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Preview: Creighton Women’s Basketball at Wichita State

The Creighton women are 4-0 in Missouri Valley Conference play for the first time since 2005-06 and that’s the last time this team should want to be compared to that squad. After that 4-0 start, the Bluejays went on a record losing streak, not winning another game until the final regular-season contest. I don’t think this team needs to worry about that, but this team should be worried about this weekend’s road trip. The Bluejays travel to Wichita State for a Saturday night contest and then the rarest-of-rare, a Monday night conference game at Missouri State. The Jays have been swept on this road swing in each of the last two years and the Jays have lost three straight in Springfield.

That history isn’t lost on this group, junior guard Carli Tritz said as much in her postgame radio interview following Sunday’s win over Indiana State. She knows she’s never won at Wichita State and being the team-leader that she is, I’m sure she’ll remind everyone else of that as well. In fact, the only active Bluejay to win a game on this road trip during her career is Ally Jensen – when the Jays topped the Shockers 58-48 during her freshman season in 2010.

Opening the MVC season with road wins at Southern Illinois and Evansville was nice, but it was expected of a team which was picked to win the league. Picking up road wins this weekend will be huge for the Bluejays if they want to stake a claim in their first Valley title in a decade. It won’t be easy though, the Shockers are 5-2 at home this year and after a slow start to the season they have won six of their last seven heading into the weekend.

Wichita State is 3-0 in league play, with a home win over MSU and road victories at Bradley and UNI. The Shockers were tabbed for a second-place finish by league coaches, SIDs and media. They are 9-6 on the season despite averaging a league-worst 57.7 points per game. WSU has been able to overcome their poor offense with a defense that ranks second in the Valley, allowing only 52.7 points per game to rank 27th in the nation. The Shockers lead the league, and are the only team ahead of the Bluejays, in turnover margin. WSU forces opponents into nearly 20 turnovers per game, while posting a plus-3.1 turnover margin.

A key to Saturday’s game will be three-point shooting. The Bluejays still rank second in the NCAA in three-pointers per game, averaging 9.3 per contest, while their accuracy continues to improve as well. The Jays are now up to eighth in the nation in three-point field goal percentage, shooting 38.1 percent from long range. Obviously outside shooting is major part to Creighton’s success.

Conversely, a key to Wichita’s success throughout this season has been defending the three-point shot. WSU has allowed the fewest three-pointers by any Valley team this year, surrendering just 56 through 15 games (3.7 per game). They lead the league in three-point field goal defense as well, as opponents are shooting just 27.7 percent from beyond the arc against them. And while they are great at stopping the three-pointer, they aren’t so great at hitting threes. WSU ranks last in the league, averaging just 3.1 three-pointers per game. The Shockers have made 46 three-pointers this year, freshman Marissa Janning leads Creighton with 33 three-pointers alone and CU has already made 40 triples in four league games.

The low-scoring WSU offense is balanced, much like Creighton’s attack. Only one Shocker – first-team all-MVC guard Jessica Diamond – is averaging double figures this season. Diamond tops the team with 14.7 points per game and she’s one of only two Shockers with more than 10 three-pointers this year. Diamond leads WSU with 17 three-pointers and tops the team at the free-throw line, making 40-of-46 (.870) attempts at the stripe. She plays 34 minutes per game and is definitely this team’s heart and soul.

Her supporting cast is deep and talented and it has caused match-up problems for the Bluejays over the previous two seasons, as Creighton has dropped three of its last four against WSU and barely edged the Shockers 61-59 in Omaha last February. Diamond and Alex Harden are the primary ball-handlers for the Shockers, as Harden tops the team with 44 assists (Diamond is next with 37). Harden is also second on the team with 7.5 points per game.

Where the Shockers may have the edge in this contest is in the paint. The Shockers have the deepest front line in the Valley, as Chynna Turner, Jazimen Gordon and Michelle Price have all proven themselves as more-than-capable upperclassmen post players. Another Shocker with size has emerged this year, as sophomore Kelsey Jacobs has started 12 of 15 contests and is third on the team with 7.2 points per game. Both Gordon and Jacobs are 6-2 and while Price is listed at 6-1 and Turner at 6-0, they both play bigger than their listed size.

However, here is where confusion sets in, follow along, won’t you? My memory is that they have size and many of these players can jump out of the gym. My memory is correct, I promise. But look at these stats. Not one Shocker is averaging more than Price’s 4.7 rebounds per game. The Shockers are getting out-rebounded as a team this year (34.5 – 33.5 per game). When Creighton and Wichita State last met, the Jays out-rebounded the Shockers 47-22. That’s right, by 25! With primarily the same cast of characters for each side.

To be fair, the Shockers do spread their rebounds around, as their minutes are also spread between 10 players averaging better than 10 minutes per game. To be unfair, the words “Wichita State” and “effort” aren’t always synonymous when it comes to women’s basketball. I will say that I think Jody Adams is a good coach, but the Shockers have a history that predates her of having excellent athletes, but not always the best basketball players. This should make Creighton fans appreciate what they have in Jim Flanery-coached teams. While the Bluejays may not always have the most athletic teams in the conference, you know that they will have one of the more intelligent and hard-working teams with one of the best coaching staffs in the league. Rebounding isn’t always about athletic ability and size, I refer back to that plus-25 rebounding the undersized yet smart, hard-working Bluejays had on the Shockers last February.

