Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Creighton 58, George Mason 56

After last year’s Cinderella stomp through the NCAA Tournament, the George Mason Patriots have become the face of mid-major conferences for many casual basketball observers. And while last year’s post-game piece featured a look at who the real George Mason was, this installment aims to address who last year’s GMU squad was and how it relates to the current Creighton squad.

Much has been made in the local media about Creighton’s trip to Fairfax last November, when the Jays (with Nate Funk and Josh Dotzler) put on the royal-blue road uniforms and handed Jim Larranaga’s Patriots a 20-point home loss. Actually, the outcome didn’t cause much of a media stir at the time, due to Creighton’s lofty goals before last season and the relative unknown nature of last year’s Patriots, but more of a delayed reaction four months later as George Mason reeled off impressive victory after impressive victory on their way to the Final Four.

Member of the media and the Bluejay Faithful used the game as a measuring stick; however, they weren’t measuring something that existed — they were measuring the “what if”. It was all a way of trying to explain how last year’s George Mason team was exactly what the Jays could have been “if” Funk wouldn’t have missed the majority of the season due to injury, or “if” Dotzler wouldn’t have missed the last crucial weeks of the regular season and Missouri Valley Conference tournament because of a knee problem.

“Look at what the Jays did to Mason when Creighton was at full strength,” people said.

Well, actually, they weren’t at full strength last year. The only reason that game wasn’t more lopsided was the because of the rebounding acumen of Jai Lewis, who held Anthony Tolliver relatively in check. Imagine what the score would have been if A-Train would have been able to showcase the scoring and rebounding ability that later blossomed last year.

No need to imagine, right? They were going to show George Mason exactly what that looked like on Saturday. Right?

Wrong. It didn’t happen, for the same reason that George Mason struggled back at the beginning of last season. The chemistry isn’t quite right on this Creighton team, yet. And I stress the word “yet”.

Last year’s GMU squad lost a tough game in overtime to then-#18 Wake Forest on the road immediately before the Creighton game. Wake Forest shot 60% in that game, and yet GMU held on until the waning minutes. Sound familiar? Maybe like, oh, I don’t know, Creighton’s ill-fated attempt to defeat Nebraska a week ago? The Huskers shot lights-out, but the Jays were still within six points with a few minutes to play.

After losing to the Jays, the Patriots reeled off three wins against lesser opponents before falling to Old Dominion on the road by a point — an Old Dominion team that was one of the last squads left out of last year’s March Madness, and a team that reached the NIT Final Four in Madison Square Garden.

This is something that this year’s Jays could seemingly encounter: a statement game awaits the Jays (against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a team the Jays handled last season), and then tough contests on the road against Dayton (4-1) and then at home against Xavier (4-1) — both teams who gave Dana Altman fits last year at The Phone Booth and that figure to be playing in this year’s post-season tournaments.

Last year’s Final Four-bound Patriots finished 2005 with a crushing two-point loss on the road at “big-major” Mississippi State. And then they won.

A lot.

They kept winning. They went 16-3 in their last 19 games before the NCAA tournament.

Two of the three losses were to tournament-snub Hofstra; the other was a close road game at league-champion UNC-Wilmington, a team that made the NCAA tournament and came within a hair of beating then-world-beater George Washington in the first round. People couldn’t say that Mason played in a weak conference; there were plenty of tough contests in hostile gymnasiums across the Colonial Athletic Association.

Then came the big scalps. Michigan State. North Carolina. Wichita State. Connecticut. That is a venerable who’s who of teams that contend for national championships year-in and year-out (well, except for Wichita State, who we’ve pretty much owned the last 10 years).

George Mason was David. They were Hickory High. They were Vincent Papale.

And this year’s Creighton team could be those things, too.


After Saturday’s game, Coach Larranaga told the Omaha press, “I think they should go to the Final Four." He said it with a smile. And you can bet it wasn’t an “I’m happy we lost”-smile, either (those don’t exist). It’s because of all people, he knows how difficult it is for a team in a “mid-major” conference to do what his team did last season.

He knows what kinds of breaks have to go your way. What kinds of shots have to fall, or what amount of heart and desire players need to show in the face of adversity.

