Sunday, February 27, 2005

Creighton 69, Evansville 64; Creighton 74, Indiana State 55

The Creighton Bluejay “Retribution Tour 2005” made a two-night homestand at the Qwest Center this week. The Jays hosted Evansville, who gave the Jays a lump of coal right before Christmas in the form of a 63-61 defeat, and Indiana State, who came from behind in the second half to defeat the Jays 74-72 in mid-January. For coach Dana Altman’s team, the final two home games represented a chance to rectify losing two road games to the cellar dwellers in the Missouri Valley Conference. For season ticket holders and other fans of the program, it was a chance to watch this year’s Jays team capitalize on its increased level of play from the past two weeks.

Put the Aces in a (deep) hole

Creighton exacted payback over Evansville, earning a season series split with the Purple Aces. The game was far from perfect, as the Jays struggled to find the form displayed in wins against Chattanooga and Wichita State earlier in the month. The Jays shot 45% from the field and 62% from beyond the three-point arc in the first half, compared with 33% from the field and 17% from long range in the second half. And even without a healthy Nate Funk – scoring eight points as he struggled with the flu – the Jays got key offense from Johnny Mathies (a career-high 22 points) and rebounding from Anthony Tolliver (13 boards, including 3 on the offensive end).

Even though the game was ugly, and the Jays let a double-digit lead slip in the second half, the Jays won their third straight game and more importantly defeated a team that they should take care of at home. Creighton has struggled to finish off opponents at home so many times this season, and the last thing Altman and his team needed wearing on their confidence was a complete implosion against an overmatched Purple Aces squad.

Cut the Trees down

Stop number two on the Retribution Tour 2005 was a Senior Day date with the Indiana State Sycamores. Creighton posted their 19th victory of the season because of a combination of solid defense, decent rebounding, and 51 combined points from backcourt members Funk, Mathies, and seniors Tyler McKinney and Kellen Miliner. Tolliver and his partner on the low blocks, Jeff Day, combined for 12 points and nine rebounds in 36 minutes of play, with three monster blocked shots, and Jimmy Motz stepped off the bench with three big treys.

So on a day that Jays fans celebrated the careers of McKinney and Miliner, it was the immediate future I kept pining for. Juniors Funk and Mathies had another incredible day, combining for 34 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists, and four steals. These two warriors set the tone for this team for the rest of this season, but will arguably be the best backcourt in the Valley next season. Mathies’ play in the past month has been reminiscent of former Bluejay guard Ben Walker’s push to postseason action in 2000. We all know what Funk has done over the entire season, and I’ve been calling for his rightful claim to the Player of the Year award since the Guardian’s Classic.

Two down, one to go

So the Retribution Tour 2005 climaxes Monday with the Jays’ visit to Normal, Illinois, to take on Illinois State. The final regular season game of the year proves to be exciting, gut-wrenching, and nerve-racking all at once, because the Jays are fighting for third place in the Valley. Can the emotion of revenge counteract what will definitely be a charged atmosphere for Redbird Senior Night? If it can, the Jays will be poised for another upper-half finish in conference play and playing their best basketball since late November.

The homestretch is almost done, as less than a week from now I’ll be down in St. Louis, taking in all of the uniqueness of Arch Madness. So before the final regular season Jays game, let’s revisit last weekend’s five key factors for a solid Bluejay finish:

1. Funk continuing his MVP-type play

Check. Funk suffered in silence against Evansville, launching himself around the court and grabbing boards regardless of his bought with the flu and his subsequent sub par night offensively. He was back to his old (and wonderful) self against the Sycamores, pouring in 18 points in just 27 minutes of play. That last number is what is important, because Saturday’s game marked the third straight game that Funk has been able to log under 30 minutes of game action. He’ll obviously need to be on the floor the majority of next weekend if the Jays are to make a run to next Monday’s championship game, so it was vital that Funk was able to rest his legs a bit over the past week.

