Thursday, January 18, 2007

Creighton 79, Drake 56; CU 62, UNI 54; Wichita St. 62, CU 59

All Aboard the A-Train

If there is one player who has been the indirect focus of more of these random blog postings than any other, it would have to be Anthony Tolliver. During the last three years, this site has chronicled the emergence of Tolliver from injured youngster (and part of the Jeffony Tolliday personification) to dominant low- and medium-post man and vocal leader of Creighton basketball.

He has had some very memorable games — everyone in Bluejay Nation will remember where they were and how loud they yelled when he hit his baseline jumper to beat Wichita State in 2006 — but his progression as a college basketball player has been a step-by-step process spanning years of hard work and some tough situations.

But no matter how you categorize his three-and-a-half seasons as a Bluejays, it is impossible to deny the truth — the A-Train is the most important player in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Are You Kidding Me?

That subtitle can be used two ways.

First, I imagine all of the Missouri State, Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa, and Wichita State fans screaming at the top of their lungs (or in MSU’s case, making somewhat-witty signs) about Tolliver being the most indispensable player in The Valley of Death. Heck, even other Creighton fans would say this year’s Jays team starts and ends with Nate Funk.

Second, I think about that statement — are you kidding me? — as my permanent mindset when I watch Tolliver play.

In Valley play so far this season, only three players are in the top 10 of scoring, rebounding, and shooting percentage: Evansville’s Matt Webster, SIU’s Randal Falker, and Tolliver. UNI’s Grant Stout is close, as he leads the Valley in rebounding and is the top 10 of scoring.

However, Tolliver leaps to the top of that short list, because he has head-to-head wins against Webster’s Purple Aces and Stout’s Panthers. (Falker and the Salukis come to the Qwest Center Saturday for the teams’ first showdown of the season.)

Because winning is all that matters in conference season, folks. And all Tolliver has done is lead the Jays to a 5-2 start in conference play.

It started against Missouri State, when Tolliver posted 20 points and 6 rebounds. Defensively, he completely changed the last three minutes of the game with a blocked shot and an altered shot that effectively completed Missouri State’s meltdown and gave the Jays the Valley opener for yet another season.

How did he follow it up in his next game? Only by going a perfect 11 of 11 from the field for 23 points, grab 9 rebounds, and record 2 more steals in a record-setting win against Illinois State.

Tolliver’s great conference games: 2
Jays’ conference record: 2-0

And if that wasn’t enough evidence for you, then came the Indiana State road game (read: one of those “NEED” road games in The Valley of Death.

In a game the Jays lost by 3 points, A-Train went 3-11 from the field, 0-1 from the free-throw line, and turned the ball over twice. The Sycamores double-teamed Tolliver frequently, and he made great passes out of the double-teams, only to have his teammates clank missed shots at the rim like they were shooting paintballs. Offensively, he couldn’t convert, and the Jays had their first loss of the conference slate (albeit on the road).

How would Tolliver fare in his showdown with The Ultimate Warrior, Evansville’s Webster (he’s called that because he uses every dirty trick in the professional wrestling handbook to draw contact, create distance for himself from the defender, and guard his opponent)? How does 14 points (on 6-7 shooting), 2 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 1 steal sound? Most importantly, how does a 75-62 road win sound? In a place where Southern Illinois couldn’t win?


Tolliver’s great Valley games: 3
Jays’ conference record: 3-1

Dominating the Hawkeye State

Starting to see a pattern? You would have thought that Dr. Tom Davis did, as he brought his Drake Bulldogs to The Phone Booth last week to play in front of what is the largest crowd in school (and state) history (16,315). In fact, it was the biggest crowd to see two Valley teams play in the regular season in history.

I hope all 16,000-plus people remember A-Train’s performance, because it is one that will rarely if ever be repeated again. In a game that saw Creighton record its best team shooting percentage performance in school history, Tolliver was the toast of the team.

18 points. 6 rebounds. 6 assists. 5 blocks. 1 big Jays win.

According to Stats Inc., that is the best stat line in the nation since 2006 National Champion Florida’s Joakim Noah put up similar numbers in last year’s NCAA tournament.

It was a special night, and it continued as the Jays traveled northeast to take on Valley co-leader Northern Iowa. As they Jays opened up to a huge first-half lead, Tolliver was well on his way to another stellar night. He posted 17 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block, while keeping his counterpart Stout in check for most of the game.

So, just in case you’re scoring at home:

Tolliver’s great MVC games: 5
Jays’ conference record: 5-1

Still Work To Do

The proof is in the pudding, folks, and in this case the proof stands 6 foot 9 inches tall, 245 pounds strong, and is among one of the brightest players in The Valley of Death. His domination of the two Iowa MVC teams earned him Valley Player of the Week honors, and his work in the classroom set him up for Scholar-Athlete of the Week, as well.