In short, he knows what the chemistry needs to be in order to succeed.

He would also be the first to tell you, along with Altman and any other coach in any other sport, that chemistry doesn’t just show up on the recruiting trail or during the first practice of the season.

It takes time. Unfortunately, most “mid-major” teams don’t have the luxury of getting all of their ducks in a row before the start of conference season and then relying solely on the power of their conference to aid them in navigating the slippery pool that is being On The Bubble.

If quality “mid-major” teams are lucky enough to get any of the “big-major” schools to play them in the regular season, it happens at the beginning of the year. Teams like Wichita State, Southern Illinois, and Butler have done a tremendous job early this season, but they are teams that brought the majority of their rosters back from successful 2005-2006 campaigns.

And while Creighton looks to have a lot of key pieces in place on this year’s team, many forget that most of the key parts haven’t exactly coexisted on the same court in big games (or in any games, for that matter). Dotzler didn’t become the starting point guard last year until the game in which Funk injured his shoulder for good (at DePaul). Tolliver didn’t complete his transformation from Jeffony Tolliday status until after Funk was out for the remainder of last season (vs. Xavier). Add Dane Watts’ illness-plagued season to the equation, and this year’s roster of returnees turns into a learning experience for Altman and his staff.


But the pieces are in place. There is talent at every position, and at some positions there is a line forming for playing time. It is up to Altman to figure out the best possible combinations and substitution patterns to utilize this team’s strengths. And it is up to the players to buy in to the ideas that: a) everyone should have a role on this team, and b) it is a long, arduous season that will no doubt have its shares of ups and downs.

The debacle at Nebraska was a down. The win against a solid Mason team was an up.

If the Jays want to be this year’s Cinderella, they’ll have to play hard every night. They’ll have to forge ahead through a tough Valley conference schedule. And they’ll have to get some good luck along the way. But when you look at last year’s George Mason team, Creighton looks very similar.

The Jays are just at the beginning of a tough path, a path that Mason traveled last season, but they can do it.

Maybe George Mason left their Glass Slippers in the Qwest Center locker rooms this weekend.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Nebraska 73, Creighton 61

From Ranked to Rank?

Thanksgiving Week is a time when sweet and warm smells permeate throughout kitchens and living rooms across the country; a time that truly smells like fall, complete with crunching leaves, brisk gusts of autumn wind, and a handful of fireplaces sending billowing smoke above rooftops throughout Midwestern neighborhoods.

But before Thanksgiving Week could even commence, before my yearly ritual of inhaling the delightful aromas of turkey, stuffing, and all the fixings, my senses were completely overrun by the stinker in Lincoln that I watched from my living room Saturday night.

(Side note: You might ask why I wasn’t in The Capitol for this game. I get too worked up when we play Nebraska — plain and simple. I remember being completely embarrassed every year when I was in grade school as I would make my way to my desk the morning after Nebraska usually whipped up my beloved Bluejays. Even as we started to win games both in Lincoln and in Omaha, I can’t stand the ignorant you-only-make-the-post-season-because-you-play-in-a-weak-conference comments. I know that I probably let one or two (or dozens) of bad apples ruin the bunch, but that’s the way it is. Or maybe, just maybe, it is because I still have yet to see Creighton Prep win a State Tournament game in the Devaney Center. Probably the first couple of things.)

So, while the smell of Runzas, stale popcorn, and the intoxication on the breaths of Huskers and Jays fans wafted through the air, I was back at the house with close friends and Jays fans, bracing for what we all knew would be a tough game. The Jays never shoot great in Lincoln, but we didn’t expect this: 31% in the second half, 37.5% for the game, and a loss.

I’m sure that the Jays fans in attendance didn’t expect to smell the opponents’ nets burning, either. The Cornhuskers — a team comprised of some talented, if inexperienced, shooters and smallish guards — were absolutely on fire from the field: 68% from the field for the game (60% and 77% per half, respectively), with an astounding 57% from the three-point arc for the contest. Sure, they had their fair share of open looks, but some of the Bluejays caught some detailed whiffs of Husker armpits during the game, too — on at least three occasions, Nebraska perimeter shots went down even with a hand (or two) in their face and the shot clock expiring.

