If you come to only one women’s Missouri Valley Conference game this year, it should be this Friday night at 7 pm. The top two teams in the league will face off when Creighton (10-3) hosts Illinois State (10-4) at D.J. Sokol Arena. It is a huge game this early in the conference season, pitting a pair of 2-0 teams which were my top two picks in the Valley’s preseason poll. The preseason MVC favorite Bluejays have won eight of their last nine games, while the Redbirds (selected third in the preseason poll) have won four straight and six of their last seven entering the showdown.
Friday night will also give you an opportunity to reacquaint yourself to this team, as the Bluejays have not played at home since cruising to a 63-42 win over North Dakota State on Dec. 16. The Jays have since been to Mexico, home for Christmas, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana (not to mention a few scenic drives across billboard-heavy I-70 in Missouri), playing five games in the 25 days they have had between home games. Do yourself a favor and take this opportunity to come and cheer on the Bluejays in what could be the biggest MVC home game of the season and reintroduce yourself to Creighton’s other dominant MVC basketball team.
How good are these teams? Creighton and Illinois State both rank in the MVC top-four in 11 of the same categories – scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin (ISU is #1), free-throw percentage, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage (CU is #1), field-goal percent defense, rebounding defense, assists (CU is #1), assist-turnover ratio (CU is #1) and turnover margin. ISU also leads the MVC in blocks and rebounding margin, while Creighton leads the league in three-pointers per game.
The Redbirds opened Valley play with two easy home wins, crushing Northern Iowa 72-41 on MVC TV last Friday night and rolling past Bradley 81-65 on Sunday. Illinois State is rolling under third year head coach Stephanie Glance. Glance, who was the MVC Coach of the Year in 2011-12 and the WBCA National Rookie Coach of the Year in 2010-11, has led the Redbirds to a 27-11 record in MVC play over the past three years. In fact, ISU has finished in the MVC top-two in each of the last six seasons.
The top three scorers for ISU are all Division I transfers. MVC Newcomer of the Year front-runner Janae Smith is a sophomore from the Chicago area who transferred closer to home after one season at the College of Charleston. Senior Candace Sykes spent two seasons at Alabama, including a redshirt campaign, before coming back to her home state. The fifth-year player received a special NCAA waiver and was not forced to sit out for a season, joining the ISU rotation for the 2010-11 season. Last year’s MVC Newcomer of the Year Jamie Russell was a role-player at Wisconsin for two years before garnering serious consideration for Valley Player of the Year in her debut season with the Redbirds last year.
Smith, Sykes and Russell account for 62 percent of ISU’s points this year. When compared to the Bluejay trio of Sarah Nelson, Marissa Janning and Carli Tritz making up just 50 percent of CU’s scoring, you can see just how important the ISU threesome is.
Smith is the reigning MVC Newcomer of the Week, an award she’s now won six times this season. The 6-foot-2 athletic forward was named to the Southern Conference All-Freshman Team in 2010-11 when she led C of C in scoring and rebounding as a rookie. She’s adjusted nicely to MVC play, as she leads the league with six double-doubles and 9.5 rebounds per game. Her 16.6 points per game are second in the league and in her first two Valley games last weekend she averaged 22 points and 12.5 rebounds.
Sykes, just like Janning, is ISU’s second-leading scorer despite not starting a game this season. The senior guard is second on the team with 14.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, while her 33 three-pointers and 38.4 3-point percentage lead the team.
In addition to earning MVC Newcomer of the Year honors last year, Russell was also tabbed to the MVC First-Team and the MVC All-Defensive team. She is second in the MVC with 35 steals this year, while her 40 assists are second on the team behind senior Alexis Jenkins’ 49. Russell also tops the team with 48 turnovers and is shooting 89.4 percent at the free-throw line. She’s third on the team with 13.6 points per game, but her scoring is trending down as she’s topped 10 points just three times in her last eight games.
Now you know how good the Redbirds are. Since the Jays have been away from Omaha since mid-December you might need a refresher on how good they are. Here are three things to know about your team:
1) Jays Can Shoot: Creighton ranks second in the NCAA with 9.5 three-pointers made per game. They have twice tied the school record for threes made in game this year, making 16 triples against both South Florida and Evansville.
