Last year, the Creighton women made their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, earning an at-large berth thanks in large part to a strong non-conference slate. Overall, their schedule ranked #70 in the country according to WarrenNolan.com, but that factors in MVC games, which dragged their ranking down. Outside of the league, they played five eventual NCAA Tournament teams (Oklahoma, South Dakota State, Kansas, BYU, Nebraska), and went 3-2 against them.
Since Jim Flanery took over as head coach in 2002-03, the team has played 72 games against so-called BCS schools, or an average of six per season. In other words, in an average year, more than half of their non-conference games come against teams in the big five leagues. That’s an unenviable gauntlet of competition, but a necessary one given the relative weakness of women’s basketball in the Valley. A lot of people wondered whether that sort of scheduling would continue after the move to the Big East. When the program’s non-conference schedule was released earlier this week, the answer was a resounding yes.
Their first season in the Big East features a similarly tough non-conference slate; despite the move to what should be one of the top leagues for women’s hoops in the country, Flan’s staff isn’t easing up on the early-season challenges. Excluding the Las Vegas Tournament (since matchups aren’t yet determined), they will play four teams who appeared in the 2012-13 NCAA Tournament, two more that were in the WNIT, and another that played in the WBI. That means seven of their nine opponents played in the postseason a year ago. Wow!
Here’s a breakdown of the schedule, game-by-game:
Exhibition Game: Fort Hays State, Time and Date TBA
The Tigers went 22-7 a year ago but missed the DII NCAA Tournament, and return all but two players from that team. The Hays, Kansas school has four players from Nebraska on their roster, so in addition to being a formidable exhibition opponent, it’ll be a nice homecoming for those players.
Game #1: at Drake, Friday November 8
The 2013-14 season tips off against a familiar face, when the Jays travel to Des Moines to take on the Drake Bulldogs. The teams met 61 times when they were both in the MVC, including two meetings last year (both won by CU). Drake went 11-20 a year ago, but nearly pulled an upset in Omaha a year ago; they led 39-30 in the second half before Marissa Janning put on a shooting display for the ages, scoring 23 of the Jays’ final 37 points en route to an arena-record 29 in CU’s 67-66 win.
Game #2: South Dakota State, Tuesday November 12
The Jackrabbits have played in five straight NCAA Tournaments, and went last year after winning the Summit League with a 25-7 record. One of those seven losses came to the Jays, who beat the Jackrabbits on their home court 62-54 in mid-November. That team featured three seniors, including Ashley Eide who was the only player to score in double-figures in their NCAA Tourney loss to South Carolina. Still, they’re a perennial power and a good bet to be in the mix for another tourney berth come March.
Game #3: Minnesota, Sunday November 17
Creighton and Minnesota have met six times in women’s hoops, with the Golden Gophers winning all six — including a double-overtime heartbreaker last year in Minneapolis. The Jays led 54-37 with seven minutes left over the eventual WNIT team, but couldn’t stop Rachel Banham, who scored 12 of her 39 points in a 21-4 run over those final minutes. The Gophers blasted out to an eight-point lead in the first overtime, but an 8-3 Jays run and a final-minute defensive stop gave them a chance to tie the game. Jordan Garrison drained a three to send the game into a second overtime; the Gophers would run away in the second extra stanza for an 88-81 win.
Game #4: at Kansas, Wednesday November 20
Creighton and Kansas resume their series with a mid-week game in Lawrence. The Jayhawks went 20-14 a year ago and earned another NCAA Tournament berth, taking down both Colorado and South Carolina before falling to Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen. They lose their top three scorers from a team that has advanced to two straight Sweet Sixteens, but do return two starters and seven letterwinners.
Game #5: Houston, Saturday November 23
A two-game homestand the week before Thanksgiving begins with the Houston Cougars, one of just two teams on the non-conference slate that did not make the postseason a year ago. The return game of a home-and-home series that began last year with a 21-point Creighton road win, the Jays will be taking on a Houston program that hopes to be back on the upswing. From 2003-2011, the Cougars won three CUSA titles, went to the postseason six times, had two players selected in the top ten of the WNBA draft and had one AP All-American (Chandi Jones). That made their 13-17 record a year ago an aberration on an otherwise stellar run in recent years; all but two players return from that team as they try to rebound.
Game #6: South Dakota, Tuesday November 26
The Coyotes won seven of their last eight a year ago in earning a WBI berth (yes, there’s a women’s version of the CBI), and advanced all the way to the semifinal of that tournament, an impressive late-season run for a team that finished 19-16. They lose four seniors from that team, and will likely be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Summit League. CU will hope to make hay on the homestand, because the final three games leading up the Las Vegas Tournament will be a stiff test.
Game #7: at Oklahoma, Sunday December 1
The first of those three games takes place in the venue where their 2011-12 NCAA Tournament run ended: Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners went 24-11 en route to an NCAA berth in 2012-13, their 14th (!) straight. They’re expected to contend for the title in the Big 12, and return All-American shooting guard Aaryn Ellenberg fresh off winning a gold medal with Team USA this summer at the World University Games. The senior guard scored 19 points in the Sooners’ win in Omaha last November, and leads a group of four seniors that hope to improve on their Sweet 16 berth in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Game #8: BYU, Saturday December 7
Creighton defeated Brigham Young in Salt Lake City last year, outscoring the Cougars 31-13 over the game’s final 13 minutes to force overtime. Sarah Nelson hit a three-pointer in the final minute of overtime to seal the 65-62 win. That was the schools’ first meeting since 1992; Creighton leads the all-time series 7-5. The Cougars finished 23-11 and advanced to the WNIT, winning two games before bowing out. They lose senior Haley Steed, who finished her career with the most assists in school history, but return nearly every other major contributor and should be in the hunt for another postseason bid.
Game #9: at Nebraska, Saturday December 14
One week later, the Jays travel down I-80 to take on in-state rival Nebraska. It’s been 20 years since the Jays defeated the Huskers in Lincoln, but hopefully the ghosts that haunted them at the Devaney Center won’t follow them to the new Pinnacle Bank Arena in the Haymarket. The Huskers finished 2012-13 with a 25-9 record, good for second-place in the Big Ten, and lost to Duke in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Creighton defeated them in Omaha a year ago, their first win in the series since 2004.
Games #10, 11 and 12: Las Vegas Tournament, December 19-21
To wrap up the non-conference schedule, Creighton will travel to Las Vegas for a tournament featuring WNIT qualifier Washington and a slate of other BCS schools — Clemson, Oregon State, Pittsburgh and UNLV. While big names, those four combined to lose 82 games a year ago, making the field quite underwhelming. It should give them some momentum heading into what projects to be a very tough Big East slate.
That schedule will be released sometime later this fall; the league should be one of the best in America, with five teams that finished in the top 85 of the RPI in 2012-13. It’ll be a tough test, but after the games Coach Flanery’s team will play in November and December, the Jays should be prepared.