Janning's confidence helps Creighton soar

People in Watertown, Minn., have known it for years. Folks in Omaha saw it coming months ago. The Missouri Valley Conference learns it with each passing day. Might the rest of us come to realize it in March?

Like the band about to be signed, it's only a matter of time for Marissa Janning.

By almost any standard, including the one employed by her coach, Janning is ahead of schedule. Two months into her first college season, Creighton’s freshman point guard is already one of the nation’s more productive new arrivals, a player who could make the difference for a team that came within five seconds from taking No. 3 seed St. John’s to overtime in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament.

Creighton is No. 24 in this week’s first official RPI release, a ranking that is the product of what is annually one of the most rigorous nonconference schedules in the mid-major ranks (not to mention, after home games against Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, proof that mid-majors can secure home-and-home scheduling with major programs). The Bluejays returned almost all of last season’s rotation players, led by juniors Sarah Nelson (team-leading 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this season) and Carli Tritz (9.2 points and team-leading 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game).

But the shiny new toy is Janning, Minnesota’s reigning Miss Basketball. She’s second on the team in scoring, shooting 46.8 percent from the 3-point line (10th in the nation), and has committed just 18 turnovers in 323 minutes.

“I knew she’d be good,” Creighton coach Jim Flanery said. “But she’s been better than I thought.”

The only person who might not be overly impressed by her rise is Janning, who could be forgiven for thinking she needs to make up for lost time. After all, she had already played two seasons of varsity basketball before she was a freshman in high school. Before she could even think about a learner’s permit, she made it to the high school state finals in track and field, a seventh grader who qualified in the mile and two mile. When she committed to Creighton as a junior, passing on interest from bigger programs, Flanery breathed a sigh of relief. Her decision broke a string of 15 consecutive years in which the state's top prep player went to a school in a BCS conference.

But in her first game, against a ranked Oklahoma team, she missed her first shot. And her second. And her third. And, well, you get the picture. The kid who scored more than 3,500 points and set a state record for 3-pointers in high school needed two free throws to get on the scoreboard at all. She played 15 minutes and missed all nine of her field goal attempts.

“Most freshmen, first game, playing a top-15 team, if they miss their first five, they probably stop shooting,” Flanery said. “She kept shooting. Which in that game maybe wasn't good, but I think in the long run, you’re like, ‘OK, this kid stays confident.’ That’s kind of her M.O. She’s confident. Not cocky. But I think coaching women in general, especially at Creighton, they’re under-confident a lot of times more than they’re overconfident.

“She’s about the right amount of confident.”

She stayed confident even after missing all four of her attempts in Creighton's second game. Since that rough start, Janning averaged 13.9 points over the past 11 games, including a career-high 22 points last week. Watching the 5-foot-8 guard, it's easy to see more than a little of former Illinois State star Kristi Cirone, a three-time winner of the Jackie Stiles Award as the MVC's top player. Like Cirone, Janning is a point guard who can shoot, get to the basket and stay with anyone on defense. She is not a scorer asked to play point guard.

Nelson says Janning's confidence might be her best trait.

“I know that when I was a freshman, when I got in the game I was like, ‘Oh crap, oh crap, don’t screw up, don’t get pulled out,'" Nelson said. "I think that’s something great to have, is to know that she’s confident and she’s not afraid to shoot the ball and not afraid to take care of it and things like that. I think that allows her to advance and become a better player in that aspect.”

Oh, and one other thing.

“Also, she’s great to play with because she’s can’t miss from 3 half the time,” Nelson added.

On to this week's rankings.

1. Delaware (9-3): Over the span of five days, Delaware beat Villanova, Duquesne and St. John’s, all quality RPI wins at road or neutral sites. Elena Delle Donne hit the overtime winner against St. John’s and played 111 of a possible 125 minutes in the three games, but it’s also worth noting the contributions of seniors Kayla Miller and Jaquetta May. Miller leads the team in assists and is averaging 29.3 minutes per game, up from 16.3 mpg last season. May finished with nine points and nine rebounds against both Duquesne and St. John’s, after totaling 10 points and eight rebounds against Villanova, and is averaging 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game after barely playing last season.