But all of those awards couldn’t stop A-Train from picking up two early fouls against Wichita State, and therein lies a problem.

If, for whatever reason, Tolliver finds himself in foul trouble, the Jays are extremely limited in what they can do offensively in the post. A-Train scored just 9 points against a Shockers team that doesn’t field a huge frontcourt, and it was just the kind of match-up Tolliver has feasted on in his career. He grabbed 6 rebounds, but just like the rest of his teammates, his 3 assists were offset by 3 turnovers (the team tallied 11 assists and 14 turnovers).

And again, the most important stat: The Jays lost.

It was one of those “want” road games — If you told Dana Altman and the rest of the Jays that they’d be 1-1 on the UNI/WSU road trip, they would probably take it. However, the Jays had so many opportunities to win the game, it was a giveaway in the worst way for Creighton.

Tolliver’s great conference games: 5
Tolliver’s sub-par contests: 2
Jays’ conference record: 5-2

The math isn’t that difficult, even for a guy like me who hates crunching numbers. In fact, the situation is quite simple.

Get Anthony involved + Teammates hit some open outside shots + Keep defending well + Limit stupid (or as Altman called some of Nick Porter’s spots in the WSU game, “not smart”) plays = good outcome for the Jays.

The Jays, including Tolliver, didn’t keep up their end of that equation against the Shox, and they lost. You can bet the team will come into tonight’s home game against Bradley looking to plug in the right numbers and effort and maximize that formula.

And it all starts aboard the A-Train.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Indiana State 55, Creighton 52; Creighton 75, Evansville 62

AM Radio

Well, needless to say, things have been busy around Bluejay Basketball Land.

It has been nearly two weeks since last we spoke, and those 14 days and nights have seen the emergence of the Missouri Valley Conference as a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, Macho-Man-Randy-Savage-Off-The-Top-Rope college basketball league.

Creighton started Valley play over New Year’s weekend, with a come-from-behind win against Missouri State and a hold-on-tight win against Illinois State. However, the first real treat of 2007 (read: sarcasm) was waiting in John Cougar Mellencamp’s home state of Indiana. But instead of “Cherry Bombs,” the Jays met Sycamores, and in the place of “Pink Houses” and “Thundering Hearts” there were Purple Aces.

One of the ways in which Jays fans have become spoiled in recent years — aside from the almost unparalleled continued success among MVC teams and the construction and fulfillment of The Qwest Center — is the proliferation of Creighton Basketball games shown on television.

If you are able to attend Jays home games, and you have access to local and cable television in the Omaha metro area, you’ll see a total of 29 Jays games this year, not including postseason play. If you don’t live in Omaha but you have cable television, you’ll be able to watch 10 Creighton preseason or regular season games.

But no matter where you live, outside of Terre Haute, no one could watch Creighton’s road game at Indiana State. Apparently, no on in Terre Haute thought much to watch it either, as reported attendance for the game was less than 4,000.

Maybe the rest of the Sycamore Faithful knew something those 4,000 didn’t — that the Sycs and the Jays would combine to shoot 38% and keep basketball backboard and rim suppliers in Western Indiana in business for at least another week.

And what’s worse? The Jays dropped one of the “need” road games on their schedule.

No, wait. What’s worse than that? Not being able to watch it on TV.

I’ll get to the game in a second, but guess what? I didn’t get to watch Creighton’s game at Evansville on television, either. But, that was my choice. I’m getting married. My fiancé and I went back to her hometown to do some wedding planning that weekend, and so I skipped watching the game.

But before you say, “Man, how could you miss watching the game to do something you could do any other weekend.” My answer is two-fold: 1.) When it is time to plan a wedding, it is every couple in Central Iowa for themselves (just think of it as thousands of other couples getting married, scrounging after DJs and photographers like Southern Illinois defenders), and 2.) You obviously don’t know my fiancé or my future parents-in-law.

They hail from the land that produced The Ankeny Bulldog, Ryan Sears. They fly a Jays flag in the front yard. They are Jays Fans, tried and true, so much so that Saturday dinner revolved that weekend around listening to a strong Big Sports 590 signal on the home stereo, inviting T. Scott Marr and Kevin Sarver into the home.

Not Quite Hickory High

That’s kind of the focus of this installment. Kickin’ it old school. Reminiscing about the good (read: bad) old days when, before television, die-hard fans would huddle up around the stereos in their homes or kids (like me) would tune in their boom boxes in their rooms and take in the descriptions of all kinds of sports, including Bluejay Basketball. I took in the Indiana trip just like Shooter (Dennis Hopper) listened to Hickory High’s run to the Indiana State Title from his hospital bed.

