should Creighton fret this game? Because they’ve lost this game before. Well not this game, but games just like this. You don’t have to think back too far to recall a highly favored Bluejay team losing to a Valley bottom-feeder. In fact it was on this road swing last year that the Bluejays showed up expecting a win and walked away with a shocking loss. The Jays lost a 48-45 game at Evansville last year (after crushing the Aces by 22 earlier in the season), giving the Purple Aces just their second Valley win in 12 games. In 2003, the preseason MVC favorites came to Carbondale in mid-February knowing eventual co-champion Indiana State had lost that weekend and a win would put the Bluejays in the driver’s seat for an outright conference title. But a 16-5 Creighton team lost to a 5-15 SIU team that snowy day, handing the Salukis just their second Valley win in 12 games.
Therefore I caution the Bluejays to not assume a 2-0 Valley start this weekend against SIU and Evansville, despite what the numbers show.
The Bluejays are coming off of a gut-wrenching double overtime loss at Minnesota on Sunday. The Bluejays led by as many as 20 in the first half and held a 15-point halftime lead, but the Jays went cold down the stretch and the Gophers forced overtime and eventually pulled out an 88-81 win. But if you read this week’s “Tuesdays With the Bluejays” by Carli Tritz, you will see that the unfortunate loss will serve as motivation for this team as it enters conference play.
So let’s look to Valley play. I was fortunate enough to continue my all-conference voting privileges this year, moving from the SID vote to the media vote as Creighton’s color commentator on home radio broadcasts. I, like 25 other voters, picked Creighton to win the league. The way the Bluejays performed through non-conference play, I’m feeling confident with that selection, and I have to believe the Bluejays themselves are feeling confident – despite the Minnesota loss – as they enter Valley action.
Junior forward Sarah Nelson is leading the team in scoring (12.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.0 rpg), while her team-best 53.0 field-goal percentage and 15 blocks both rank second in the MVC. Nelson is also second in the MVC in assist-turnover ration and third in assists, not bad from a forward. Something to keep an eye on during Valley weekends is how much playing time Nelson gets. It tires me to just type how many minutes she played at Minnesota – 48. That’s 48 of 50 minutes played. Only one player (Anna Munn of Indiana State) in the MVC has played more minutes than Nelson this season, as the Omaha Westside product is averaging 35.8 minutes per game.
On that note, I’ll be interested to see how junior Alyssa Kamphaus fares in her first MVC start and how much production Kamphaus and sophomore Alexis Akin-Otiko will give Jim Flanery in the post during conference play. Flan has shown a tendency to play with a smaller lineup recently, especially due to the improved play from starting guard McKenzie Fujan and reserve guard Jordan Garrison, in addition to the emergence of freshman guard Marissa Janning off the bench.
Janning not only leads the conference with her 51.1 three-point field-goal percentage (23-45), but her long range percentage ranks fourth in the NCAA. Janning is scoring 10.8 points per game for the Jays, the second-highest scoring rookie in the league. Preseason MVC Player of the Year Carli Tritz is averaging 10.1 points per game and tops the team in assists (47), steals (25) and free-throw percentage (.808). Tritz is second in the league in assists and third in steals.
SIU appeared to be trending upward heading into the 2012-13 season, having put two players on the MVC All-Freshman Team last year. Then in April, sharp-shooting Teri Oliver – who set a school record with 90 three-pointers in 2011-12 and scored more than 1,000 career points in three seasons – announced she was leaving the team. Oliver wasn’t the only departure, as four other Salukis opted not to return. Former starting point guard Brook LeMar and shot-blocker extraordinaire CiCi Shannon (school-record 149 career blocks in 60 games over two seasons) were among the five Salukis deciding to no longer play for Tiber.
Sophomore Cartaesha Macklin is the reigning MVC Freshman of the Year, after the 5-foot-6 guard led SIU and ranked second in the MVC in scoring with 16.5 points per game. Macklin ranked sixth in the NCAA among freshman in scoring, but her scoring has dipped after setting an SIU rookie scoring record last year. This season, she still leads the team, but is averaging 14.6 points per game. She tops the team with 39 assists, but is also turning the ball over at an alarming rate, averaging better than five turnovers per game.
Fellow sophomore Alexus Patterson has not followed up quite as successfully as Macklin. Patterson joined Macklin on the MVC All-Freshman Team last year and started 26 of 30 games played, averaging 6.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. This year Patterson has started just two of the nine games she has played and is averaging 4.9 points and 3.9 rebounds.
