Saturday, January 29, 2005

Out Of Their League

What does the Missouri Valley Conference think its doing? This little mid-major conference can't really hang with all of the big ESPN conference, can they? Will the NCAA allow this? More importantly, will Dick Vitale accept this?

I was all set to write a 1,000 word-plus diatribe about each Valley team's chance at claiming one of the top four seeds in the Arch Madness post-season tournament in St. Louis, but one-fourth of the way through I had to scrap the whole thing. If anyone tells you they know how this conference season is going to turn out is either crazy, lying, or intoxicated.

Obviously, Wichita State holds the pole position for the race for the Valley title, but their remaining schedule isn't as easy as everyone thinks it is. They play six of their last nine conference games against teams in the top half of the Valley, including home-and-home series' with Creighton and Illinois State. They also must go to Carbondale and try to win in front of SIU's "excited" fans.

Speaking of the Salukis, think the fans in Carbondale are a little nervous? This team hasn't been scoring many points, just got blown out by SMS (and gave up 92 points to the Bears in the process), and plays five of their last 10 conference games against teams in the top half of the conference. Not included in those games are two difficult road trips against teams that are more than capable of protecting their home court (Bradley and Indiana State). I don't think I'm the only person unconvinced about Chris Lowery's squad. I still covet their defense, but in every other facet of the game they are no better than most of the other Valley teams.

Hi, Illinois State. Thanks for coming -- this little ride has been cute. Everyone in Normal is more than pleased with this third-place start, but wake up. This can't possibly continue, can it? I mean, come on, it is ILLINOIS STATE. Actually, it can continue. Sure, they play Wichita State twice and have games against UNI, SIU, and Creighton left, but of those five games, four of them are at Redbird Arena. I'm not saying they are going to win the conference or anything, but I'm not exactly looking forward to Creighton's last game of the season on the road against Porter Moser's guys.

And that brings us to Creighton and Northern Iowa. Both at 5-4 in conference play, both with Sioux City sharp shooters, and both with five more games against top MVC teams. To make things even more interesting, the rematch of Creighton's one-point win in Cedar Falls will be broadcast on ESPN2.

So in short, I have no idea what is going to happen in the last month of the season. I could write this column the night of February 28 and two of the teams currently in the top half of the conference could be sitting in sixth or seventh place. Who knows.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Creighton 74, Bradley 65

Creighton finished the first half of Missouri Valley Conference play with a rousing and hard-fought road win over the Bradley Braves, finishing their second two-game sweep in conference play this season.

The Jays claimed victory despite committing 16 turnovers and losing the battle of the boards (by just one rebound). The Jays won despite Nate Funk being mugged, shoved, hip-checked, arm-checked, and elbow-checked (everything but Rice-Chexed) while scoring only two points in the first half, while clueless officials called phantom over-the-back fouls on Dennis Howard. And the Jays won without offensive contributions from forwards Dane Watts (1-6 from the field, 0-3 from long distance) and Jimmy Motz (1-5 from the field, 1-3 from long distance).

But it isn’t what the Jays didn’t do that's important. Dana Altman’s team forced twice as many turnovers in the second half than they did in the first. Altman’s guys also won the battle of the boards in the second stanza. Funk hunkered down, fought through countless grabs and pushes, and controlled the first five minutes of the second half (hitting three three-pointers and grabbing a rebound). And while their scoring didn’t materialize, Motz and Watts held All-Valley Marcellus Sommerville to 33% shooting from the field. Watts even recorded a career-high eight caroms.

Anthony Tolliver (of Jeffony Tolliday fame) finished some point-blank opportunities and scored as many points (seven) as he had chalked up in his previous three games. In five of his first seven games this season, Tolliver scored more than five points – including a career-high 13 points against Ohio State. His seven points against the Braves marked only the second time in his last 13 games that he tallied five or more points.

And then there is Kellen Miliner. He’s reminded me a lot of a phantom lately, partly because of the Phantom-of-the-Opera-type mask protecting his broken bone and partly because he’s disappeared at times in the past month. But after seeing his sweet shooting stroke somewhat return in the second half of the Illinois State debacle, Miliner capitalized on Bradley’s defensive attention on Funk and hit three of his most graceful and important three-pointers this season. Through Creighton’s first seven conference games, Kellen averaged a mere six points a contest. Needless to say, the Jays typically need more than six points from Kellen to consistently win Valley games.

What does all this mean? It means that while Creighton might have raised expectations of even some of their most level-headed fans with their torrid 8-1 start, this team is improving while they battle through the toughest Valley slate in years. I constantly have to remind myself of my expectations coming into the season, and I admit that after sweeping through the Guardians Classic and picking up the road win over Xavier I reassessed my outlook of this year’s team. Given the experience (or lack thereof – each player averages only about one year of Division-1 playing time), the team chemistry adjustments, the 13,000-person spotlight that is the Qwest Center crowd, and the dog-eat-dog Valley schedule, a level-headed Jays fan has to be pleased with the growth and development of this team.

