Creighton 58, George Mason 56
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.
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.