The Jays played good enough defense to take a three-point lead to the locker room, but who would have thought that the Huskers would shoot almost 20-percentage points HIGHER in the second half after making 12 of their 20 shots in the first frame? Meanwhile, the Jays came out from halftime, stayed close but couldn’t get big shots to fall when they needed them to go, and then spent the last 10 minutes of the game hoisting three-pointer after three-pointer until time ran out and you could invariably smell the rubber burning from all the Jays fans’ tires peeling out of the parking lots, trying to get home as quickly as possible to avoid drunken and boisterous celebrations from the Husker faithful.

How did everything come crumbling down so quickly? Well, the higher you are the harder the fall — in my season preview, I talked about out-of-whack preseason predictions and whether or not this year’s Bluejay team will be able to handle the attention and accolades that were given to them even before the season tipped off. And only a seriously delusional “fan” would think that the Jays’ season is in trouble. Everyone kind of rolls their eyes when they read what Dana Altman has to say in the early-season newspaper articles, about how his team has a long ways to go and how they don’t understand what it takes to accomplish what they’re aiming for. But, he’s right. The effort and charisma didn’t seem to be there from the Boys in Blue, or at least it didn’t translate across the Nebraska public television airwaves.

What did translate, however, was the intensity of the message Altman kept trying to drill into his team during sideline huddles at timeouts. A few players didn’t keep up on defense and made lazy passes on offense, and those same players no doubt could smell Dana’s breath as he hollered at them during the stoppages in play. And I don’t even want to know what rancid mixture of sweat and old stuffy wood the Old Gym at the Vinardi Center smells like after Monday’s closed-door practice. The players might get to enjoy some Thanksgiving Day treats, but they won’t do it without being sore; this team needs repetitions and practice and the opportunity to gel. The offense could use some rhythm lessons from Emmitt and Mario.

Some Jays fans are going to great lengths to bemoan this team and how overrated they are. But, Altman never asked for this team to be rated in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it was quite the opposite — one can argue that Dana’s best teams are the underdog types — and he has said numerous times that the rankings really don’t mean anything, especially early in the season. Altman is still learning with this team, too; he has to figure out a way to get talent on the floor, but make sure the talented guys know what is going on. It is going to take awhile, but that is ultimately what this team’s goal was in the beginning of the season — to be playing its best basketball at the end of the year.

So forget the rank smell from Saturday night’s stinker, enjoy the amazing Thanksgiving scents rising from your stoves and ovens this week, and prepare to take a big whiff of redemption and hustle this Saturday against last year’s Final Four participant George Mason, who are looking to repay Creighton for a 20-point loss the Jays dolled out last November.

Hopefully that smell tickling my nose is a victory on the horizon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

#20 Creighton 78, Mississippi Valley State 42

The Sky Isn’t Falling, but Neither are Jumpers

Another exhilarating year of Creighton Bluejay basketball is upon us, which means four things:

1. My cursing problem escalates for the better part of five months (during which I’ll even go so far as to give up cussing for Lent);

2. I will quench my thirst for the special Qwest Center Bud Light on average of twice per week;

3. My not-so-extensive collection of navy blue Creighton t-shirts will begin its frequent rotation, and the light shredding of fabric on the tip of my navy blue Creighton cap will continue;

4. I’ll start overreacting about each and every play of the Jays’ two exhibition games.

Ah, but this is a new year. I’ve turned over a new leaf. This year is going to be different. No more cursing (OK, that’s probably a stretch). I’m a year older, a year wiser, and I’m not going to overreact about the exhibition games — at least not in this blog. Last year, I wrote about the Chicken Little effect that is brought on by early-season basketball, and how I wasn’t going to let it pertain to me. But, then I used hundreds of words to describe an exhibition game — a game that didn’t even count in the record books.

So, I wrote a simple season preview and decided not to focus too much time or energy on those first two games. Granted, at times it looked like the Jays players went ahead with that same strategy, but I knew that they’d come out for the home opener and treat the Phone Booth Phaithful to some great effort. Dana Altman’s Jays did not disappoint, and because of that I didn’t drop too many cuss words (as far as you know).