Then again, as my parents, my buddy Panon, and the rest of the people in Section 123 can attest to, I’m not exactly the level-headed type. This team has the talent to finish in the top half of the Valley and make a good showing in St. Louis. It will take increased effort and tenacity to reach those goals, and I think Altman's team has those characteristics deep down inside. And I don't think I'm crazy for believing that.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Illinois State 82, Creighton 77 (OT)

Before Creighton’s loss to Illinois State at the Qwest Center, I was enjoying a choice beverage with a couple of close friends. We were awaiting the tip-off, loitering in our seats during warmups waiting for the teams to go back to the locker rooms and anxious for Pierce Hibma’s highlight reel to be shown on the Jumbotrons. As the Redbirds made their way from the tunnel to the court before the national anthem, ISU Head Coach Porter Moser walked gingerly to the visitor’s bench with a smile and a look of determination. I shouted "go get em’ Porter" as he walked past me, and through all of the pre-game strategies bouncing around his brain he heard me, acknowledged me, and kept walking.

It is always nice to see Moser, because he reminds me of some of the first CU teams that I truly followed with a passion. And I enjoy that a guy like him can come back to Omaha and be warmly received. But the real reason I wished him success was because I didn’t actually think he would leave Omaha with a win.

I figured his guys were still a year or so away from winning big Missouri Valley Conference road games, and I also factored into the equation Creighton’s recent two-game winning streak and the fact that I didn’t think the Jays would let a must-win home game slip from their grasps.
After the first 10 minutes of the first half, I was glad I’d wished Porter success, because he had to be absolutely flabbergasted by the offensive explosion Creighton unleashed after the opening tip. The Jays were scorching hot, hitting 10 of their first 12 shots and finishing the first half shooting 53% from the field. Chip in five three-pointers, and the crowd settled into what they thought was going to be a blow out.

I got the feeling that almost everyone in the Q was surprised that the Jays only took a five-point lead into the locker room at half. Creighton had finished even with the Redbirds in rebounding, but the defense was not there. The Jays were actually outperformed in the first 20 minutes, as Illinois State shot 57% from the field. Trey Guidry, a transfer from North Carolina State, poured in 18 first-half points, besting Nate Funk’s 14 points and giving Creighton a thorn in its side that would prove to be fatal.

In the second half, Funk continued his torrid shooting, adding nine more points and further establishing himself as one of the best players in the league. But he got some help too, with Kellen Miliner breaking out of a funk (1-5 from the field in the first half) and scoring seven points in the second stanza. However, those were the only Jays who really made a difference offensively in the half, and Illinois State systematically chiseled away at the lead.

And what happened next surely will go down as one of the most unexpected losses in the short history of the Qwest Center. Things seemed peachy when Hibma nailed a three-pointer and Miliner added a jump shot with two minutes left to play, staking the Jays a six-point lead and some energy from another huge home crowd. But in the last 120 seconds, the Jays failed to hit the front end of a one-and-one at the free throw line and complicated matters further by turning over the ball with a three-point lead and 14 seconds to play. All I could think of was last year’s Nebraska NIT game and the last two Southern Illinois battles, and how Creighton had once again failed to seal the deal – they had a game seemingly in hand, and we dropped it.

Obviously, momentum was wearing red after Neil Plank’s steal and Trey (did his parents name him that because they knew he was going to hit big shots) Guidry’s 28-foot three-pointer sent the game into overtime. And it was easy to understand the red-eyed anguish that befell a few of the die-hards in my dad and my section – the look of frustration with a team that could legitimately be 15-4 right now and cruising right along in the top of the Valley standings. Plus, a lot of the people at Saturday night’s game realized just how tough things could get in the next month.

With one month left in the Valley regular season schedule, Creighton faces one of the toughest stretches of conference games in recent memory. Chalk that up to the highly-competitive Valley and the highly-confusing Jays squad that seems to play even with their opponent no matter the skill level, talent difference, or court advantage/disadvantage. Road trips to Bradley and Southwest Missouri State and Wichita State and Southern Illinois bookend a home slate featuring Wichita State, SMS, and Northern Iowa coming to Omaha in one-week span. The next time Creighton will likely be favored will most likely be the last two home games of the season (Evansville and Indiana State), depending on who they draw for ESPN’s Bracket Buster Saturday (Feb. 19).

