Creighton’s move to the new Big East is one that is being driven by men’s basketball.
But the rest of the athletic department is coming along for the ride as the Bluejays trade their longtime home in the Missouri Valley for a league that will be made up of seven holdover schools from the old Big East — Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, DePaul, Marquette, Providence and Seton Hall — along with Butler and Xavier.
Creighton generally has been competitive over the years with its Valley counterparts in volleyball, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, baseball and softball. This season alone, the Bluejays have won league titles in volleyball, men’s soccer and men’s basketball, and their women’s basketball team makes a strong case for an at-large NCAA bid after losing in the Valley tournament semifinals Saturday.
How will Creighton fare when it joins its new league? Will Bluejay teams continue to be serious contenders for conference titles and berths in NCAA tournaments? Will there be serious growing pains in what some perceive to be a step up in competition?
Those are questions that can’t be answered at this point. Even though Creighton has been rumored as a possible member of the new conference for months, few of the Bluejays coaches have spent much time trying to figure where they will fit in when the move is made.
“We’re in the middle of our season,” baseball coach Ed Servais said, “so I really haven’t studied the situation.”
Still, most of the coaches have at least some general idea about the landscape of what they’re about to become a part of in the coming months. In addition to Servais, The World-Herald interviewed men’s soccer coach Elmar Bolowich, volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth and women’s basketball coach Jim Flanery to get some general insights into what the new affiliations will mean to their sports.
Women’s soccer coach Bruce Erickson was out of the country and unavailable for comment. Softball coach Brent Vigness’ team was competing in Valley play this weekend.
Bolowich’s program perhaps is best suited to make a seamless transition to the new league. The Bluejays traditionally are a power in men’s soccer, and many believe the sport provides the school with its best chance to win a national championship.
Under Bolowich, Creighton has played in the past two College Cups, college soccer’s final four. One of the teams the Bluejays saw at last December’s final four was Georgetown, which finished as national runner-up.
St. John’s is another school that has long been a soccer power, winning a national championship in 1996 and finishing second in 2003. Creighton also has a national runner-up finish (2000) among its five trips to the final four.
“The new Big East is going to be a very strong soccer conference,” Bolowich said.
Creighton has been the dominant program in the Valley, but the overall strength of the league made it vital for Bluejay coaches to assemble a difficult nonconference schedule to bolster chances of NCAA tournament at-large bids.
That could change, Bolowich said.
“I think we’re going to have a balance,” said Bolowich, who came to Creighton from North Carolina of the soccer-strong Atlantic Coast Conference. “Because of the teams we play in the Valley, I have tried to schedule heavy (difficult) in the nonconference.
“When I was in the ACC, I could just schedule games. That could be how we approach things as we move forward once we get an overall feel for how good this new conference can be.”
Booth’s volleyball program has played in two of the past three NCAA tournaments. The Bluejays won their second NCAA match last season by beating a Marquette team that has been the best of the seven holdover schools from the old Big East.
Creighton’s program has been trending upward, which provides Booth with a feeling of confidence moving forward.
“I think it’s a situation that no matter who we’re competing against, we expect to be successful,” she said. “Whatever conference we are in, we’re going to be shooting for championships. That is a goal of ours as a volleyball program.”
She said she has had little time to study the potential strength of her future opponents. The Bluejays were the highest ranked team in the NCAA RPI ratings last season among the 10 schools expected to be a part of the new league.
“I’ve not done a lot of speculating about what it’s going to be like because I really don’t know a lot about many of those schools,” Booth said. “I’ve been focused on our current players and recruiting.”
Flanery’s basketball program looks like it’s due for a huge competition upgrade. The Valley is the 10th-ranked league in RealtimeRPI.com’s conference ratings, while the Big East is No. 4.
“The thing is, Connecticut and Notre Dame are the two powers in the current Big East,” Flanery said. “It’s still going to be a very good league, but it won’t necessarily be the league it is now because you’re taking the two best programs far and away out of the mix.”
Flanery said he and his staff have had some general discussion on how a move to the Big East could impact recruiting.
“That’s going to take a while to answer,” he said. “Does that mean we’re going to get somebody (recruit) that we couldn’t get before because of the league? I don’t know.”
What he does know is that his team, like all of Creighton’s teams, is due for a transportation upgrade. Outside of men’s basketball, the school’s teams do most of the traveling by bus. They’ll be flying in the future in order to get to the East Coast, where five of the other nine teams are located.
Flanery said he’ll be eager to see what kind of scheduling format the new league will adopt. He said it would be difficult on his players if Creighton were required to make separate trips to the East Coast rather than to couple a pair of games, say against Providence and Seton Hall, on the same trip.
“Even though you’re flying, if you’re playing a Wednesday game at Providence, you’re talking about missing school the day before, the day of and the day after,” he said. “That would be tough unless you’re chartering.”
Servais’ baseball team has played in the NCAA tournament each of the past two years and in four of his nine seasons as head coach. Of the teams that Creighton expects to join in the new conference, only St. John’s has made multiple trips to the NCAA tournament during that span.
St. John’s did advance to the super regionals last season before losing to eventual champion Arizona.
“They went toe-to-toe with Arizona,” Servais said. “I was very impressed.”
That’s not necessarily what an outsider might say when assessing the rest of the teams that will make up the new conference. Three schools — DePaul, Marquette and Providence — do not offer baseball.
Of the three others that do, Seton Hall had an RPI of 102 last season, while Villanova was 187 and Georgetown 237. The other two teams expected to join the conference — Xavier and Butler — had RPIs of 165 and 275.
“I don’t know a lot about those teams other than St. John’s,” Servais said, “because we’ve rarely faced them.”
Servais said he sees little spike in recruiting in regard to being a part of the new league.
“We tried to alter our recruiting when we moved to the new stadium,” said Servais, referring to TD Ameritrade Park, which is the home of the College World Series. “That stadium is a lot different than most college stadiums, and it’s required that we try to recruit a more athletic player.
“The park has allowed us to become more national in our recruiting. It, more than anything, will have the biggest impact on recruiting.”
Like most members of the athletic department, Servais had little knowledge of Creighton’s possible involvement with the new conference. He often asked a reporter what he was hearing because there was almost no information being shared by members of the administration with athletic department employees.
“If they feel this is best for the department and the university, then I’m behind it 100 percent,” he said. “I don’t think this is a time to look at it selfishly. If it means a better situation for the entire department in terms of more opportunities and more exposures, then I’m looking forward to it.
“I trust our administrators know what they’re doing.”
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