Commentary

Creighton sheds mid-major label

Bluejays set to begin first season in Big East, but will be without senior Carli Tritz

Originally Published: November 8, 2013
By Graham Hays | espnW.com

Sarah NelsonJ.P. Wilson/Icon SMISarah Nelson and Creighton beat then-No. 22 Syracuse in the NCAA first round last March.

At the moment that the clock struck midnight and welcomed in the first day of July, Creighton officially went from being a member of the Missouri Valley Conference to a member of the Big East. With nothing more substantial than the tick of a clock hand, the women's basketball program ceased operating under the mid-major label and became, well, major. Perception, as they say is reality.

Change can be a wonderful thing.

Take, for example, a change in scheduling that allows a college senior to spend the winter traveling amidst the bright lights of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., after three years of repeating long bus rides between the smaller settings of the Missouri Valley Conference, towns and cities with fewer sights and distinctly softer sounds.

Welcome to the Big East. Pack appropriately.

"It's exciting, I'm not going to lie," Creighton senior Sarah Nelson said. "I'm sorry, I am the happiest human I never have to go to Terre Haute, Indiana or Carbondale, [Ill.,] ever again. I'm sorry, I said it. ...

"At the same time, we have to recognize the purpose as to why we're there."

That would be to play basketball games. More specifically, it's to win basketball games, something the program from Omaha did with impressive regularity in its former conference. Under coach Jim Flanery, who succeeded current Nebraska coach Connie Yori prior to the 2002-03 season, Creighton went 131-67 in the Missouri Valley and made nine postseason appearances, the most recent in the form of back-to-back NCAA tournament trips the past two seasons. More of that is what they want to continue. That is the business of those road trips. And more of that is what a talented, veteran team is entirely capable of doing this season against a Big East full of teams hit hard by the matriculation of key players. Capable but not assured.

[+] Enlarge Jim Flanery
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMICoach Jim Flanery's nonconference schedules includes games with Minnesota, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Change can also be harsh. It arrives on its own schedule and exhibits little patience. That reminder arrived in Omaha after the new logo on the court but long before the Big East opener against Villanova.

The Bluejays return almost the entire playing rotation from the team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament a season ago. But it isn't quite the collection of players they expected to have available. As October arrived and players began preseason preparations for their first season in the Big East, senior Carli Tritz announced the end of her playing career. Offseason treatment that she hoped would alleviate chronic pain in her right knee that dated back to an initial injury sustained in the fall of her senior year of high school had not worked. The cortisone shots came earlier and earlier and did less and less.

Less than 12 months after Tritz was named preseason player of the year in the Missouri Valley, she stepped away from the court for good. Her role now is still that of teammate, even unofficial assistant coach in some ways, but it is a difficult change to adjust to.

"You just want to be out there," Tritz said. "You want to make a play that someone missed out there, or you want to score when they're having a scoring drought. It's so frustrating. I can see it in my mind, and I know I'm still capable of doing it, but my body just won't let me. Being forced to quit is kind of terrible at times."

Nelson and Tritz are part of the same class and held similarly significant roles on the team until the latter retired. Still, Nelson looked up to Tritz, even marveled a little bit at her natural ability. Whether the years have enhanced the details, she still sounded like a fan when she recalled a play from their first exhibition game as freshmen when Tritz sprinted back on defense and blocked a shot that caromed off Nelson's face and back into Tritz's hands, at which point she dribbled the length of the floor, froze a defender with a crossover and finished the layup. She was that player, the one your eyes just went to.

She was a little skinny coming out of high school, Flanery said, but she might have been a part of the major conference picture all along if not for skipping some of the summer basketball circuit to finish high school soccer seasons that could run into the middle of June in Iowa. Now her team must take that stage without her.

"It's one of those things where, yeah, it's a bummer to lose her as a teammate, but I saw her suffer," Nelson said, "She was in pain a lot. I'm glad, as her friend, that she found the courage to do this and step away. I know she was definitely in a lot of pain."

I think that we kind of get to go into this season thinking we can play with these teams. We're not a mid-major team anymore. We're going to be able to keep up. … We dont really have a choice anymore.

-- Creighton senior Sarah Nelson

Creighton will miss Tritz on the court. Even as the knee pain erased her practice time and slowly ate away at her playing time a season ago, she was the team's best passer, its leader in steals and even an effective rebounder. When games arrived, Flanery could hold her in reserve as long as possible, then put her on the court down the stretch for a four-guard lineup. Transforming the team's lack of size from a liability into an asset, Creighton had too many shooters and too many ballhandlers for opposing defenses to keep track of. Someone was going to get an open shot, and few teams were more accurate with those looks from the 3-point line.

But things change. While the biggest and most athletic teams that populated the old Big East -- Connecticut, Louisville, Notre Dame, Rutgers -- are no longer part of it, holdovers like DePaul, St. John's and Marquette bring a different level of size and strength than did Illinois State, Indiana State and Northern Iowa. Creighton will need someone to consistently pair with Nelson, an undersized but tremendously talented forward, whether it's 6-foot-3 center Alyssa Kamphaus or another forward like Alexis Akin-Otiko. Small ball is a necessity for a roster that includes one player taller than 6 feet. It will just have to be small by Big East standards.

"I think the game is also about possessions, and the two areas where you can increase your possessions are turnover differential and offensive rebounding," Flanery said. "If you look at both of those areas combined, we were pretty average."

On the first count, a new league also means a new opportunity for a rising star. As a freshman, Marissa Janning led Creighton in scoring, showed off one of the best 3-point strokes in the nation and handled point guard duties while finishing third in assists behind Tritz and the uber-versatile Nelson. She is stronger this fall, ready to finish at the basket against defenses that overplay her. She is healthier after dealing with plantar fasciitis. And now a player who by her own admission still had a penchant last season for the one-hand, cross-court passes that worked so well in high school, must take the lead in prioritizing offensive efficiency against slightly faster, longer defenses.

"Leadership on the court, I kind of have to take a little more on," Janning said. "As a distributor, I have to get better at my decision making and obviously get my assist-to-turnover ratio a little better. It's going to be hard making up all the assists that she had, so we just have to be a smarter team and not force any passes."

In addition to a signature win against Nebraska last season, Creighton beat South Florida on a neutral court during the regular season and Syracuse on a neutral court in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Neither of the latter two teams are a part of the new Big East, but they were part of the old league. To win those games, to put in a respectable showing against Tennessee on its court in the second round and to play the kind of nonconference schedule Creighton does means this is a team that enters this season with some understanding of the task ahead. Not to mention some confidence.

"Instead of trying to be more timid, I think that we kind of get to go into this season thinking we can play with these teams," Nelson said. "We're not a mid-major team anymore. We're going to be able to keep up.

"We have to keep up. We don't really have a choice anymore."

For years, the easiest way to dismiss a successful mid-major team was to pose the ultimately unanswerable question of how that team would fare in a big conference. Sure, the team could pick off an occasional upset in November or even on the big stage in March, but the implication of the question was it would never hold up to the day-to-day grind of playing against those teams all season.

Now Creighton finds itself in position to live out that experiment.

Change offers opportunities and hardships. Creighton will find both this season. It might also find a Big East championship.

"I just think you could say we have something to prove," Janning allowed. "But I guess from my point of view, I want other teams to prove to us that we shouldn't be there."

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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