But I’m trying to bask in the opportunities of this season, rather than focus on the frustrations. Creighton will be in the spotlight of college basketball’s biggest star – ESPN – three times in the next month, with a chance to gain much-needed attention for a mid-major program always on the prowl for the media spotlight. And, each of the remaining games are almost guaranteed to be gut wrenching and exciting. Plus, the trials and tribulations of a rough Valley schedule, coupled with the earlier successes in non-conference play, will prepare Dana Altman’s squad for post season play – starting with Arch Madness.

So from now on, the only coach I wish good luck to is Altman, and the only Creighton heroes I root for are the current Jays – guys like Tyler McKinney, Funk, and Miliner that have shined before, and the inexperienced guys that might be heroes yet this season. And no more fraternizing with the other coaches, no matter how well they represent Creighton’s quality basketball program.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Creighton 82, Drake 67

California Dreamin’

Two weeks ago, my boss asked me to spend a week working in our California-based office. There were obvious perks attached to this request: 80-degree weather, the chance to indulge in some choice seafood, and a break from the norm. However, the negative drawback to the trip was missing Creighton’s home game against Drake.

For the record, I have only missed a handful of home games since I started going to game at the Civic with my dad as a young kid in the 1980s. And to make it worse, every time I miss a home game something spectacular seems to happen. My senior year in high school, when I went to my ex-girlfriend’s winter formal instead of Creighton’s home game against Wyoming, I missed one of Ryan Sears’ first big games as a Jay – a double-digit scoring night against the Cowboys. Even when I was too little to remember the year or the opponent, I missed an overtime game due to a raging cold.

So for two weeks, I dreamt about what big night I was going to miss. Would it be a 100-point game? Could I miss one of the big fellas down low recording a double-double? How about a great defensive effort from the opening tip to the final buzzer? Or maybe I would miss something REALLY special: Jeffony Tolliday making every free throw attempt on the night.

Well, I got one of them right (the free throws). But more importantly, I missed Nate Funk’s breakout game. I have been trumping Funk as an all-Missouri Valley Conference player and possible Player of the Year all season. And as I sat in my West Coast office, staying later than of my colleagues in order to follow the game, I listened as Funk put together a Kyle Korver/Rodney Buford-type night – a career high in points, another solid game on the boards, and a few blocked shots for good measure. Half way through his junior year, as he leads a team still searching for an identity, he is the one constant positive on this squad – he is good for more than 15 points and five rebounds almost every night, and he plays above-average defense game in and game out. And I keep reminding myself that he’s only a junior.

Funk’s superb night wasn’t the only highlight for the Jays. In fact, while Drake defenders paid extra attention to Funk’s offensive ability, it allowed other Jays the opportunity to step up and provide some help to the All-MVC guard-in-waiting. While a couple of Nate’s backcourt mates struggled, Johnny Mathies once again proved how important his style of play is to this year’s squad. Mathies hit double figures in scoring again, and has asserted himself as the only other consistent scoring threat in the offense besides Funk. Mathies is not afraid to dribble-drive through the paint amongst the power forwards and centers looking to put a hip or an elbow on him, and he also isn’t hesitant to pull up in transition for medium-range jump shots or 20-foot threes. And remember too that jukin’ Johnny is only a junior, as well.

And all of the help didn’t come from the backcourt, mind you. Small forwards (or shooting forwards, or smooth forwards: whatever you want the “S” in “SF” to stand for in the box score) Jimmy Motz and Dane Watts stepped up in the first and second halves, respectively, to lend some Funk and Mathies some assistance. Motz was able to hit a couple of open shots, including a baseline jumper, as he recorded seven points in the first half. And then it was the freshman Watts’ turn. He ended the first half on his back, the recipient of an Aliou Keita elbow to the face, and began the second half with a couple of free throw attempts and then some long-rang bombing from three-point land. While the radio broadcast made the elbow sound heinous, I had to ask my dad how bad it really looked. “I’m surprised he got up,” he said. He also said it could have easily been a flagrant foul.

So with Funk leading the way offensively, with some solid efforts by Mathies, Watts, and Motz, the Jays cruised for the final 30 minutes of the contest. They built a lead that hit 25 points at its apex, but struggled in allowing some easy hoops down the stretch and won by 15. One guy whose contributions might get lost in the box score is Jeffrey Day. Not long before the lead stretched to double digits, Day replaced Anthony Tolliver with a renewed sense of rebounding and defense. Tolliver was completely ineffective, picking up a couple fouls early and allowing Bulldogs to score in the paint at will to start the second half. Day blocked a couple of shots (as did Watts), grabbed almost 10 boards, and got to the free throw line. If Day can put together two good halves in one game, this Jays team can be dangerous.

Tonight’s game was far from a dream, and Creighton will have to put together a couple more efforts like tonights if they want a solid second half of the season to become a reality.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Creighton 67, Northern Iowa 66

Dana Altman’s actions spoke louder than words Saturday night. Wrap together Creighton’s close losses, frustrating defensive lapses, and lackadaisical rebounding, and all of those concerns seemed alleviated for a brief moment in time after Nate Funk’s game-winning jump shot on the road at Northern Iowa. And with all of those bothersome issues weighing on the striving perfectionist Altman, he was allowed to release a little steam.