Since everyone who dressed played (with the exception of Josh Dotzler, who is still on the recovery trail from knee surgery), and since I didn’t do individual player or position previews in the last installment of Bluejay Basketball, let’s start with the starters and move to the men off the maple.

  • Anthony Tolliver was tied for the team lead in scoring (14 points), was perfect from the free throw line (6 for 6), grabbed 3 rebounds, and dished 3 assists in 23 minutes. A-Train — like the rest of his teammates — seemed to be a little more fired up for this game than the two exhibition contests, and it showed on the defensive end. Mississippi Valley State featured 7-footer Ronald Alexander, who tried his hardest to post up Tolliver and then Altman’s post-playing subs the entire night. Alexander’s final line: 2 points on 1-6 shooting from the field. Anthony was active and agile while guarding Alexander, exhibiting the kind of post defense that will make him one of the toughest low-block defenders in the Missouri Valley Conference.

  • Nate Funk’s shot wasn’t falling with the consistency that Creighton fans have grown accustom to, but he still scored 13 points (on 5-11 shooting) and grabbed 5 rebounds while drawing a great deal of attention by Delta Devil defenders. He did hit a couple of three-pointers, and his command of the offensive and defensive ends is spectacular. Simply put, he plays and carries himself like a kid who doesn’t want to leave anything in the tank during his senior season.

  • Nick Porter tied with Tolliver for the team led in points and grabbed a team-high 7 rebounds, but the best part of his night was his continued focus on driving the ball to the hoop and drawing contact. He’s deceptively quick with the basketball in his hand, and he elevates just enough to finish some tough hoops in traffic. He even hit 6 of his 7 free throws, a problem that plagued both Nick individually and the team as a whole last season.

  • Dane Watts continues to struggle with his shot, both from the field and at the charity stripe. He finished with 8 points, but was just 2-10 from the field (including 0-4 from long range). But just like his teammates, he played with more passion on the defensive side of things, which led to 3 steals, a block, and 5 rebounds on the night. Hopefully the shots will start falling for Dane, as he looks to bounce back from last year’s mono-ridden season.

  • Nick Bahe is keeping the point guard spot warm for Dotzler (last year’s starter-before-injury) and freshman Isacc Miles, who looks more and more like a difference-maker at either one of the guard positions. I’ll include Miles in this conversation about the starters because he played the most minutes (29) of any Jay and came off the bench so quickly (around the 18:30 mark in the first half) that he might as well have been the starter.

    Both Bahe and Miles directed the offense relatively cleanly — just 2 turnovers between the two of them in a combined 49 minutes of play — but there is no question that the 6’2”, 205-pound Miles has the speed and court knowledge to lead this offense in the absence of Dotzler. Bahe’s outside shot shows promise, and he’ll always find his way on to the court because he’s a fiery competitor. Last year we barely had enough guys to play the point in a two-team scrimmage in practice; now we’ve got at least three guys who, when healthy, can seemingly lead this team. A nice problem to have, I’d say.

  • As for the other substitutes, Brice Nengsu took another step toward fully unleashing the pure athleticism that continues to tease Creighton hoops hopefuls. His effort on defense and in rebounding is hopefully just the beginning of things to come; he has a tremendous shot, and it is evident that he gets more comfortable on offense as he’s making a difference on the defensive end. He had one year to incubate in Altman’s system, and he should be a difference-maker off the bench in each game by either hitting some medium- to long-range jump shots or throwing his body around when Altman calls for the full- or medium-court press.

  • In fact, what is most impressive about the Creighton bench (aside from the depth and the sheer number of bodies that the coaching staff has to work with during practice) is the athleticism and physical prowess of our players. These guys look like they should be on the court, playing high-level D-I basketball. When Ty Morrison and Kenny Lawson Jr. are on the court, their arms and legs cut off seemingly all of the opponent’s passing lanes. They are both getting used to the speed of the game — Morrison from the junior college ranks and during his ongoing battle with Graves Disease, and Lawson as a fresh-faced 18-year-old from sunny California — but there is no denying that they’ll both make their fair share of plays in the immediate future for this team.

