Season Preview: Creighton Is Critics’ Choice
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.