If you watched the broadcast on local television, or were one of the Jays fans in Cedar Falls, you saw the ecstatic blue streak run across the UNI-Dome court after Funk’s shot hit the bottom of the net. That grown man running across the hard wood in a royal blue mock turtleneck, pumping his fists in the air, and skipping like one of his shocked Jays players was Altman – a man stoic in most media interviews, celebrity appearances, and public engagements. He displayed his excitement to KM3’s Travis Justice after Funk’s shot was reviewed by officials and deemed to be the game-clincher.

Altman began his brief interview by releasing an excited growl, visibly conveying how his coaching staff, players, and Jays fans all over felt about this win. He conveyed just how important this win was to his team, both with what he said and how he said it. They needed this one badly, because the proverbial shoe had been on the other foot so many times already this season.

Creighton has suffered three conference losses by a combined total of 10 points, with two of those two-point defeats coming on the road. All of those games were close through the first 20 minutes of action, with the Jays staking leads in all three of the games’ second halves. Inevitably, Creighton lost those leads, couldn’t hit free throws down the stretch, and allowed their opponents to get good looks at the basket in the waning minutes. Northern Iowa encountered each of these issues last night, and the Panthers learned what the Jays already knew – in this season’s Missouri Valley Conference, no team can afford that kind of play and expect to win, at home or on the road.

Altman, more than anyone else, knows just how important this win will prove to be. First, Altman’s teams have always struggled against UNI in Cedar Falls – six of his seven losses to the Panthers took place on the road. More importantly, in a Valley race that looks to be the tightest in recent years, any road wins are absolutely huge. Every team has its flaws, and it will be the teams with winning road records that are left standing in early March. There are no “gimmies” in the Valley this year – just ask Wichita State. I’m sure they’ll tell you that Creighton’s loss at Indiana State wasn’t a fluke.

Perhaps the biggest driving force behind Altman’s reaction was his team’s will. This wasn’t like the other close games (and close losses, for that fact). The Jays didn’t squander a big lead in the second half. They didn’t stop attacking the rim with dribble penetration. And they didn’t give up. In a season that looks to be nip-and-tuck the entire rest of the way, it is that kind of effort that will win ballgames.

An effort Altman would be quick – and loud – to applaud.

  • This is what I wrote in the review of Creighton’s victory over Drake. “For Creighton to succeed, [Johnny] Mathies needs to continue to drive the lane, shoot perimeter jumpers, and force the tempo of the game – even if it results in a few turnovers here and there.” I don’t intend to toot my own horn, but just to prove that I wasn’t kidding, take into account Mathies’ stats since retaking his starting role that was relinquished after last season ended. In his six starts beginning with the home victory over Bradley, Mathies averaged 12.5 points per game. In Creighton’s last three wins, he’s averaged 14 points per contest. These numbers don’t even take into account the 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, and three steals he added in the High Point game, which he started due to Funk’s shoulder injury.

    When you walk around the Qwest Center or talk to Jays fans around Omaha, they always comment on Johnny’s lack of control. People think he is careless with the ball, but in reality he averages only 1.5 turnovers per game (26 this season), while logging almost 24 minutes per game (fourth-most on the team). Compare that to the steady Tyler McKinney, considered to be one of the most reliable ball-handlers in the Valley. McKinney plays about 10 minutes more per game and averages 2.4 turnovers per contest (41 total).

    Mathies led the way for the Jays against UNI, scoring 18 points, dishing two assists, blocking one shot, and recording three steals. Most importantly, he hit both of his free throws and did not turn the ball over once. He’s tied for second in the Valley in steals, and he averages almost two takeaways per game. He fights through screens and picks, rarely gets lost on defense, and has even picked up his rebounding since moving back into the starting lineup. If Mathies can continue to play aggressive defense and draw some attention with his up-tempo offensive abilities, it will make life a little easier on Funk and the other consistent scorers.

  • In an attempt to shake things up a little bit, Altman decided to start Jeffrey Day in place of Anthony Tolliver. Jeffony Tolliday was his same old collective self, however, going 2-10 from the field for four points and seven rebounds. Tolliday didn’t even draw a foul, and couldn’t take advantage of one of the Valley’s more undersized frontcourts. But that’s what Creighton fans have come to expect, which leads to my next thought.