And just like Shooter, I felt like I had one big hangover after listening to the Indiana State loss. Let’s just say Jimmy Chitwood wasn’t exactly in the building.

After shooting 53% against Missouri State and a then-Phone Booth record 64% against Illinois State, the Jays managed a paltry 38% on the road against the Sycamores, getting double-digit scoring from just Nate Funk (17 points) and Nick Porter (15 points). However, Creighton’s scoring defense again proved effective, limiting ISU to just 38% shooting as a team and allowing just one Syc to reach double figures (Marico Stinson with 12 points).

Both teams had less than 10 turnovers and came out even in the rebounding column, but Creighton just couldn’t get over the hump in the second half. After two gutsy performances at The Q, life on the road in The Valley of Death proved terrifying in this team’s first encounter with a conference away game.

After such a tepid effort offensively, things didn’t look to get markedly better with a quick turnaround and a game two days later in Evansville, where the Purple Aces always play the Jays tough. However, the Jays came out shooting the ball well against Steve Merfeld’s Aces, and they opened up a double-digit lead midway through the first half. But, just like so many times before during this rollercoaster season, the Jays gave up the lead — and momentum — before halftime, allowing Evansville to shoot 58% in the first 20 minutes and stake claim to a 38-35 lead at the intermission.

And then it was time for the defense to shine.

“Clank” Go the Aces

What does a 22% shooting percentage look like? I don’t know, because I was pacing back and forth across my future parents-in-law’s home, listening to 590. I can tell you, though, that 22% sounds great as a fan of the defense. Anthony Tolliver’s 4 blocks sound great. The clanks made by 21 missed shots in the second half by the Purple Aces is music to my ears, to be honest. The Jays made sure not to lose this “need” road game, shooting 52% in the second half.

In fact, it was the most balanced scoring effort of the season for the Jays, with Isacc Miles (15 points), Funk and Tolliver (14 points each), and Porter (12 points) going for double digits, and Nick Bahe (9 points) and Dane Watts (8 points) getting close, too. It was another one of the five “need” road games (Indiana State, Drake, Bradley, and Illinois State being the others) that the Jays must have if they want to win a Valley regular season title or be considered for an NCAA at-large birth.

Sure, it would have been great to watch the games (thanks to the wonders of digital recording, I was able to watch the CU-EU game in what seemed like half the time when I got back to The Big O), but there is something special about listening to a broadcast on AM radio. Maybe its because I do play-by-play for local sports as a hobby, or maybe its because I have such fond memories of listening to sports on the radio as a kid, but every once and awhile it is nice to make some dinner, chill out, and pace back and forth in the comfort of my own home (or the home of my future parents-in-law, if they’ll still have me).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Creighton 77, Missouri State 74; Creighton 79, Illinois State 71

Happy New Year

The New Year is upon us, and Creighton closed out 2006 and brought in 2007 with two entertaining, gut-wrenching wins in front of huge throngs of Phone Booth Phanatics.

The wins over Missouri State and Illinois State were the culmination of many holiday time events, including the Jays coming up just short of a Rainbow Classic Tournament championship before Christmas, coveted junior college recruit Ty Morrison quitting the team after getting back from Hawai’i, and beginning what will prove to be the most difficult Missouri Valley Conference season in Altman’s tenure.

And they begin a year that I’m hoping will bring unprecedented success for the beloved Bluejays. It’s my fortune, after all.


Back in the summer, I swung by Rice Bowl, the favorite Chinese food restaurant of many a Creighton student and alumnus, to pick up a little something for dinner one night. Beneath my tin and paper takeout container and strewn amongst the chopsticks I wouldn’t use or the double-digit soy sauce packets that would quickly find the trash, lay a fortune cookie.

The merits or lack thereof of fortune cookies can be debated relentlessly, but I don’t usually put much stock into what a cookie says (unless, of course, the Keebler Elves were to appear to me in my sleep and give me instructions about how to join their crew or something).

However, on this (hopefully) fateful night, my fortune cookie read this:

“Your sports team will be very successful this year.”

Talk about giving me something to think about. Which of “my” sports teams did Confucius mean? When I got this magical dessert, the Cubs were in the midst of one of their worst swoons in a few years. So, that crossed them off the list. The Bears are the number one seed in the NFC and one of the most successful NFL teams this season. But, with Brian Urlacher and the rest of that swift and strong defense, I don’t think Confucius would need to help any with the Monsters of the Midway succeeding in a week NFC North division.

So I turned my thoughts to this season’s Creighton Bluejays. Seemingly every reporter covering Dana Altman’s team must have received the same fortune cookie last summer, because you couldn’t read two basketball-based Web sites or the local newspaper without seeing “preseason top 25” or “preseason favorite” or “this year’s George Mason.”