2) Jays Are Efficient: Not only are they connecting on a lot of threes, they aren’t wasting many shots in doing so. Creighton ranks 13th in the nation in three-point accuracy, hitting 38.1 percent from long range. That’s the highest three-point shooting percentage ever under Jim Flanery and the best by a Bluejay squad since the 1992-93 team made better than 40 percent of its shots from distance. Taking it one step further, Creighton’s overall field-goal percentage of 41.7 is also tops in the Flan era.
3) Jays Fly Together: This year’s team enjoys sharing. The Bluejays rank 23rd in the NCAA with 16.8 assists per game. Not only do they play well together, they don’t let other teams join in on the fun. Creighton takes great care of the ball, ranking 20th in the country in assist-turnover ratio. I’ve mentioned it before, but when your starting “four” leads your team in assist-turnover ratio and is 43rd in the nation in that category, you’re doing things well. Sarah Nelson’s assist-turnover ratio is second in the MVC, as she has 49 assists and just 25 turnovers from her forward spot. The Jays are still the only team in the MVC with more assists than turnovers this year and only one of 40 in the NCAA to boast that stat.
While the Redbirds rely heavily on their high-scoring trio for their points, they do have a balanced rotation, as nine different players are averaging at least 12 minutes per game. The Jays will have their hands full with the Redbirds on Friday night and will need to figure out how to slow down Smith inside. Smith plays more than 33 minutes per game and CU’s Nelson plays better than 35 minutes per game, so look for this to be a key match-up in determining which team moves to 3-0 in Valley play.
Random Links, Thoughts and Numbers
- We mentioned last week that ESPN.com’s Graham Hays was in attendance at Creighton’s game in Carbondale. He checked in with this story about the Bluejays and Marissa Janning.
- The Bluejays have been on the road so much this season, they actually have more true road wins (5) than games played at D.J. Sokol Arena (4).
- The NCAA released its first official RPI numbers this week and even after playing two of the three worst RPIs in the MVC to open conference play, the Bluejays sit at 24.
- Illinois State is second in the MVC with an RPI of 71.
- Creighton has excelled on the road this year, but so has ISU. The Redbirds have won their last four road games – including a one-point win at Illinois – to improve to 4-1 away from Redbird Arena this season.
- Creighton is 19-2 all-time at home against the Redbirds. ISU has lost its last five in Omaha, as the Redbirds are still seeking their first win inside D.J. Sokol Arena.
- Sarah Nelson has scored at least 10 points in all four games she’s played against ISU in her career. She averages 14.3 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 57.1 percent from the field against the Redbirds in her career.
- Carli Tritz has also performed well against the Redbirds. The junior guard averaged 17 points per game against ISU last year, making 13-of-25 (.520) shots in the two meetings.
- Despite not starting, freshman Marissa Janning played 38 minutes at Evansville on Saturday, pouring in a career-high 22 points for CU.
- Janning is averaging 15.9 points over her last nine games.
- Janning leads the MVC and ranks 10th in the NCAA with a 46.8 three-point shooting percentage.
- Senior Ally Jensen tied career-highs with 18 points and six three-pointers at Evansville (matching the numbers she put up against Drake in the MVC Tournament as a freshman).
- Jensen now ranks sixth in CU history with 179 career three-pointers. She leads the team and is fourth in the MVC with 31 threes this season.
- Jensen has also made a three-pointer in every game this year and has now drained at least one in 19 straight games.
- One more Jensen note, she was named the MVC Scholar-Athlete of the Week, following Sarah Nelson’s two-week reign on the award.
- Head coach Jim Flanery picked up career win No. 200 at Evansville last weekend.
- Flan is now fourth in MVC history with his 118 career Valley wins.
- UPDATE: Listen to myself and Brad Burwell call the action on 1620 AM in Omaha or online. Live video and live stats are also available.
- If you are a Creighton basketball fan in Omaha, come to this game. Watching the men destroy Missouri State on KMTV won’t be as satisfying as watching this exciting team play in person.
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. He tweets about Creighton a lot @IamRobSimms