  • The guards need to carry this team. Not only is most of the college experience in the backcourt, but the majority of the scoring power rests in the hands of Funk, Mathies, and Kellen Miliner (who recorded another sub-par game on the offensive end). Anything that McKinney can add to this equation is icing on the cake, because it changes the offense entirely when he is driving to the lane and actually tries to put it in the basket. McKinney has always been able to finish in a crowd, and his 14 points against UNI were a mixture of dribble-drives and a couple of three pointers. Creighton's guards combined for 56 of Creighton’s 67 points, and they will need to continue this production for Creighton to succeed in the guard-driven Valley.

  • No one in the Valley is invincible. Wichita learned that on the road in Terre Haute, and Southern Illinois needed a banked three pointer by center Josh Warren as time expired to beat a feisty Southwest Missouri State squad. Bradley almost blew a double-digit lead to Evansville in Peoria, and Illinois State – picked to finish last in the preseason media poll – drubbed up on Drake at home, pushing their record to 11-5 and 3-3 in conference play.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Indiana State 74, Creighton 72

History Repeating Itself


Dana Altman prepares an inexperienced team for a grueling season of Creighton basketball, having lost some of the most important pieces from a team that made postseason play the year before -- players that could control games and role-players that Altman could count on for help. However, there are a lot of questions surrounding Altman's team. Where will points come from in the frontcourt? How will Altman replace the four seniors that graduated? Can the Jays possibly win 20 games again, even in a difficult Missouri Valley Conference?

Things start well for the Jays, as Creighton reels off nine straight wins to start the season. Victories over a Big Ten team and two Big 12 foes highlight the early undefeated start, including a big win against Nebraska after the Huskers defeated the Jays the year before. But then things start to head south -- quickly.

After having their win streak stopped at nine, Altman's team tailspins. They start conference play 1-3, including a 10-point defeat at Indiana State. Two of the Valley loses are nail biters, including a 1-point loss at home to Southwest Missouri State and a 2-point setback on the road at Northern Iowa. Close contests abound, as six of the team's next eight conference games are decided by an average of four points.

It takes awhile for Altman's squad to find a consistent playing style. One game they fire from three-point range with little abandon, and the next they are struggling to score points. The only real experience rests in the backcourt, where a couple of juniors and a senior see most of the scoring opportunities. Patrolling the paint are a collection of juniors and seniors will little scoring ability or true athletic talent. The team is not necessarily young, but they are inexperienced for the most part. But help is on the way -- in both manpower and talent.

To help with the scoring and defensive void in the paint, Altman and his staff bring in a lanky, shot-blocking post man with a couple years of college basketball experience. They also unearth a slender, 6'10" high school graduate with a habit for shooting with his shoulders squared to the basket. Altman redshirts the frosh, hoping he will grow into his body and learn the intricacies of the college game. The final piece of the low post recruiting puzzle is a project forward-center, a kid that is not tall enough to be a true "5" but also not a good enough perimeter shooter to succeed as the forward Altman covets in his offense. But the kid has good hands and a knack for finishing baskets close to the rim.

Then there are the gems of the recruiting class. One is a pure-shooting, hard-working forward listed at 6'6" from a little town in the Midwest. Not heavily recruited, the freshman tallied big numbers in high school while doing a little bit of everything for his prep team. The kid sees playing time as a true freshman at Creighton, and makes it known early that he brings something special to the floor. The other bright spot of the class is a slashing guard with the reputation of being a prolific scorer and a lock-down defender. The only problem is getting him on the court.


Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This year's Jays feature upperclassmen Nate Funk, Kellen Miliner, Tyler McKinney, and Johnny Mathies. While not exactly the same household names that Ryan Sears, Ben Walker, and Matt West were to diehard Creighton fans during the 1999-2000 season, the four current perimeter players are the backbone of their team and must account for the majority of the offense. In fact, Funk is the best rebounding guard that Altman's had since ... Walker.

Those newcomers to the frontcourt mentioned earlier? None other than everybody's favorite Bahaman, junior college transfer Livan Pyfrom, and a skinny redshirt named Joe Dabbert. While Jeffrey Day isn't 6'11", he is a tremendous shot blocker (like Pyfrom) and uses his extended reach to disrupt low post passing lanes. And even though Altman is on the verge of redshirting Steve Smith for health reasons, it is hard to believe that Smith doesn't need some time to get stronger, quicker, and to learn the college game.

The role players mentioned earlier included a sharp-shooting forward that shied away from contact down low but had a mean stroke (Nerijus Karlikanovas), a big-bodied forward forced to play undersized at the center spot (Donnie Johnson, and for that matter Alan Huss), and a couple of mid-sized small forwards possessing athleticism (Justin Haynes) and smarts (John Klien). Jimmy Motz is hot-and-cold from behind the arc just like Nerijus, Anthony Tolliver's situation mirrors that of Johnson and Huss, and Dennis Howard and Pierce Hibma give Altman some options off the bench for spot minutes.