2. Mathies finishing the season strong

Check. Last week was a great one for Mathies. In the two Bluejay wins, he scored 38 points, shot 12-21 from the field (57%), 5-7 from long range (71%), 9-12 from the charity stripe (75%), and logged five assists and seven steals. But his confidence and toughness is what allows him to do so many things. He doesn’t shy away from taking shots, something that cannot be said for McKinney, and he is a better defender and finisher in the paint than is Miliner. Mathies continues to creep up the Valley scoring list, now averaging 14 points per conference game (7th-best in the MVC), and he ranks fourth in Valley games with 29 steals (1.7 per game). He has grown leaps and bounds since this time last season, and that has to make Jays fans excited as postseason basketball begins.

3. Bluejays making the extra pass

McKinney leads the Valley in assists, but it isn’t just the senior point guard making plays. In the last three games, Creighton has made 39 three-pointers and has recorded 49 assists. The Jays are a perimeter-heavy team, so they need to continue finding open players for jump shots while not being afraid to work the ball down low and wait for double-teams to pass out of. Sounds easy enough, but with young post players, it is easier said than done.

4. Jeff Day taking over the paint

Last week, it was Tolliver, not Day, doing the little things in the post for the Jays. Before last week, Tolliver hadn’t grabbed five or more rebounds in a game since Creighton’s win over Bradley in Omaha at the end of December. But Tolliver hit the glass hard against Evansville, grabbing a career-high 13 caroms, and followed that up with 6 boards against Indiana State. However, Tolliver still lacks presence on offense, and that has to come from Day. After having solid games against Wichita State and Chattanooga, Day was unable to get on track against the Purple Aces – recording just two points on 0-4 shooting from the field. He did get on track somewhat against Indiana State, scoring eight points and going perfect from the free throw line (4-4). Jeffony Tolliday is going to need assert himself as a two-headed monster in St. Louis, because it is nearly impossible for a team to win three straight at Arch Madness without some help inside.

5. The Valley standings shaking out right

This is the one factor that is largely out of Altman’s control, but things are shaping up good so far. While Southern Illinois has captured its fourth straight regular season crown, the rest of the league is battling for position and seed for Arch Madness. Creighton is currently in third place and can clinch the three-seed in the Valley tournament with a win over Illinois State or a Northern Iowa loss. UNI can claim the third seed with a win and a Creighton loss, because they own the tiebreaker with Southwest Missouri State via their season series sweep. Creighton would lose a tiebreaker with SMS because of the Bears’ season sweep, so a Creighton loss and an SMS win would put the Jays as the five seed and pit the two teams against each other for a third time this season. Illinois State can finish no higher than fifth, having lost their last five conference games, and they need a win over the Jays and an SMS loss to stay out of the 3-6 match up on Saturday night.

Long story short, the Jays can clinch third place and a third game with Illinois State with a victory on Monday. They control their own destiny, plain and simple.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Creighton 82, Wichita State 68; Creighton 100, Chattanooga 68

As I sat at my table at D.J.’s Dugout last Wednesday, listening to T. Scott Marr and Kevin Sarver giddily signing off of the Creighton radio broadcast of the Bluejays’ dismantling of Wichita State, I didn’t know what to do. Should I go straight home and hop on the computer to write an article praising the Jays and their second-half effort against the former top team in the Missouri Valley Conference? Should I wake up and revisit the box score first thing Thursday morning, pointing out the gaudy statistics and praising Nate Funk’s career night? Or should I wait a couple of days to take as subjective approach as possible to highlighting the win against the Shockers.

So I waited. And I waited. By the time I felt comfortable enough to write about the Wichita sweep, it was 11 AM Saturday morning and the Bracket Buster was getting started on ESPN2. I’m glad I waited to write about our dismantling of the Shox, because Miami (OH) was intent on making Creighton’s sweep look like a modest accomplishment. Besides, I had Chattanooga on my mind (probably for the first and last time ever) and was getting geared up for the Jays game that afternoon.

The real reason I waited, though, was to wait and see if the Jays could string together two solid outings in a row. I was hoping that the win over Wichita wasn’t an illusion, that I wasn’t just another peak in the rollercoaster season this year has become. I was prepared about a flat-footed loss or a resounding win, but I didn’t honestly think we’d blow the roof of the Cardiac Q.