  • And what would a successful night at The Phone Booth be without sightings of arguably the two hardest-working Bluejays: Manny Gakou and Dustin Sitzmann.

  • The Big Man is down to 255 pounds — that’s right, down from almost 300 lbs. — and he looks agile and, pardon the pun, hungry to get the basketball. He wastes little time once he gets the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his 5 field goal attempts in 10 minutes of action (he scored 7 points and grabbed 4 rebounds, too). And don’t let the drop in weight fool you, he still throws guys around. He was whistled for 4 fouls, and at least two of them were the result of the referee just not knowing what to call after seeing a kid in a green “Valley” jersey fly three feet in the air. And everyone on the team tried to get Dustin the ball, but he was unable to get a shot off in his 2 minutes of action.

So, the sky isn’t falling, and they haven’t won a Valley league game or the league tournament or clinched a birth in the Big Dance, but victory #1 was a step in the right direction. The beer tasted as good as ever, the crowd was enormous for a season opener against a sub-par opponent, and I was able to find a clean navy blue shirt to ring in the occasion.

Now, if only I could work on that cursing issue…

Monday, November 13, 2006

Season Preview: Creighton Is Critics’ Choice

Four-Star Jays Burdened/Blessed With Eight-Star Expectations

Well, here we are. This is the third season preview I’ve thrown together for you folks, and it comes as close to the season as possible for a reason: I wanted to see just how much the preseason publicity for this year’s Jays team could swell before the schedule tipped off.

The warmer months did not disappoint. Fresh from watching the Qwest Center maintenance staff mop the court dry after last March’s NIT debacle against Miami, Dana Altman and his staff put the finishing touches on a recruiting class ranked arguably as one of the finest to arrive on campus together in school history.

The dead heat of summer provided rabid basketball fan the chance to sweat in the same gymnasiums as their favorite current and future Bluejays; die-hard Creighton fans packed the newly-formed Council Bluffs Summer League to watch Nate Funk return from injury, Anthony Tolliver look even more improved from last season, and other Jays work on getting healthy and developing their skills before school started.

And just as the members of Altman’s 2006 recruiting class were buying their books and getting used to their class schedules, the coaching staff was already laying more bricks in the foundation for future Bluejay Basketball success. The Jays capitalized on recent successes, renovations to campus, and the regal Qwest Center to recruit three more solid players for the 2007 class.

And in this day and age, when technology and Internet access are seemingly everywhere, the developments above did not go unnoticed by observers both inside and outside of the Big O. Injuries knocked last year’s lofty expectations to the ground, first in December when Funk was lost for the season and then in early February when freshman point guard Josh Dotzler sustained a severe knee injury against Southern Illinois. But with Funk starting this season healthy, and Dotzler expected to return to action sometime before Missouri Valley Conference play begins, anticipation from fans and media pundits alike is at never-before-seen levels.

But how much of these expectations and preseason hype are warranted, or even relevant, for a team currently relying on numerous “ifs”? There are some things that no one can dispute; things that surely have to give the coaching staff some amount of stability when trying to infuse a group of newcomers with proven veterans while staring down one of the most challenging schedules in recent Creighton basketball history.
  • The presence of Funk and Tolliver: The former is the preseason favorite to win Valley Player of the Year, the later was a second-team All-Valley selection last year and joins Funk on the preseason first-team list this year.

  • Starting the season with four of last year’s five starters: Joining Funk and Tolliver are Nick Porter -- last year’s Valley Newcomer of the Year – and Dane Watts, a member of the 2005 Valley All-Freshman team. Those four have played in many Valley battles, and each of them has won games for the Bluejays in the past couple of years.

  • Beginning fall practice with 10 players who either played or practiced with last year’s squad: It is impossible to teach experience, no matter how good of a coach Altman is, and this team is loaded with guys who have been around the program for at least two years of preseason conditioning and practice.

  • Fielding arguably one of Creighton’s deepest and most athletic benches in school history: Returning role players Pierce Hibma, Brice Nengsu, Manny Gakou, and Dustin Sitzmann mesh with newcomers Isacc Miles, Ty Morrison, Kenny Lawson Jr., and Nick Bahe to give Altman’s staff a multitude of different line-ups and substitution options.