After posting 11 straight wins in the series, WSU has won three of the last four. Creighton is 11-13 all-time in Wichita, dropping each of its last two trips to Charles Koch Arena. Even before those two losses, Creighton’s recent wins in Wichita have primarily been nail-biters. CU posted a 10-point win at Wichita in 2010, but its three wins in Wichita prior to that came by a combined eight points – winning two 3-point games and scrapping out a 2-point win. There is little doubt that whichever team wins on Saturday night, it will be a hard fought victory. There is also little doubt that the volume in Charles Koch Arena will not come close to replicating the sold-out environment which the men’s teams will battle in just hours earlier on ESPN2.

Since the Shockers might have the advantage in the paint, I’d look for the Bluejay guards to be a key to Creighton coming away victorious. Janning is averaging a team-leading 15 points per game off the bench through her first four MVC games. She’s made and attempted more field goals than anyone on the team, and her 10 three-pointers and seven steals are also tops on the squad in conference play. Her 4.5 rebounds per game in league action rank second on the team.

Preseason MVC Player of the Year Carli Tritz continues to lurk in the shadows for the Bluejays. I feel like Carli’s numbers probably scare opposing coaches. She is averaging just 5.3 points per game in league action – sixth on the team. She has attempted only 13 field goals in four Valley games. If opponents take a look at that, they might think she’s having a bad year and not playing well and could write her off. But the junior has proven throughout her career she’s capable of taking over a game at any point. The Shockers likely remember her pouring in 19 points against them as a freshman in the MVC Tournament.

Brad Burwell and myself were able to talk to Carli following Creighton’s latest win and I asked her about her knee. She acknowledged it is hurting her and even admitted the explosive first-step she had in her first two seasons on campus is not what it used to be. The great thing about Carli is that she is not only a physical talent on the court, but she has made some of the most intelligent basketball plays I’ve ever seen from a Bluejay over the past three seasons. She knows when to make things happen and knows that if her team is winning games by an average of 16 points (which they are in conference), that she doesn’t need to fill up the scoring column. I believe she is genuine when she says that scoring five points is fine as long as her team continues to win games easily. Tritz’s scoring won’t be the story this year, as it has been in year’s past. But if she keeps putting up seven assists against zero turnovers, as she did against Indiana State, the Jays are going to keep having success.

You always hear players say, “I’d rather have a title than be named MVP,” rarely do you get to see that in action. Carli is guiding this team to the top of the MVC, she’s just doing it differently than the prognosticators would have figured before the season started.

Winning at Wichita State and starting Valley play with five straight wins for the first time since 2004-05 would be another step toward a ring for Carli and her teammates.

Random Links, Thoughts & Numbers
– Creighton received one vote from a kind (and very wise) Associated Press voter this week.
– Creighton’s RPI continues to hover in the mid-20s. Coming in at 25th (down from 24th) in this week’s official NCAA RPI.
– Creighton is 4-0 in MVC play for the fourth time under Jim Flanery (2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2012-13)
– The Jays lost their fifth MVC game in 2006 (and their 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th).
– The Jays also lost their fifth MVC game in 2004, but bounced back with seven straight MVC wins.
– CU’s best MVC start under Flanery came in 2004-05, when the Jays won six straight to begin league play.
– CU’s best ever Valley start came in 1993-94, when they opened 8-0.
– At 12-3, the Bluejays are off to their best 15-game start since the 2004-05 squad was also 12-3.
– Carli Tritz averages 14.0 points per game in her career against Wichita State, but she’s also averaging better than five turnovers per game against the Shockers.  Tritz is 20-of-23 (.870) at the free-throw line against WSU.
– Sarah Nelson averaged 10.5 points against WSU last year and averages 9.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in her career against the Shockers.
– Ally Jensen was blanked in three games against WSU as a sophomore, but bounced back to score 16 points in two games last year. She was 4-for-8 from long range against WSU last year, but is still just 6-of-23 (.261) from distance against the Shockers in her career.
– Steve Pivovar from the Omaha World-Herald wrote a story about Jordan Garrison’s unique shooting style this week.
– Piv also checked in with this blog about Carli Tritz and the aforementioned shift in her role.
– Marissa Janning appeared on Bluejay Banter this past Monday, listen to her on the podcast here (jump past some guy named Doug McDermott to hear Marissa’s interview at 40:30)
– Not many coaching staffs have a former MVC Coach of the Year as an assistant coach on the bench. Wichita State does. WSU’s Jody Adams was an assistant for Dana Eikenberg when she was SIU’s head coach (and also at UMKC). Eikenberg was named the MVC Coach of the Year after SIU’s miraculous 16-2 campaign in 2006-07. She was let go at SIU after the 2008-09 season, was out of coaching for a few years, came to WSU as the Director of Operations and is now a full-time assistant. For some interesting reading on Eikenberg’s tenure at SIU, check out this, this and this and this.
– Listen to Brad Burwell and Glen Sisk call the game on 1180 AM in Omaha or online. You can also watch the video webcast and follow live stats.

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

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