The Salukis are starting two freshmen and two sophomores, along with junior Jordyn Currier. Redshirt freshman Azia Washington has started all 11 games for SIU this year and is the reigning MVC Newcomer of the Week after posting 17 points and 17 rebounds against Chicago State last week. Fellow freshman Dyana Pierre leads the MVC with 9.2 rebounds per game and 16 blocked shots.
Remember when Creighton was having such a difficult time rebounding this year? CU’s rebounding margin is slightly better (-3.2) than SIU’s (-3.5), while the Salukis have a minus-5.4 turnover margin compared to CU’s positive 1.9 turnover margin.
The Bluejays enter league play ranked second in the NCAA with 9.0 three-pointers per game. The Jays have made at least 10 three-pointers in four of their last five games, including a school-record tying 16 triples in one contest. Creighton is not only making three-pointers at a record-setting clip, they are doing so accurately, ranking 14th in the nation by shooting 37.2 percent from long range this season. Creighton is also the only team in the MVC with more assists than turnovers this season, as the Jays rank 26th in the nation in assists.
I’ll close with a mention of the RPI one more time. Admittedly I’ve referenced this often during my previews. The reason for this is that I’ve paid more attention to it this year than in years past. Why? Because it’s worth paying attention to this year. In the past, the Jays would go 6-5 against this caliber of schedule and not give themselves a realistic shot at an at-large NCAA bid as they entered MVC play. But this year it’s different. The Bluejays are 8-3 and have a remarkable strength of schedule of 13 entering MVC play. That’s right, only 12 teams in the nation played a more difficult schedule than Creighton up to this point. CU’s RPI has actually gone up since it lost to Minnesota, as it’s now at 16 as I write this. And I emphasize RPI today because it’s going to take a huge dive after this weekend and I might not be able to talk too highly of the RPI for quite a while.
I referenced it before, but SIU is at the opposite extreme of Creighton on the RPI list. The Salukis played a horrible schedule (324 SOS) and won just three games to give themselves an RPI of 327. Evansville isn’t much better with an RPI of 266 and SOS of 150 as of Wednesday evening. Assuming Creighton doesn’t stumble this weekend and posts two wins, the Jays can still expect the RPI to drop. How far? I don’t know, we’ll have to check with Warren Nolan on Sunday.
Random Links, Thoughts and Numbers
- ESPN’s Charlie Creme gives the Bluejays a No. 11 seed in this week’s Bracketology.
- Creme also thinks the Jays can still earn an at-large bid if they take care of business in MVC play.
- Head coach Jim Flanery has 116 MVC wins in his career, tied with Drake’s Lisa Bluder (now at Iowa) for fifth in league history and he is one victory shy of his friend and former Bluejay assistant coach Tony DiCecco (UNI) for fourth.
- Creighton has won its last nine meetings with SIU and is 13-8 all-time in Carbondale.
- Creighton is 13-7 all-time in MVC openers and 13-7 in MVC road openers.
- Creighton is 7-3 in Valley openers under Flanery, including 5-5 in Valley road openers.
- Creighton started 0-3 in MVC play last year, but recovered to go 14-4 in its next 18 games against the MVC (including the MVC Tournament).
- Ally Jensen (171) is three three-pointers shy of Holly Sivesind (174) for sixth in school history.
- The Bluejay bench has out-scored opponents by 114 points this season. CU’s reserves are averaging 22.5 points per game.
- Jim Flanery won 24 games in his first season at Creighton. Missy Tiber just coached in her 100th game at SIU and now in her fourth season in Carbondale, she has won 18 games.
- I predict that at least once during the game that Missy Tiber will call a timeout at a very random moment and give her players one of her signature death stares.
- I also predict Houlihan’s for pregame meal.
- And I predict there might be more people at that Houlihan’s during pregame than in SIU Arena tonight.
- Listen to Brad Burwell and Glen Sisk call the game on 1180 AM in Omaha or online. A subscription video service is available for the game and you can follow Gametracker for as long as it works. (Memo to SIU – there are nine teams in the MVC which use StatBroadcast, it’s probably time to go ahead and make that move.)
Rob Simms worked in the Creighton athletic department for 11 years, primarily working with the men’s soccer, women’s basketball and softball teams. He now serves as the color analyst for women’s basketball home radio broadcasts. Follow his Creighton-centric Twitter account @IamRobSimms