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.