As for the jewels of the recruiting class, freshman Dane Watts looks more like freshman Kyle Korver each and every game -- both possess sweet strokes from the outside, the ability to make good passes, and most importantly the drive to become a better all-around basketball player. There also seems to be a striking similarity between Terrell Taylor and Nick Porter. Both guys scored, scored, and scored even more in the previous stops before Creighton, but both had trouble staying (or even getting) on the court. For Taylor, it was his attitude on and off the court, along with a work ethic that left something to be desired. For Porter, it is a nagging knee injury that will force the scoring guard Altman wanted for this year's team to take a redshirt.

Things to come?

Most Creighton fans know what happened in the second half of the '99-'00 season. The Jays finished 7-3 in their last 10 conference games, including victories over four teams that beat the Jays on their home courts (UNI, Bradley, Indiana State, and Evansville). Creighton entered Arch Madness as the fourth seed in the Valley postseason tournament, and defeated Bradley, Indiana State, and Southwest Missouri State for the school's second consecutive Valley tournament crown and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

I am by no means suggesting that McKinney is going to magically begin pouring in points like Sears, or that Funk is the physical specimen that Walker was at the shooting guard position. I understand that Day and Tolliver are not as good of rebounders that Pyfrom and Johnson were in the '99-'00 season. Finally, I am not suggesting that Watts will be as dominant as Korver was in his career. I'm merely comparing the seasons, and the similarities are startling.

The comparisons also serve as blankets of comfort and rays of hope for Jays fans everywhere. There have been a lot of negative things said about Altman's team during the past week, with the sneers and sarcastic remarks picking up in the hours after Creighton's loss in Terre Haute. The Valley is arguable the toughest its been since Altman came to 24th and Burt streets, and there is no reason that he can't lead his cast of characters (almost identical to the same roles played in '99-'00) to a strong finish and momentum heading down to St. Louis.

I'd say history is on Creighton's side.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Southern Illinois 69, Creighton 63

It took me a few hours after the most recent loss to Southern Illinois to figure out what I was going to write about. Sure, I could sit and spin the same woeful tale about rebounding problems and faulty free throw shooting. The thing is, Creighton beat SIU on the boards in the first half and only had a rebound margin of -4 in the game. And while not one of the Jays will soon be confused with Oklahoma's Drew Lavender or Duke's J.J. Redick (96 and 93% free-throw shooters, respectively), there is a more underlining issue rearing its head after losing to the Salukis for the third straight time.

I started thinking about why Southern Illinois bothers me the most of the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference schools. I never used to dislike them more than any of the other teams in the league. My feelings started to change during the 2001-2002 season, when whinin' Bruce Weber's squad swept the regular season series in a great game played on Super Bowl Sunday in Omaha (a.k.a. The Sanzere Game) and an ugly battle in Carbondale in the final month of the Valley schedule. It was such sweet revenge to win the Valley tournament title against SIU, and listen to Weber hoarsely complain in the press room after the game. And then came the 2002-2003 season, featuring Kyle Korver's dominating second-half performance in a win in Omaha and a physical loss to the Salukis on the road. The exclamation mark, however, came in the form of the Valley tournament championship game -- the greatest 40 minutes of Creighton basketball I've ever witnessed. Last year's loss at home hurt because it was the first loss at the Qwest Center and because the Jays could have won the game, and the last game in Carbondale was a forgettable moment in a forgettable second half of the season.

And then it dawned on me -- I dislike Southern Illinois basketball because it is the team I secretly wish we had at CU. And I don't mean the harsh brownish-maroon jerseys or the idiotic mascot that looks like a huge rat with braids -- I want the hyper-physical defense and never-say-die attitude. I tried to rack my brain for possible metaphors to compare my odd fascination with SIU to, and the only one that seemed to work was grade school romance.

When I was at St. Pius X/St. Leo school, I probably asked out a different girl every couple of weeks. That was just what we did, in place of four-square or dodgeball at recess. And it is not like any of the objects of my affection ever said yes. But I would be friends with a girl, enjoy talking to them, and then say to myself, "hey, she likes me. I should ask her out." But then, I would want nothing to do with her. "I don't like her," I'd tell my friends, or her friends, or anyone that would ask. I would go on the defensive, acting like there was NO WAY I would be interested in her.

For some reason, I was jealous. I don't know why, and I can't explain it (like much of the female race, which I don't have answers for). And I can't explain why I want what SIU has, other than to admit that I'm jealous of their ability lurk around in ballgames and then hit some big shots, or that I want the Jays to display the same ferocious defensive intensity that Weber, Matt Painter, and now Chris Lowery get from their SIU teams.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't like Southern Illinois. If they were playing the Purple Cobras in dodgeball, I'd root for White Goodman each and every time. I might even cheer for the Huskers if Nebraska and SIU ever locked horns. In fact, realizing that I am jealous of SIU's style of play doesn't mean that I will stop heckling Graduate Assistant Brad Korn on the bench or absolutely embarrass SIU fans in St. Louis by listing off the reasons why I corroborate that Carbondale is one of the worst college sports towns in America. I'm simply saying that I would love to have a team that defends well, shoots well, and plays with fire and a sense of urgency.

