Following a 20-win season and WNIT appearance, the Creighton women’s basketball team is forced to replace six seniors, including three starters.
Reigning Big East Player of the Year Marissa Janning is poised to lead the new-look team. The junior guard was selected as the Big East Preseason Player of the Year for the 2014-15 season.
Janning and senior guard Sammy Jensen are the lone returning starters from last season’s squad that finished 20-14 and ended its season in the second round of the WNIT.
Last season was the third consecutive 20-win season.
This season’s team features five freshmen: guards Jade Owens, Myah Mellman and Sydney Lamberty and forwards Bailey Norby and Kylie Brown.
Janning will be called upon to lead the newcomers. She said she does not believe she will have to carry the entire load during the Jays’ second season in the Big East, rather she has accepted that she will need to be more of a leader.
“I wouldn’t say it’s on me, I’d just say that we’re a new team because we have five freshmen after losing six seniors,” Janning said. “And the five freshmen have actually made a lot of progression in our first month or so of practice and even this summer during workout.
“But I think it just puts a little bit more of a leadership role on me [to] take them under and coach them on the side when the coaches are seeing other things or doing other things.”
Coach Jim Flanery said he believes that despite the loss of a veteran core, the returning players have shown strides of improvement during the off-season.
“I think the good news is that we have players that have gotten better,” Flanery said. “I say it sounds simple that you would expect your returning players and people that have been in the college game a year or two to get better in the offseason, but I think in this case it’s true.”
One of those returners, senior Alexis Akin-Otiko, will have the opportunity to step into the spotlight after spending three seasons as a reserve behind 2014 All-Big East Second Team forward Sarah Nelson.
Akin-Otiko has appeared in 100 career games, all coming off the bench. The Bellevue, Neb. native averaged 14.7 minutes, 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds per game during her first three seasons at Creighton.
“I think [Akin-Otiko] had a great summer,” Flanery said. “She’s really established herself as our best post on both ends of the floor.”
Jensen pointed out that Akin-Otiko’s experience will be welcomed this season.
“We will really miss Sarah [Nelson] and what she could do, so having somebody that can step in and someone that is a little older and a little more experienced [is important],” Jensen said. “I think that really helps us going forward.”
Despite not starting a regular-season game for the Jays, Akin-Otiko said she believes she is ready for her new role.
“It’s just been kind of easy looking after those guys from last year, like Sarah [Nelson], [Makenzie Fujan], [and] just carrying on what they did,” Akin-Otiko said. “It’s been a natural transition.”
“It’s just her turn and I really think she is playing the best basketball of her career,” Jensen said. “She’s active on defense; she’s active on offense; she goes and rebounds; she shoots the ball.”
Jensen, 5-foot-5 inch guard from Ames, Iowa, started 24 games for the Jays during the 2014-15 season. She had 27 3-point field goals and 47 assists to 26 turnovers.
Jensen and Janning are expected to share time at the point guard position.
Junior guard Taylor Johnson sat out the previous two seasons with ACL tears, but is healthy for the new campaign. During her freshman year, Johnson played in 30 games and averaged 13.9 minutes, 5.0 points and 1.5 rebounds per game.
Sophomore MC McGrory looks to make more of an impact during a full-season of action. The Edina, Minnesota native missed the first nine games of last season because of a concussion, but appeared in 25 games.
Coach Flanery said McGrory was another player that had a great offseason and looks ready to be more of an offensive threat during her second season with the Jays.
“I’m looking to be a little more aggressive this year,” McGrory said. “We lost like 50 percent of scoring from last year, so we definitely need a lot of people to step up and fill that void, so I’m just trying to be a little more aggressive and help with that.”
Creighton defeated Minnesota State-Mankato 85-68 on Nov. 5 in its lone exhibition game. Janning, Jensen, Akin-Otiko, Johnson and McGrory started the game.
Janning led the way with 16 points. Akin-Otiko added 15, nine rebounds and finished 5 of 7 from the field. McGrory and sophomore Brianna Rollerson each had 12 points.
The Bluejays open the regular-season Saturday against Wichita State before traveling to Brookings, South Dakota to face South Dakota State on Tuesday. The Jackrabbits defeated the Jays 62-51 in the second round of the WNIT last season.
Creighton’s first game at D.J. Sokol Arena is slated for Thursday, Nov. 20 against Utah. The game against the Utes is the Jays’ lone contest in Omaha during the month of November, but Creighton has six home games in December, including two Big East contests.
The team’s biggest challenge of the nonconference slate occurs just before the Thanksgiving holiday. The Jays travel to Storrs, Connecticut to square off against defending national champion Connecticut on Nov. 23.
The Jays are slotted fourth in the Big East preseason poll. Defending champion DePaul was chosen to repeat, followed by St. John’s and Villanova.
“I think it’s a good spot,” Janning said. “That’s where I would want to be. We’re not going to be in front of DePaul or St. John’s.
“I’m happy with where we are at.”