Near-perfect Nelson leads No. 4 Creighton
The perfect game is not an unfamiliar concept at Creighton, where the baseball team is a regular participant in the NCAA tournament and plays its home games at TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.
But what Sarah Nelson did Saturday against Drake is about as close as a basketball player can come to the elegant efficiency of a baseball pitcher retiring 27 consecutive batters.
Nelson finished with 19 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, three blocks and a steal in 28 minutes in her team's 98-71 victory. That's good on its own, but she put up those totals while hitting 8-of-9 shots from the field, including her only 3-point attempt, and both of her attempts from the free throw line. She also didn't commit a turnover.
There were more prolific weekend scoring lines, but that's as close to all-around perfection as one player is likely to come this season. It also came from a player used to working without much margin for error.
An Omaha product whose older sister played at Creighton, Nelson nonetheless didn't grow up dreaming of playing for the hometown school. As it turned out, the late convert was the perfect fit as an undersized post for a team built around guards. Still ranked in the RPI top 30 and receiving votes in the AP Top 25 for the first time, Creighton began the past weekend ranked No. 1 nationally in 3-pointers per game and No. 5 in 3-point accuracy. It then bettered both averages by hitting 11-of-24 3-point attempts against Drake. Coach Jim Flanery's teams traditionally rely on guards, and specifically guards who can shoot, the great equalizer for mid-major programs.
"The 6-3 kids that are really talented are recruited by everybody," Flanery said. "There are just more guards who can play, probably -- there's less margin between a mid-major guard and a [major conference] guard. We're not going to necessarily be able to defend some teams down low, but they have to guard us, too. Part of it is you're trading a little bit of offense for defense, in terms of floor spacing."
But there is still a point of diminishing returns with a diminutive lineup. Even a team that shoots like the Bluejays isn't going to win consistently by completely ceding the post. Enter Nelson, a 6-foot forward who is often the only player on the court for Creighton who stands at least that tall -- courts that have included big-time bigs like Nebraska's Jordan Hooper and Kansas' Carolyn Davis in opposing uniforms. Nelson has to play like a big without gumming up the works for guards like McKenzie Fujan, Marissa Janning and Carli Tritz who are driving through or spotting up outside. And one of the most complete all-around players in the mid-major ranks does it rather well.
Nelson leads the team in scoring and rebounding, with nearly twice as many rebounds as any other player. She is also second in assists, with a nearly two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, and averages better than a 3-pointer, block and steal per game. For this team, she's the perfect big.
"I don't mind being called small for a post. I'll take it," Nelson said. "It's just like everything; it has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. I really like that it gives me the opportunity to step out, and I think it has helped me improve my mid-range and even my 3. When I was a freshman, I don't think I could hit the rim on a 3. I think it allows our guards, especially Carli and Marissa and McKenzie, the drivers, to really get in there and spread the floor. So it has its advantages.
"But obviously, when you’re guarding 6-4, it has its disadvantages."
Now on to the rankings.
1. Delaware (18-3, 9-0 Colonial)
The Blue Hens will focus more on the moment, particularly a Feb. 10 game at James Madison that should be the biggest challenge remaining on the conference schedule, but the postseason picture is intriguing. Ranked No. 20 in the most recent AP Top 25 and No. 24 in the most recent NCAA RPI, Delaware might be out of the danger zone when it comes to potential for a postseason run. Even hosting the first two rounds, Delaware doesn't want a seed between No. 7. and No. 10, particularly one of the middle two seeds in that range that would bring a second-round game against a No. 1 seed. Slide in around a No. 5 or No. 6 and a Sweet 16 trip becomes much more manageable.
2. Dayton (19-1, 7-0 Atlantic 10)
The Flyers finally played a close conference game, beating Richmond by eight points on the road, but February will push them. That includes a trip to resurgent Fordham on Sunday and a home game against Duquesne on Feb. 18. This team’s balance continues to be its greatest strength (the top four scorers have scored between 205 and 238 points), but freshman Amber Deane is putting up big numbers in A-10 games.