Win in Wichita

As I mentioned above, I got off work just in time to motor out to the Dugout and watch’s web cast of the Jays-Shockers game. Needless to say, after the first 20 minutes I was questioning my speeding on Dodge to get to the game on time. The video feed from the Wichita State scoreboards were used for the broadcast, and every time the Shockers would make a basket (which was a lot, since they shot 52% from the field in the first half) the scoreboard (and web cast) would show instant replays. Because of that, we missed play after play on the Jays end of the court. Little did anyone at the Dugout know that we wouldn’t be seeing much of the replays in the second half.

It was an almost perfect second half of basketball for the Jays, with Johnny Mathies and Funk leading the charge. Creighton missed three shots in the half. Three. Three! Wichita State didn’t know what hit them; well, actually they did. They wear #10 and #11, and they have been carrying this team for the past few weeks (and months). Funk and Mathies didn’t allow the Shockers back into the game after Mathies scored the first eight points of the second half to stake Creighton a one-point lead. Funk poured in a career-best 35 points, Mathies didn’t miss a shot, and Jeff Day added 14 points in 18 minutes of perfect shooting from the floor.

And the whole time, I was waiting for the game to get close. Call me paranoid, or experienced in the ways of this year’s Jays squad, but it just seemed too good to be true. That feeling would soar to a whole new level when the Jays took on Chattanooga.

Hunting Mocs

The first 12 minutes of Saturday’s contest was nip and tuck with a visiting Chattanooga Mocs team renowned for their physical play and rebounding prowess. And then the Jays lit into the Mocs, going on a 24-5 run to close out the last eight minutes of the first half and putting the Jays up 48-30 at the break. The Jays hit 7-10 three pointers in the half, while connecting on 66% of their shots and bringing the Qwest Center crowd to their feet on numerous occasions.

Things didn’t stop in the second half, as the Jays hit 13 more three pointers. They really couldn’t miss from outside, and in the process set the school and Valley records for most three pointers in a single game. They even out-rebounded one of the best boarding teams in the country, and in the meantime earned coach Dana Altman’s praise for hitting the boards hard and showing the effort they’ll need to make a push for a Valley tournament crown.

The Homestretch

And that brings us to the last week of the Valley regular season. A lot of Jays fans can see the gleam of the Arch from here, after the past week the Jays have had, and you can bet Altman’s players and coaches will have revenge on their minds in upcoming payback games at home against Evansville and Indiana State and at Illinois State. So while the rest of the top teams in the Valley slug it out against one another during the next seven days, Creighton will take on two of the more beatable teams in the conference at home and face a winnable road game to close out the regular season.

Here are five things to look for (actually, hope for) during the final week of the regular season:

1. Funk continuing his MVP-type play

He leads the league in scoring per game, hits 56% of his shots from the field, and connects on 46% of his three-point attempts, all while leading the Jays in rebounding per game and staking his claim as the best player in the league. If the Jays have any chance of winning out this week and making a run in St. Louis, they can’t afford Funk having a sub par game. Rodney Buford, Ryan Sears, Ben Walker, and Kyle Korver all finalized their legendary status in Bluejay basketball history by producing in the post season, and this is Funk’s first chance to be focal point of the team as the second season begins.

2. Mathies finishing the season strong

Johnny has hit his stride and looks the most comfortable he has been in the white and blue so far in his Creighton career. He has scored in double figures in 13 of his last 14 games (18 times total) and has asserted himself as the second scoring option for this Jays team. Mathies continues to be a tough match up for most defenders in the Valley, and he can make great things happen with his speed and quickness. Mathies looks in sync with his teammates, and plays tougher as each game goes by.

3. Bluejays making the extra pass

When Creighton is playing well and hitting open shots, players at every position are making the extra pass to spring open looks for their teammates. The best example of that was obviously the win over Chattanooga, but this team is dangerous anytime they get clear shot attempts from outside. Jimmy Motz, Dane Watts, and even Kellen Miliner can’t create their outside shots nearly as well as Funk and Mathies can, but any one of them are dangerous from long range if left open or coming off of a couple of screens and picks. The Jays have to make teams pay for leaving shooters open, and that challenge falls at the feet of Motz, Watts, and especially Miliner.