That being said, Creighton could have won. In fact, both teams looked almost identical through 30 minutes of action -- hard-working, well-coached squads hitting some open shots and coming up with steals on defense. But then the Jays regressed while SIU made the big plays down the stretch. It comes down to senior leadership, and Stetson Hairston and Darren Brooks provided SIU with more than Tyler McKinney and Kellen Miliner did. Chalk it up to the ever-important "intangibles" category. You always here television commentators and radio broadcasters list them as keys to every game, but they usually are the difference between walking out of the arena with your head held high or hung down low.

This Jays team is capable of playing the way SIU has played during the past couple of seasons, and it is crucial now more than ever that they pick up the intensity as conference play continues to heat up. Don't be surprised if these two teams play each other twice more this season, and don't be surprised if the Jays start a winning streak of their own -- they have it in them.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Creighton 61, Drake 58

In hindsight, I should have made the trek to Des Moines for the Creighton-Drake game. The smart thing to do, regardless of my mother’s pleas for safety and Bill Randby’s meteorological-seal-of-approval opinion, would have been to brave the frigid cold, the blustering winds, and the first-time bad weather drivers. The reason: you always get your money’s worth when the Jays play the Bulldogs in Central Iowa.

Regardless of each team’s talent level and position in the conference race, four of the previous five meetings between these two teams in Des Moines were extremely close contests. In fact, last year and in 2002 the two teams needed more than 40 minutes of regulation to decide the outcome. Before this year’s 61-58 Creighton win, the Jays won three of their last five games in Des Moines. The only losses came in 2000 (74-70) and last year (78-73 in double overtime), and sandwiched between them were a 78-70 Jays win in 2001, a 95-91 overtime win in 2002 (which featured Terrell Taylor giving Jays fans a preview of his future heroics in the NCAA tournament), and an 88-68 drubbing during the magical 2003 season.

So, history pointed to a close game last night, and the Basketball Gods did not disappoint. Listening to T. Scott Marr and Kevin Sarver broadcast the action on Magic 590 AM, I sensed that right from the opening tip Dana Altman had his players competing with intensity. Throughout the first half, Marr and Sarver described the rough-and-tumble scrums on the hardwood for loose balls, as well as the Jays’ attempts to take charges and play physical defense. The game stayed close from wire to wire, and it came down to one minute of play that might have changed the fortunes of the 2004-05 season.

Drake Head Coach Dr. Tom Davis had the Bulldogs ready to play, and it showed early. Neither team held a lead larger than six points in the first half, and it took a lay-up by Anthony Tolliver off an offensive rebound with one second left to give the Jays a 29-27 halftime lead. Johnny Mathies started his third game in row, and led the Jays with 11 points in 11 minutes of action in the first half. Nate Funk pitched in 7 points on 3-7 shooting, while Kellen Miliner continued to struggle from the field (3 points on 1-5 shooting in the first half).

After halftime, the Jays seized control. They never trailed in the first 16 minutes of the second half, building an 11-point lead with 10 minutes to play off a Funk lay-up. It was eerily reminiscent of Creighton’s trip to Evansville: a tough game through 30 minutes, with the Jays holding a lead after completing a momentum-shifting run. But just like the game against the Purple Aces, the Jays downshifted. Drake’s Pete Eggers made a lay-up with four minutes to play giving Drake the lead, and he added one free throw to give the Bulldogs a 58-56 advantage with one minute remaining.

And then retribution set in. In the basketball world, it is understood that the only way for a shooter to break out of a slump is to keep shooting. And while this doesn’t always look good in the box score, it is truly the only way for a pure shooter to regain his or her stroke. So was the case with Miliner, a great shooter that had lost his way. After shooting 1-5 in the first half, the senior from Warner Robbins, Georgia came alive in the second frame with 11 points on 4-8 shooting. This display included the game-winning three-pointer, which put the Jays up 59-58 with 54 seconds to play. A rebound by Pierce Hibma and two subsequent free throws by the redshirt freshman increased the lead to 61-58, which proved to be the final margin.

So Creighton left Des Moines cold, shivering, and with another victory in a close game. For a team that is hard to figure out, the Jays get the job done in close games (save for the Evansville debacle). And in a Missouri Valley Conference season that proves to be anything but a cakewalk, Altman’s young team did what so many college basketball teams struggle to do – claim a difficult win on the road.

