Let’s get the heavy lifting out of the way: Yes, Marquette and Creighton Bluejays are both in the Big East. Yes, they are both in the Midwest Division for the 2021 spring season as the Big East works to limit travel for the teams in the conference. Yes, Marquette and Creighton are going to play two Big East matches against each other that count in the conference standings to decide who advances to the Big East tournament.
These are not those two matches.
In a year when non-conference action is limited because of a shortened season that was shifted to the spring because of the pandemic, Marquette and Creighton, the two Big East teams that clearly care the most about volleyball looked at their six total matches against Butler, Xavier, and DePaul, and said “how can we improve our RPI outlook when it comes to NCAA tournament selection?” In a year where there will only be 48 teams in the NCAA tournament instead of the usual 64, cutting down the number of at-large bids by half, Kirsten Bernthal Booth and Ryan Theis put their heads together and came up with the world’s most obvious solution: Take their two teams, clearly on the same page when it comes to COVID protocols, and just play two more matches than the Big East was scheduling them for already. In this case, Theis graciously allowed the matches to be at Creighton’s barn, since the Big East had slotted the two conference contests between MU and CU for the McGuire Center.
Heck, why am I talking? I’ll let Theis talk about it.
This will be the last non-conference competition for both sides before Big East play starts. The Jays will sit and wait for their trip to Milwaukee on February 19th and 20th after this weekend, while Marquette will be back in action next weekend at home against DePaul. So it’s a final tune-up in addition to everything else. Both sides have things that they’d like to work on. We’ll get into Creighton’s in a minute, but 3-1 Marquette would probably like to get that second Illinois State match back after they lost to the Redbirds in five sets after winning in three less than 24 hours earlier. Last weekend’s trip to Cedar Falls didn’t go 100% perfectly well, either, as Marquette didn’t look quite all put together while beating Northern Iowa in four sets.
This weekend is the biggest test of the season so far for both teams, and it’s nationally important, too. Sure, #6 Minnesota vs #13 Purdue for two contests is a big deal, and so is a pair of meetings between #16 Missouri and #10 Florida. But hey, when you’re the third best weekend series in the country, that’s still pretty cool.
Game #5: at #19 Creighton Bluejays (3-1)
Game #6: at #19 Creighton Bluejays (3-1)
Date: Saturday, February 6, 2021
Time: 7pm Central
Location: D.J. Sokol Arena, Omaha, Nebraska
Streaming: Creighton’s YouTube channel, and yes, this is a different direct link than the other one
Live Stats: Stat Broadcast
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB
Marquette is 4-18 all time against Creighton. The Bluejays have won seven straight encounters in the series and 14 of 15 meetings since the Golden Eagles won the 2013 Big East tournament title in Omaha. Ah, yes, those days when this series was only 4-3 in Creighton’s favor. I wonder if MU pissed them off with that 2013 title win.
Creighton’s season got weird last weekend. They started off the campaign with 3-0 wins at home over Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Iowa. Okay, sure, cool, everything fine here. Then the Bluejays lost at home to South Dakota in five sets after taking a 2-0 lead. Creighton had the fifth longest home winning streak in the country up until then with 12 straight wins. It was Creighton’s first ever loss at D.J. Sokol Arena after taking a 2-0 lead after 94 previous victories, and just the fifth loss ever under head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth (253-5 now) after holding a 2-0 lead.
Then things got weirder when the weekend series with the Coyotes shifted to Vermillion. USD’s winning streak continued as they took the first two sets off the Bluejays, including 26-24 in the second. The Bluejays then won the next three sets to win in five and handed South Dakota their first regular season home loss since October 12, 2018.
Like I said, weird!
So far this season, the Creighton offense runs through Jaela Zimmerman and Keeley Davis. Both women are putting more than 3.3 kills down per set, and at 155 and 153 attacks each, they’re the only two Bluejays with more than 70 attacks through 16 sets. Neither one is ruthlessly efficient with Zimmerman hitting .252 and Davis at .190. That might be more of a Small Sample Size Theater thing, as I suspect the pair of five setters last weekend might have dampened their hitting percentages a bit. Not to over think it here, but if a top 20 team’s top two hitters were more accurate than .260, then you’d think that they wouldn’t go five sets in back-to-back matches, y’know?
It looks like Creighton is shifting to a two setter rotation this season. Ally Van Eekeren has played in 16 sets, but has only started two of the four matches. Mahina Pua’a has played in 15 sets and started twice. Van Eekeren has the average advantage, going for 5.44 assists per frame so far against 4.27 for Pua’a. Neither one has a lot of Division 1 experience with Van Eekeren playing here and there for the Bluejays last season and Pua’a transferring from Arizona after playing very little for the Wildcats in her one year there after two seasons in junior college.
Defense seems to be a by-committee type of situation. Grace Nelson and Ellie Bolton are the top two names in digs at 3.50 and 3.44 per set. That’s not a particularly dominant number for either woman, and it gets less dominant when I point out that Davis is at 3.06 digs per set. Naomi Hickman is a bit of a different story at the net, averaging 1.38 blocks/set. The Marquette coaching staff should be well aware of what the senior from Kansas can do, so the issue is translating that knowledge to Marquette’s collection of hitters who are new to the team this season. Freshman Kiara Reinhardt (0.94 blocks/set) might be familiar to Theis et. al. as well, as the Cedarburg, Wisconsin, native was a top 50 prospect coming out of high school.