4. Jeff Day taking over the paint

Day has shown flashes of being a better than average center in the Valley, but it has been tough for him to put together strings of quality games. With Anthony Tolliver struggling to provide consistent offense and defense night after night, Day is going to have to continue altering shots, getting to the free throw line, and hitting face-up jumpers and baby-hook shots. The more consistency Day can play with, the better the chances of the Jays become.

5. The Valley standings shaking out right

So much of Creighton’s possible successes at Arch Madness rely on the right match ups and the right seeding heading into the tournament. While the Jays can arguably compete with any team in the Valley on any given night, there are obviously teams that the Jays match up better against than others. For my money, there is no way I want to have the Jays playing Southwest Missouri State down in St. Louis. But that being said, it is hard to beat a good team three times in one season.

Perhaps all we really know is that the next two weeks of Bluejay basketball are going to be decided by effort, hustle, and defense. And a guy named Funk.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Southern Illinois 71, Creighton 67

A Tough Lesson for the Bluejays – and Me

I purposely tried to wait as long as humanly possible before writing this edition of the blog. I had to restrain myself two times – a couple hours (and beers) directly following the loss on Saturday at Southern Illinois, and after work on Valentine’s Day. Obviously, I didn’t want to write anything Saturday night that I would regret, and I didn’t want to ruin my girlfriend’s Valentine’s Day with the perpetual argument why can’t they rebound better? where is the defense? where did Kellen Miliner go?

Not surprisingly, the last couple of days served as time to reflect not only on the loss in Carbondale, but also on my mini-depressions I suffer directly after losses. My dad and I were two of the Bluejay fans that made it to the Civic Auditorium night in and night out during the Rick Johnson Era. And while that doesn’t give me any special reason to complain and moan, nor does it give any extra credibility to my love for the Jays and my alma mater, it definitely puts my hissy fits into context.

I think I’m afraid of losing.

I’m afraid of this program somehow slipping back to mediocrity. All it takes is a few bad recruiting classes, a few freak injuries or academic/disciplinary problems, and an increasingly competitive conference. I know that I’m overreacting, and that in of itself is the problem. I knew this season would be a learning and adjustment period for some of the inexperienced and young players on the roster, and I expected growing pains. But that doesn’t mean I expected this team to lose 10 games by Valentine’s Day, especially a slew of close contests that could have just as easily been Jays victories.

As consistent as Dana Altman’s record has been from season to season over the past few years, I’m like every other true fan of Bluejay basketball – I want more. I watch Gonzaga practically run late-night ESPN broadcast decisions from a gymnasium half the size of the old Civic, and I’m jealous. I see a handful of Missouri Valley Conference teams catching up in recruiting talent, and I get worried. And most importantly, I see the competition from mid-major conferences around the country for precious at-large births to the NCAA tournament increasing, and I get nervous.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Rodney Buford, Ben Walker and Ryan Sears, the 2003 team, and the rest of Altman’s success stories. Or maybe it goes back to those seasons in the early 90s, when we’d celebrate the Jays winning more than 10 games. Whatever the reason, it makes losses extremely hard to take – especially close losses.

I get my hopes up. Although I’ve told myself over and over again that this is a relatively inexperienced squad, I still compare them to Altman’s best teams and wonder aloud, to myself, and on this web page why can’t they be better? Maybe this is just how good this team is – good enough to beat some of the upper-echelon teams in the conference and some “name” schools (Missouri, Ohio State, Xavier) that find themselves in troubled waters this season, but not good enough to close out close games at home or get over the hump in road tilts.

And these same reasons why Jays fans should be comfortable with this team and enjoy watching this group of young kids gel together as a team are the same reasons that we are so maddeningly frustrated by the losses – because they could have won the close ones. But games like the last loss to Southern Illinois will have a positive effect one day. There will be a game, a year or two from now, when Dane Watts will instinctively use a lesson he learned against the Salukis and capitalize on it. There will be games next season, or the season afterward, that Anthony Tolliver starts to “get it” – when he starts to get a feel for how to seal off defenders from rebounds and use his long arms and legs to his advantage on the boards. And you can bet that next year, as he has done over the past two months, Funk will know that it is his time – his time to lead once more, his time to carry Altman’s team, and his time to serve as the next stepping stone. Buford passed the torch to Walker and Sears, who passed it to Kyle Korver, who in turn trusted the role as Bluejay star to Funk.