  • Actually being able to practice with full squads: Last year’s injuries depleted what was already a suspect bench. This year, throw in red/greyshirt candidates Casey Harriman, D’Angalo Jackson, Chad Millard, and Aaron Brandt, with all of the guys mentioned above, and the coaching staff can do a lot of different things in practice.

But do these aspects of this year’s team help offset some of the questions that look to ground this year’s team, even before it takes flight?

  • The injuries: Dotzler was just recently cleared by doctors to go full-speed again, but Altman continues to emphasize that the sophomore point guard is ready for game action. Until Josh comes back, Bahe and Miles will get the bulk of the point guard minutes, which surely makes for some interesting possessions given as Bahe is playing significant minutes for the first time in his college career (he transferred from Kansas, where his time on the court was limited) and Miles is a true freshman still trying to adjust to the added responsibilities of both a college basketball player and a college student.

    Hibma is also plagued by injuries, something that has been a consistent part of each of his college seasons. And Jackson, who was brought in as a possible back-up at point guard in case Dotzler didn’t get healthy, has been struggling to get back from an ankle injury that has sidelined him for the majority of the last year.

  • The non-conference schedule: Due to RPI and strength-of-schedule criteria for determining inclusion and seeding the NCAA tournament, colleges and universities need to be as aggressive as possible in their non-conference scheduling. Obviously, none of the big-name schools across the country are lining up to play the Jays, but Creighton has its hands full with some challenging games. Nebraska (no matter how overmatched they might be, roster-wise), George Mason, Xavier, Dayton, Fresno State, and any of the teams in the Rainbow Classic tournament will give the Jays all they can handle.

  • The Valley: Last year was a sweet one for the 100-year-old Missouri Valley Conference. Both Bradley and Wichita State played in the Sweet 16, and Southern Illinois Northern Iowa joined them in the Big Dance. Last year’s Player of the Year, WSU’s Paul Miller, is gone, but each of the best teams in the Valley brings back a core nucleus of successful and talent players who have all had great games in conference play. Last year was a record-setting one for the conference; don’t be surprised if it happens again.

Perhaps the biggest question, or the most important factor affecting the possible success of this year’s Jays squad, is whether or not the members of this team are ready for the responsibilities that come with expectations. It really doesn’t matter if the expectations are warranted or not. I liken preseason polls and accolades to CD and album reviews. Music critics have endorsed some pretty awful music in the past, and some really great stuff has gone unnoticed by a majority of the population. Why? Well, some journalists and critics just piggy-back on the ideas of others, and when they need to review an album or an artist, they just regurgitate the same descriptors and track reviews that the other writers gave the record. Some critics know what they’re talking about; some don’t. But, because of the Internet and the ability it gives for anyone to post their idiotic ramblings about music or sports (see: this blog), the number of these critics has amplified in the past 10 years. This makes everyone an “expert,” and all of these “experts” create lists.

Which leads us to the insane amount of preseason publicity garnered by this year’s Jays, the total of which is far too long to list on this site. The gist of it is that regardless of whether these writers follow the Jays incessantly, or if they haven’t seen them play more than one or two games in the past couple of years, the bandwagon has been cleaned off, gassed up, and is charging full-boar at the start of the season. These guys could just be ripping off each others’ articles, and they might not know Pierce Hibma from Pierce Brosnan, but it is out there for the world to read.

And, if you listen to Altman, those reading these lists and rankings include his own players. Whether or not the deserve it, they’re ranked in the preseason coaches poll (#23 at the time this was written) and in the Associated Press poll (#19) – the AP honor is the first of its kind to start as season in school history. If you listen to the players, they say their ultimate goal is to be playing their best basketball at the end of the season. But if they focus too much on preseason rankings and the “expert” lists, they’ll have to win automatic bids to play in the Big Dance. All the pieces are in place; they just need a lot of focus, a lot of execution, and that great glue called luck to help form the puzzle that everyone close to the program can see — a championship-caliber basketball team.

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