3. Green Bay (17-2, 7-0 Horizon)
Green Bay beat UIC 99-53 this past Saturday, the program's most points in a game since the 2005-06 season. Now, let's see, who was the coach back then? Kevin Borseth's return continues to go rather well, as the senior class that he inherited is now 57-4 in Horizon League competition. Those seniors are also responsible for about 77 percent of the current team's points, but one recent bright spot is junior Breannah Ranger. She's averaging 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in conference play, including 14.3 points per game in the past three games.
4. Creighton (16-4, 8-1 Missouri Valley)
The next two weeks are key. After a road trip this weekend that includes a Sunday stop at Illinois State, currently tied for third in the league, Creighton gets a rematch at home against Wichita State on Feb. 16. The Shockers dominated the Bluejays in a 22-point win in Wichita in January. Freshman standout Marissa Janning is coming off back-to-back games with at least 20 points to move into a virtual tie with Nelson for the team scoring lead.
5. Chattanooga (18-3, 11-1 Southern)
There were close calls, but Chattanooga emerged unscathed from an 18-day stretch that included not just five of six games on the road but games at three other serious SoCon contenders. It helps to have depth. The Lady Mocs have 10 players averaging double-digit minutes, and those aren't mop-up minutes. All 10 played at least 12 minutes in a recent 66-60 win against Samford. Only playmaker Kayla Christopher, the team leader in assists and 3-pointers, is flirting with averaging 30 minutes per game.
6. Princeton (12-5, 3-0 Ivy)
It's that time of year for Princeton, which swept road games against Cornell and Columbia this past weekend and won all three conference games thus far by at least 30 points. This is why, as the AP's Doug Feinberg points out, senior Niveen Rasheed ranks nears the top of a small class of players who never lost conference games. Blowouts do funny things with numbers, but it's also worth mentioning Blake Dietrick. The sophomore guard and the team's most prolific 3-point shooter is averaging 12.3 points. 5.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds through three conference games.
7. Middle Tennessee State (17-5, 12-1 Sun Belt)
The Blue Raiders are in control of the Sun Belt race, two games clear of their closest competition, and probably overdue for a return to these rankings. It's no secret around whom the team revolves, with Ebony Rowe, Kortni Jones and Icelyn Elie averaging a combined 49.5 points per game for a team averaging 67.3 points per game. The 3-point line has been a missing ingredient this season, so it's interesting to see freshman guard Caroline Warden playing a few more minutes of late and post player KeKe Stewart attempting long-distance shots more often.
8. Florida Gulf Coast (18-5, 11-0 Atlantic Sun)
Monday’s 66-50 win at North Florida almost qualifies as a nail-biter by Florida Gulf Coast standards. The Eagles keep rolling in their conference, and their next four opponents all have at least five A-Sun losses already. Oregon State transfer Brittany Kennedy is quietly having a terrific all-around season, averaging 10.6 points, 5.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.1 steals while shooting 53 percent and maintaining a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio.
9. Pacific (18-3, 8-1 Big West)
The Big West leaders crack the top 10 for the first time this season with six wins in a row since a triple-overtime loss against Cal Poly on Jan. 12 handed them their only conference loss. The balance of a senior-laden lineup that has five players averaging double-digit points per game in conference play is impressive, but so are the individual numbers being turned in by 6-foot-2 sophomore Kendall Kenyon. Coming off a 16-point, 19-rebound effort against Long Beach State over the weekend (two weeks after a line of 19 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks), she’s averaging 13.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in Big West competition.
10. Gonzaga (18-5, 8-1 West Coast)
It's business as usual for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, winner of six in a row to get a firm grip on first place in the conference. All six of those wins were by at least 12 points and four were by at least 20 points. The backcourt pairing of Taelor Karr and Haiden Palmer is putting up its best numbers of the season. Karr is hitting 51 percent (28-55) of her 3-point attempts to average 14.7 points per game in WCC games, compared to 7.4 points per game out of conference, while Palmer has picked up her own scoring by about a point and a half per game.
Next five: Duquesne, Boston University, Toledo, SMU, Wichita State