And I guess that brings us back to the present. And instead of getting upset at the 15-10 record, I can’t help but think this team is close – close to putting together a run. Would it surprise you if Altman’s team forged ahead during the next few weeks, learning from the close losses and repaying teams like Evansville, Indiana State, and Illinois State for defeats the Jays should not have suffered? Would it surprise you if Funk continued to carry this team on his dinged-up shoulder? Would it shock you to see Creighton put together a couple of wins in St. Louis the way Altman’s teams have done in the past?

I didn't think so.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Creighton 83, Northern Iowa 82

Creighton’s second win over Northern Iowa this season seemed like three games for the price of one. The first 10 minutes of Wednesday’s game were arguably the quickest 10 minutes of Bluejay hoops I have seen in quite awhile. The Jays raced out to an 11-point lead in the first five minutes of the game, and the flow of action seemed determined and swift. The first team foul wasn’t called until the 10:56 mark of the first half, and there were only seven combined turnovers in the first half of play. In fact, the Jays played solid defense and allowed only 28 first-half points to UNI. But everyone in the Cardiac Q knew it wouldn’t be that easy.

Creighton trailed only once in the first half and held a five-point lead at intermission, and they looked poised to extend the lead further after Dane Watts completed a three-point play off an offensive rebound one minute into the second half. But in typical fashion, the opponent caught fire and the Panthers rattled off a 12-0 run to go up four points. After this outburst, both teams settled in and traded baskets and defensive stops, seemingly matching one another in intensity and clutch shooting.

This back-and-forth action continued until Tyler McKinney connected with a tie-breaking three-pointer with five and a half minutes to play, and then the third game-within-the-game began. The Jays went to the free throw line nine times over the next five minutes, in addition to making all four of their field goal attempts, and extended their lead to 10 points with 49 seconds to play. This was going to be easy, right?

Wrong. The Panthers started to fire away from long range and made things interesting for the Jays fans that had remained in their seats. And while they couldn’t quite take the victory away from the Jays, Ben Jacobsen and the other Panthers put a definite scare into the 10,000-plus in attendance at the Q.

But as I watched the dejected UNI fans file out into the frigid February night, I couldn’t help but think I had seen this before. Not the exact flow of the game, or the feeling in the arena, but definitely the individual contributions. Nate Funk, Johnny Mathies, and McKinney carried the Jays from start to finish, and they did so by playing exactly like they did in Creighton’s first win over UNI this season.

Funk absolutely drilled every one of his shots (actually, he missed two field goals and a free throw), as he poured in 21 points and continued his torrid play. In January, when he knocked down the game-winning shot in Cedar Falls, Funk scored 17 points. Mathies continued to provide a second consistent scoring option, going for 17 points last night after leading all Jays with 18 points in the first meeting this season. And Tyler McKinney, who is known more for his passing and court vision, scored 14 points in last night’s win – which matches his previous season-high recorded against – you guessed it – Northern Iowa.

So the Jays sweep UNI and get swept by Southwest Missouri State – who’d have thought that would be the case. And while some say that it’s hard to be a good team three times, I’d still rather match up against the Panthers in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. But the next two games will go a long way in determining what first-round match-up the Jays will see less than a month from now in St. Louis. A tough trip to Carbondale and Wichita, two of the toughest places to play in the Valley, looms large for the Jays, but with Funk and Mathies firing on all cylinders, I wouldn’t put anything past this team right now – winning or losing.

Monday, February 07, 2005

SMS 79, Creighton 71

Middle of the pack. Forget the close loses and the exciting wins, this team is simply where it should be – stuck in the middle of an excruciatingly tough conference. It wouldn’t surprise anyone by now if the Jays came out this Wednesday on ESPN2 and beat Northern Iowa at the Cardiac Q, just like the second loss to Southwest Missouri State didn’t really shock anyone of the more than 14,000 in attendance last night.