Thoughts (from the box score, not the game)...
  • During the pre-game segment of the radio broadcast, Sarver pointed to a combined effort in the paint for the Bluejays. He stated that if Altman could get about 13 points and nine rebounds from any combination of his post players, the Jays would be in pretty good shape. And while the readers here know that Jeffony Tolliday is capable of those types of numbers, Jays fans had to wonder how the duo would fare against Drake big man Aliou Keita. Tolliday pitched in eight points, nine rebounds, and three blocked shots in 38 minutes of play, but the duo’s most important contribution was keeping Keita off the glass – the 6’8” center finished with just three rebounds. Anthony Tolliver was perfect from the field (4-4 for all eight of Tolliday’s points), and Jeffrey Day grabbed five defensive rebounds and stole the ball twice in 11 minutes of action.
  • Mathies may not have scored in the second half, but it was his offensive lift in the first 20 minutes that allowed the Jays to stay in the game early. Funk finished with a game-high 16 points, but Mathies’ scoring ability attracted Drake defenders and took some of the pressure off Funk and the other perimeter Bluejays. For Creighton to succeed, Mathies needs to continue to drive the lane, shoot perimeter jumpers, and force the tempo of the game – even if it results in a few turnovers here and there.
  • I touched on Miliner’s shooting already, but it is important to know that the games Creighton lost were the games that he was a non-factor. If we get Kellen’s 11 points per game against Wyoming and Evansville, we win those games. Without a consistent scoring threat in the paint, there needs to be more than one dependable perimeter scorer (Funk) for this team to survive MVC play.
  • How big were the only points Hibma and freshman Dane Watts had last night? Watts struggled with foul trouble and bad positioning all night, which translated into only 12 minutes on the floor. But when needed, he hit a three-pointer that gave the Jays a 10-point lead with about eight minutes to go. And then there is Hibma, who grabbed a huge rebound at Drake’s end of the court with less than a minute left, was fouled, and hit both of his free throws to give Creighton the final margin. Both freshmen had their learning moments, but both hit big-time baskets when Creighton needed them most.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

San Diego 82, Creighton 70

After two straight weeks of grazing in the kitchen, watching hours and hours of football and basketball, and catching up on lost sleep, I shook off the holiday doldrums to plan my New Year's Eve around Creighton's visit to The Golden State. There wasn't much to cheer for as the Jays dropped their fourth contest in six games. Needless to say, I wish I would have stayed asleep.

It was a classic case of taking one step forward (effort-driven victory over Bradley) and two steps back (lackluster showing against a middle-of-the-pack mid-major from a weak conference). Nate Funk provided Creighton's only constant offensive threat, but only scored two points in the first half. Tyler McKinney continues to remain one-dimensional, looking only to pass, not convincing his defenders that he will shoot when open. In fact, McKinney committed six turnovers and had San Diego guards dribble-drive past him relentlessly.

Life in the low post didn't treat the Jays any better, with Jeffony Tolliday adding only eight points and eight rebounds in 36 minutes of play. Conversely, Dane Watts added seven points and six rebounds in only 19 minutes of action. Jimmy Motz continues to be gradually phased out of the offense, logging only 11 minutes against the Toreros. Dennis Howard took some of Motz's playing time and didn't do much with it, going 0-2 from the field with one rebound in 10 minutes.

Kellen Miliner, Johnny Mathies, and Funk provided the only true sparks against San Diego. Miliner finally seemed to get his shooting stroke back, hitting a couple long-range shots and trying to penetrate the lane and draw some fouls. The same can be said for Mathies, who failed to contribute the same production from the Bradley game but still hit some open shots and made things happen with his speed and quickness at both ends of the court. And then there was Funk.

Not only did he lead the team in scoring (17 points), but Funk single-handedly kept the Jays from losing by 20 points or more. He scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, hit three more three-pointers, and continued to display grit and toughness on a team with too many polite players. Through last night's game, Funk is averaging 16 points per contest while shooting 49% from the field and 46% from three-point range. He also pulls down six rebounds a game and shoots 80% from the charity stripe. Along with Southern Illinois' Darren Brooks and Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobsen, Funk has to be considered one of the best all-around guards in the Missouri Valley Conference. Now if only his teammates could catch up.

Now for my New Year's resolution:

I resolve to remember that this is a young Creighton team, with a lot of kids still catching up to the speed of the college game and trying to find their way in Dana Altman's system. I resolve to remember that the parity in college basketball is at an all-time high, where the adage "any given night" is proven day after day in mid- and high-major basketball action. I also resolve to take more pleasure in the baby steps these Jays display, rather than get too negative when the team doesn't fulfill my elevated expectations.

Happy New Year to each and every one of you. Thanks for reading this Jays fan's obsessed and slightly biased views of Creighton hoops. I hope 2005 treats all of you well, and I look forward to writing more about the successes of Bluejay basketball.

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