COLUMBIA — The Missouri and Creighton women's basketball teams have not met since 2006, but the first round Women's National Invitation Tournament opponents share many similarities.
The Bluejays (19-13) and Tigers (17-13) play in separate conferences, but a brief analysis of each program reveals plenty of common ground between these opening round opponents.
Missouri Tigers (17-13) vs. Creighton Bluejays (19-13)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Omaha, Neb. D.J. Sokol Arena (capacity 2,500)
Radio: KTGR 100.5 FM and 101.3 FM
Both teams have yet to establish themselves in new conferences, and head into postseason play with 13 losses. On the court, each team's offense relies heavily on 3-pointers. Even the coaches share several seasons of experience competing against one another.
Coming into Thursday's matchup, Creighton and Missouri will know the ins and outs of the opposing offenses. Both teams' top priority on defense will be limiting 3-point opportunities.
Most Southeastern Conference schools play with traditional offensive schemes and emphasize the role of post players and points in the paint. By contrast, the Tigers' 3-point happy, high-motion offense has become the team's signature style after their first two seasons in the SEC. Missouri head coach Robin Pingeton’s squad continues to live and die by the 3-pointer. The Tigers led the SEC in 3-point attempts with 759 (192 more than second-ranking Ole Miss) and 3-point field goals with 288 on the season (111 more than second place Arkansas).
Creighton's offense, like Missouri's, does the majority of their damage from the outside. The Jays averaged 7.9 3-point field goals per game, and attempted 789 3-pointers on the season.
"It’s completely different from what we’ve played in the SEC, just completely different," Pingeton said of Creighton's offense.
Both teams defend the deep ball just as well as they shoot it. Missouri and Creighton rank second in their respective conferences in 3-point defense. The Jays and Tigers limited opponents to less than 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc on the season.
The key to stopping Creighton's outside attack hinges on the Tigers' ability to limit sophomore guard Marissa Janning. Missouri will have its hands full defending Janning, the 2013-14 Big East Women's Player of the Year. Janning led the Big East in scoring with 17.8 points per game. She also leads the Bluejays in 3-point field goals per game (2.4) and assists (3.8).
Although her players may not have much experience defending perimeter offenses, Pingeton does have history coaching against Creighton coach Jim Flanery. From 2003 to 2010, Pingeton's Illinois State team competed against Flanery's Bluejays in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The coaches developed a mutual respect and friendship over their years of competing.
"He’s just a great coach. I love the system. He's got blue collar, hard-nosed, very skilled students of the game," Pingeton said. "I've always been impressed with the way Jim manages his teams. Not only is he a great friend, but a great coach. So, it'll be fun to match up against him."
Missouri and Creighton — which joined the Big East this season — have both enjoyed relative success in adapting to new conferences. However, the Missouri program remains a few steps behind the Jays in terms of perennial achievements.
Thursday will mark Missouri's first back-to-back postseason appearances since 2007.
Creighton, on the other hand, qualified for the NCAA tournament the past two seasons and will make its seventh straight postseason appearance Thursday. The 2004 WNIT champions enter the opening round matchup against Missouri as favorites. The Bluejays were 66 in the latest NCAA RPI rankings. Missouri currently sits at 106.
Creighton, who went 13-2 at home this season, will also have the luxury of playing in the friendly confines of D.J. Sokol Arena in Omaha, Neb.
The Tigers' 2013-14 regular season results have an eerie resemblance to those of last season, when Missouri lost its first-round WNIT game to Eastern Illinois at Mizzou Arena. For the second consecutive season, the Tigers finished with 17 wins, six coming in conference play. Once again, Missouri heads into postseason play after losing in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Despite the statistical similarities, Missouri coaches and players insist they're strides ahead of where they were last year.
Freshman guard Sierra Michaelis provides a new offensive weapon for the Tigers. At the beginning of the season, Michaelis needed some time to adjust from 1-A high school basketball, and featured in a limited role for the Tigers. Since then, Michaelis has worked wonders as an offensive spark plug. She entered the starting lineup for the past six games and has proven to be a difference-maker. Throughout the final stretch, the Mercer native has averaged 10.2 points and 26.5 minutes on the court. She's also led the team in rebounds three of the past six games.
"That's a player that can score and has great scoring ability," said sophomore guard Lianna Doty. "It's really been cool seeing how much she’s grown up and taken on that responsibility."
Pingeton hopes last year's postseason experience, albeit brief, will have a positive effect on her team's approach to tournament games.
"It'd been so long since we had been to postseason last year. So to some extent, I feel like there was a sense of accomplishment by just getting to the postseason," Pingeton continued. "I feel like our mindset collectively needs to be: it's not just about getting to the postseason, but it's time to take that next step."
The winner of Thursday's game will face South Dakota State or Butler University. Pingeton said if the Tigers win, the location of their next game will depend on which team they face. Second-round games are set to take place from March 22 through 25.
Missouri set a team goal of earning an NCAA tournament bid at the beginning of this season. That goal was not met. However, the Tigers remain highly motivated knowing there is still plenty to play for this postseason.
"It all goes by so fast, and we don't want to waste a season," Michaelis said last week. "We can still get a banner."