Dana Altman’s team is sixth out of 10 teams in scoring offense and scoring defense. They are seventh in opponent field-goal percentage, and while they lead the league in three-point shooting percentage, they are seventh in field goal shooting and free throw shooting. They are getting beat on the boards – they stand last in the league at total rebounds per game and are eighth in rebounding margin.

Last night’s game was a microcosm of what Creighton has done well and poorly this season. Nate Funk was his usual tenacious self, pouring in 25 points and ripping down nine rebounds – including four offensive caroms. Funk continues his consistency, and if anything has increased his hustle over the past couple of weeks. After his latest effort, Funk leads the conference in points per game in conference play (18.2) and is making his case for All-Valley consideration. It is just a shame that all of his hard work has resulted in a 6-6 conference mark so far. But that shame can be shared by Funk’s supporting cast, or lack thereof.

Johnny Mathies is averaging 13 points in conference games, placing him in the top 10 in the conference. But the Jays’ next highest scorers in conference games are Tyler McKinney and Kellen Miliner at 7 points per contest. Jimmy Motz has picked his scoring up a bit over the past couple of games, but conversely Dane Watts has almost disappeared as a scoring option. Inconsistent offensive play in the low post leaves Creighton without many dependable scoring options.

With all this being said, Creighton once again had a chance to win this game. SMS entered the bonus after committing their seventh team foul with 16 minutes to play in the second half, as CU started the second stanza physically attacking the rim in an attempt to get SMS in foul trouble. Yet the Jays only shot 10 free throws in the second half. How does that happen? The game also felt too much like the first loss to the Bears, when the Jays hung around for most of the second half but just couldn’t get closer than a bucket.

In both games against SMS this season, it seemed as though every time the Jays produced a defensive stop they needed, they either turned the ball over on the other end of the court or couldn’t get a quality shot to fall. And when they did get some shots to fall, they couldn’t get stops on the other end. Creighton gave up 80 and 79 points in the two losses to SMS, showing once again an unpredictable defense.

Where can they go from here? Starting Wednesday, Creighton plays three of the most difficult games of the season in one week. Only one of the games is at the Cardiac Q, and the Jays can make a statement to a televised audience on ESPN2 against Northern Iowa. The Panthers beat Southern Illinois this weekend, making the race for the top two seeds in the MVC tournament even closer, and you can bet UNI wants revenge for CU’s last-second win at the UNI-Dome in January. Road games at SIU and Wichita State will wrap up one of the toughest three-week stretches of conference hoops in years. Right now, Jays fans would be happy with a 2-1 record this week, because anything less than that will seriously jeopardize Creighton’s chances for a first-round bye in the Valley tournament. Seeds 7 through 10 play on Friday in St. Louis, and Altman’s Jays have never played in the first round of the tournament. The good news is that throughout the conference, the Jays can beat any one of the teams. The bad news would be trying to win four games to secure a Valley tournament championship.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Creighton 73, Wichita State 69

I love Creighton basketball. LOVE it. Therefore, weeks like the one that started with CU’s win over Wichita State are some of my favorite times of the year. Three home games in eight days against a triumvirate of some of the top teams in the Missouri Valley Conference. With just one month until Arch Madness in St. Louis, stretches like the one facing Dana Altman’s team now only make a squad tougher. Wins against teams like Wichita State do wonders for a unit’s budding confidence.

There is just something about hosting the Shockers that brings out the toughness and tenacity in Altman’s Jays. Altman has never lost to Wichita State in Omaha, and most of the contests have been physical battles displaying flaring tempers and big-time performances. Recent memories include Tyler McKinney’s game-winning coast-to-coast lay-up as a freshman in 2002, Larry House’s career-high 28 points on Senior Night in a 26-point CU win in 2003, and seniors Mike Lindeman, Mike Grimes, Brody Deren, and Joe Dabbert scoring 50 of CU’s 75 points in last year’s regular season-ending route of the Shockers.