And so what if the cookie technically says “this year” and I received the cookie in 2006. Does that mean I used all of my fortune up in 2006 with a successful Bears campaign, which will surely fizzle in the playoffs because of the power of the cookie? I doubt it, as Rex Grossman and a shady secondary will have more input on those happenings than any Chinese philosopher.

So, just like any resolution for a new year, I’m going to take ownership of the situation.

I’m replacing “this year” with “this season,” and I’m using the two wins at home over Missouri State and ISU as a jumpstart to my fortune — and the fortunes of this team.


The Rollercoaster

What would it look like to watch yourself on national television while you ride a rollercoaster? And I’m not talking about one of the kiddie coasters at the old Peony Park — I’m talking a tipsy-turvy, upside-down, corkscrew coaster. Well, I know now, after getting home from The Q last Saturday and watching the DVR version of Creighton’s three point win over SMS … er, I mean, Missouri State.

In the last 5 minutes of the game, after the Jays had blown a double-digit lead (again) and Missouri State had jumped out to a double-digit lead, I was ready to leave. My toe hurt (the repercussion of kicking the hockey board in the first row of Section 123 and breaking my toenail), my voice hurt (from screaming so loudly at both the opposing players and the Jays), and my eyes hurt (from watching the Jays dribble the ball of their feet and hoist errant shots for what seemed like an eternity in the second half).

But that’s when Confucius stepped in. Or was it Nate Funk and Anthony Tolliver? Whomever it was, they changed the course of this year’s Jays team, and they did it in stunning fashion, closing out what has to be ranked as the second most exciting game in Qwest Center OMAHA history (behind last season’s Wichita State game).

With the third-largest crowd in The Q’s history already spent from cheering on a blistering performance in the first half and then watching as Blake Ahern (seriously, graduate already) and the rest of the Bears carved up the Jays in the second half, the 4:38 mark in the second half found MSU with an 11 point lead and ever drip of momentum on their side.

What happened in the next 4 minutes or so was a result of 3 missed free throws by the Bears, heady defensive play by the Jays, and Funk and Tolliver leading the way on an 18-3 run to finish out the game and send more than 15,000 people home happy.

Funk scored 15 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, while going perfect from the free throw line (6-6) in the second frame. Tolliver poured in 10 second-half points, but it was his block, steal, and three big defensive rebounds that paced the energy and hustle for the Bluejays in the last 5 minutes of the contest.

And then there is Dane Watts, whose three-pointer with 57 seconds left gave the Jays their first lead since the 14:25 mark in the second half. Sure, it looked like he traveled, but for every three-pointer that Houston or Fresno State made when they traveled, I’ll take the good fortune (thanks, Confucius).

So, obviously the rollercoaster analogy is correct, but what about watching yourself on one?

Well, the first couple rows of Section 123 were visible during ESPN2’s broadcast of the game, and a couple of people in the rows displayed definite coping mechanisms. One of us could barely watch, legs shaking, while the Jays nipped away at the lead. One of us fluttered our hands, nervousness taking over the body. And then there was me. I was the guy with my hands on my head the entire time. I couldn’t believe what was happening … we were finally catching some breaks (missed free throws) and making the other team pay for their mistakes (hitting some shots, making some free throws, playing solid defense down the stretch).

So thanks, Confucius, for helping the Jays out. I’ve got the fortune taped to my computer screen, and I’m counting on it to get the squad through some tough spots.

Like New Year’s Day, for instance. Illinois State came to town, with everyone in The Q still buzzing about the Missouri State win. Like assistant coach Brian Fish said on the radio after the Jays beat ISU 79-71, it was a trap game if there ever was one.

And ISU’s Osiris Eldridge did all he could to trap the Jays. He scored 28 points on 10-17 shooting from the field, including 8 three-pointers, which is a new Phone Booth record for most three-pointers in one game. ISU shot 47% for the game, and made it a contest down the stretch, as the Jays just couldn’t pull away.

But, Tolliver did all he could to finish the contest. It was literally a perfect way to start 2007 for A-Train, as he went 11-11 from the field for 23 points. His only miss was one free throw, but he bolstered his scoring with 9 rebounds and a couple of steals. So much for being tired after playing a bulk of minutes in the MSU rollercoaster game, huh? Funk pitched in with another 19 points (on 6-10 shooting), and the Jays shot 64% from the field for the game (a number rarely imaginable for this team this season coming into this game).

But, Confucius (or some of the Jays guards) decided to make it interesting and just give ISU the ball. 18 turnovers in total plagued the Jays, especially in the waning minutes when ISU cut a 14-point deficit to an 8-point loss in the final minute. Too little, too late?

Actually, just a little too much Tolliver, Funk, and a guy named Confucius.
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