2. Dayton (12-1): It was as if everything that could have gone wrong but didn't during a surprising 12-0 start coalesced in one painful market correction when Dayton dropped a 65-40 decision at Bowling Green on Dec. 30. The Flyers couldn’t play at their preferred tempo, couldn’t take care of the ball and couldn’t defend during a second half in which they were outscored 37-15. That’s the bad news. The good news is Dayton is still 12-1, and those wins against DePaul, Toledo, Vanderbilt and Michigan State still look good. January’s Atlantic 10 opponents are a combined 33-55 at the moment, so there should be time for the Flyers to get back to basics.

3. Creighton (10-3): Fortune giveth (rallying from 15 points down with seven minutes left en route to an overtime win against BYU). And it taketh away (ceding a 19-point lead in the second half at Minnesota en route to a double-overtime loss at the end of December). The nation’s second most prolific 3-point shooting team faces a big game against Illinois State on Friday.

4. UTEP (12-1): The Miners closed nonconference play with two of their most prolific offensive performances, albeit against Sam Houston State and Texas-Pan American, two opponents a team with Top 25 aspirations should roll. Sophomore guard Chrishauna Parker came close to a triple-double against Sam Houston State (15 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists) and followed that up with 17 points, 12 rebounds and three assists against Texas-Pan American. Conference USA doesn’t appear to offer much to bolster the résumé (no other conference team is in the RPI top 100), but visits from East Carolina and UAB in the next two weeks could prove challenging.

5. Green Bay (11-2): The defense is trending toward ridiculous. Green Bay beat Detroit 62-31 on Tuesday to open Horizon League play, in the process holding the nation's second-leading scorer, Shareta Brown, to eight points. The Phoenix have played 10 games since an 89-86 overtime loss against James Madison. There is a loss in there, but no team scored more than 54 points in those 10 games. And the win against Detroit marked six consecutive games in which the opponent failed to reach 50 points. Three of those teams didn't even score 40.

6. Boston University (12-3): The team’s two best players, Chantell Alford and Mo Moran, combined for just 10 points and four assists in 75 combined minutes on the road in arguably the most difficult conference game Boston University will face -- and it still came out with the win. Thanks to 26 points from Rashidat Agboola and a strong defensive effort, the Terriers emerged with a 45-39 win at Hartford on Jan. 5. Their next four conference foes are outside the RPI top 250, leading up to a Jan. 23 visit from preseason America East favorite Albany.

7. San Diego State (9-4): Yes, missed opportunities abound. A two-point deficit midway through the second half against UCLA became a 66-52 loss. A four-point lead with 26 seconds remaining became a 59-58 loss against Washington. And most recently, a four-point halftime deficit against Oklahoma State became an 80-72 loss. But the flip side is the Aztecs were good enough to have those opportunities and good enough to rout Auburn by 21 points and USC by 34 points. The line Chelsea Hopkins is averaging (11.9 points, 7.2 assists, 7.1 rebounds) is worthy of All-America consideration.

8. Toledo (12-1): Wins in recent weeks against Marquette and Charlotte, the former on the road and the latter at a neutral site, lend substance to a record marred only by a three-point loss on the road against Dayton in November. The backcourt of redshirt senior Naama Shafir and redshirt junior Andola Dortch came up big in both wins and has to rank among the best duos in the mid-major ranks. Immediate tests await in MAC play with an opener at home against Central Michigan and a short trip down I-75 this weekend to Bowling Green.

9. Chattanooga (10-3): It's not easy to go 20-0 in any setting, so one loss in the long, long Southern Conference season isn't the end of the world, especially when it comes in a team's third road game in six days. It is, on the other hand, a little worrisome that Chattanooga slipped this quickly, dropping a 70-60 overtime decision against Elon after winning its first three SoCon games by 14, 43 and 30 points, respectively. A road test at Davidson comes up before the next mid-major rankings.

10. Duquesne (11-3): This appears to be a rough time of year for Duquesne. A season ago, the Dukes came off the high of beating West Virginia close to Christmas and lost three of their next six games, including one to a mid-major out of conference. This season, they beat West Virginia and lost two of their next three. A neutral-site loss against a Delaware team with Delle Donne is understandable, but a home loss against Miami (Ohio) is less so. The Redhawks are a good team with a special player in Courtney Osborn, but they shouldn’t win in Pittsburgh against a motivated host. One culprit is 3-point shooting. Duquesne hit just 6-of-39 attempts in the losses against Delaware and Miami.

Next five: Florida Gulf Coast, Gonzaga, Princeton, Pacific, Middle Tennessee