Not only will last night’s victory join a long list of exciting and pivotal wins over Wichita State, but it helped to further establish a few facts about this Jays basketball season.

1. Anything can happen in this conference. I wrote before the SMS loss that the top four teams in the conference through nine games could be completely shuffled in a different order by the end of the regular season, and I still stand by that claim. At the time this article was published, Southern Illinois had put 89 points on Bradley and pulled into a tie with the Shockers in the loss column for first place in the Valley, and Northern Iowa had blown out Evansville to remain tied in the conference standings with the Jays. Creighton really controls their own destiny, with games against SMS, UNI, Wichita State, and SIU still to come, not to mention payback opportunities against Evansville, Indiana State, and Illinois State.

2. The Qwest Center is quickly becoming the Cardiac Q. This free throw shooting is getting ridiculous, but don’t expect it to drastically improve any time soon. The only guys that don’t look sped up at the line are Johnny Mathies and Jeffrey Day, which is ironic because a lot of the time those are two of the most hurried players on the floor. Don’t expect any of the home games the rest of the season to be blowouts either way, which means come to the Cardiac Q with a lot of intestinal fortitude and long fingernails – you’re going to need both.

3. Johnny Mathies is the most improved Bluejay this season. Everyone knew Nate Funk was due for his true breakout season, and most expected McKinney and Kellen Miliner to be serviceable backcourt players for Altman. But based solely on his transformation from bustled hard-luck starter last season to role-player-turned-starter this season, Mathies looks more comfortable and has found his true niche on this team. He is not as muscular, tall, or formidable as Ben Walker, but he is better offensively than DeAnthony Bowden and plays wonderful overall defense. His pull-up three pointer in transition early in the second half helped cut into Wichita State’s lead and set the tone for an explosive 10 minutes of Bluejay offense. He is just outside the top 10 in scoring per game in conference play (13 points per game) and is tied for second in conference games with 18 steals.

4. Jeffony Tolliday is quickly becoming a one-man show. I credit Anthony Tolliver for easing into his role and trying to improve on his play from game to game, and one of the most pivotal plays of the game was his touch pass to Jimmy Motz during Motz’s streak of three three-point bombs, but Day will have to continue his success of the last couple of games if the Jays intend to have any meaningful success in March.

It is difficult to remember that Day hasn’t played at the Division-1 level since the spring of 2003. I can’t remember the last time a Jay blocked six shots in one game, and my favorite rejection was his flat-out disrespect of Jamar Howard’s low-post game. With two minutes remaining in the game and the Jays holding an eight-point advantage, Howard tried to shake off a difficult offensive evening and score from the low blocks. He took to dribble with his back to the basket, but Day didn’t back down after excessive bodying from Howard. When Howard tried to pump fake and draw Day in the air, he failed, and when he tried a half-hearted jumper, Day sent it toward the stands of rowdy Jays fans. Just absolutely beautiful defense, and the 11,000 people at the Cardiac Q LOVED it. Altman and the rest of the coaching staff really need to get the most out of Day down the stretch, because he can alter shots and has finally put together back-to-back games where he doesn’t give up on his low-post moves if the shots aren’t falling early or if fouls aren’t being called regularly.

5. Have I mentioned the free throw shooting? Unbelievable.

The second game in this crucial home stand is Saturday night, when the Jays host SMS on “Get Blue” night. The Omaha Shootout is all day at the Q, with some of the best high school basketball teams from the Midwest taking the court. I’ll be there to watch Creighton recruit Josh Dotzler, and I hope to put together a piece on CU’s recruiting class in the next few weeks. “Get Blue” festivities run directly up to tip-off, which is an hour later than most night games (8 PM), which leaves an extra hour to “prepare” for the game – take advantage of the 24 oz. Bud Lights at the Big Bud Bar. Combine the “Get Blue” festivities, the late start, the Fox Sports Net television presence, and the good publicity of the win over Wichita State with the chance to appease last weekend’s loss the Bears, and I think this weekend’s game could be the loudest and most exciting experiences of the season.

Just don’t forget to bring the antacids and something to chew on – it promises to be another nail biter.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

SMS 80, Creighton 73

You’ll have to excuse this late post regarding Creighton’s loss to Southwest Missouri State during the weekend. I've been sick the past few days and encountered technology issues yesterday, so all in all it has been a tough couple of days for this Jays fan.

I’m going to keep this brief, mostly because I’ve still got a throbbing headache, but also because I’m trying to focus on the positives of each game this season and they were hard to find in the loss in Springfield. I wrote Saturday afternoon that the top half of the conference was up for grabs, and the game Saturday night did little to discourage that notion.

For all of the solid defense and physical play employed by the Bears, the Jays still shot 54% in the second half and scored 73 points in the game. However, it was the Jays’ lack of defense that did them in, as SMS shot 64% in the second half – 51% for the game – and posted just the third 80-point-plus scoring night of the season against the Jays (San Diego and Illinois State were the other two). Possibly the most frustrating thing about the loss was that the Jays could have won this game going away. They played below-average all night in almost every aspect of the game, and were within two possessions until the final five seconds of the game.

The highlight of the night was obviously Jeffrey Day stepping out of the Jeffony Tolliday role and dominating the paint in limited playing time. In just 19 minutes, Day scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds, which were game-high totals in both categories. Day played decent defense, recording a couple of blocks and a steal, but his most encouraging behavior was he intent to get to the free throw line – and finish what he started. Day made 10 of 12 free throws, drawing contact almost every time he went to the paint. In fact, he went to the charity stripe twice as many times as the entire Creighton team did in the loss to Illinois State.

Conversely, the lowlights of the night were watching Nate Funk struggle with increased defensive pressure (and forearm shivers to the jaw) and seeing Kellen Miliner regress into his shooting woes. I mean, is it too hard to ask to have a consistent high-low presence? Funk recorded nine points and only three rebounds, which were offset by four turnovers and only two trips to the free throw line. Miliner recorded another sub-30% shooting night, and with Creighton’s two big outside offensive threats struggling, Dana Altman needed some defensive stops and some role players to knock down some shots.

He got little of both, however. When the Jays needed a stop, most of the time they couldn’t get one. And when Creighton did forbid SMS from scoring, the Jays rarely took advantage of the opportunity. And as far as role players go, Pierce Hibma, Jimmy Motz, Dennis Howard, and Anthony Tolliver combined for two points. Two.

Johnny Mathies continues to thrive since being named a starter again, and he impressed with 14 points, four rebounds, and a game-high seven assists. Looking more and more comfortable each game, Mathies will need to score about 15 points a game down the stretch to give the Jays a chance to finish in the top-half of the conference. I’ve echoed these sentiments before, but he continues to be the only Jay consistently drawing contact on the way to the bucket and still trying to put the ball in the hoop.

And then there was the most confusing box score of the game – Tyler McKinney’s 13-point outburst. I use that term because he hit some amazing shots. But most of these were as the shot clock expired, or when he had dribbled himself into trouble. I know that McKinney is not supposed to be a vocal point of the offense, but defenders are sagging off of him more and more and concentrating their defensive efforts to guys like Funk and Mathies and clogging up the lane. In fact, all of McKinney’s points came in the second half, and he only dished out two assists all game.

A lot of the credit needs to go to – gulp – Barry Hinson and his SMS defenders. They came out and literally punched the Jays in the mouth, and Creighton played tentatively offensively the rest of the game. I don’t understand why the Valley refs didn’t call a foul when Funk was drilled in the face with an elbow, but instead of using the physical play as a rallying cry the Jays seemed content to throw up long range shots and shy away from the lane. I can’t blame Funk, however, because it seems like any contact he draws going to the hoop is not considered hard enough for a foul.

So while Saturday night’s game wasn’t the medicine I needed for my aching head, there were definitely some feel-good moments of the action. If the Jays can add Day’s improving high- and low-post play (he repeatedly knocks down the open 10-footer) to an already-deadly perimeter shooting team, the three-game homestand this week could prove to be a memorable one. But the Jays’ fortunes rely solely on staying close in the rebounding battles against Wichita State, SMS, and Northern Iowa, playing aggressive defense, and not backing down when being pushed around.

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