Monday, February 26, 2007

Trying to Stay On Track

Five games have passed since I last checked in. Five games that, as luck (or non-luck, in this case) would have it, put the Jays squarely in the category that no self-respecting college basketball fan wants to get too familiar with these days: On the Bubble.

(Side note: Can’t we come up with something besides “the Bubble” when discussing college basketball teams that may or may not make the NCAA tournament field? Can the NCAA run a contest for this? Maybe they could offer up some of the millions upon millions of dollars they make off of collegiate student-athletes every year and hold a naming contest? Yeah, probably not.)

Last time I checked in, Creighton claimed a 17-7 record and looked to be more “in” than “out” when it came time for the Web-based prognosticators and sports reporters-turned-Swamis to talk tournament brackets. But with a 6-point lead on the road against Southern Illinois with about 10 minutes to play in the second half, the Jays jumped the track and have lost three of their last five games.


You may ask why I use the “jump the track” imagery. So, here’s the story (an I have permission from my fiancé to use this for entertainment purposes, so don’t think I’m being inconsiderate for putting this out there. This, like so many others that came before it, is her idea for the Bluejay Basketball blog entry):

Last week, the day after Creighton suffered what will only be referred to (even later in the game recap) as “a late-season slip up,” my fiancé treated her car to a drive through the car wash. No hard labor for her; she was intent on utilizing one of the “please trust us, align your wheels blindly and drive into a track, and then put your car in neutral while we pull your wheels electronically” washes.

I was not with her, but she made contact with me shortly after pulling into the machine and starting her wash cycle. After her car passed the first set of spinning brush-thingies, her car jumped the track, her driver’s side wheel ended up outside of the far wall of the track, and her car was stuck in a person-less car wash.

Not wanting to get out and taste a mouthful of mushy brushes and soapy water, she waited until the cycle finished, she ran up to the gas station’s front counter, and regaled the workers with her harrowing tale of ducking and dashing through a car wash.

How does your car jump a car wash track? Bad things happen when you stick yourself in neutral. What seemed like an easy fix — the employees told her it had happened before, and that they would just call some one and it would get fixed — took hours of sitting at a gas station and then finally having to pull a trick that even an Eagle Scout would be proud of in order to drive out of the car wash, car half-clean, a few hours after entering the machine.

If your wheels are in neutral for any significant length of time, you can jump the track and stall. And it takes more effort than you’d think to get things back on track. Just ask the Jays.


#21 Southern Illinois 72, Creighton 68

Wow, for as much as the home loss to the Salukis hurt, the Jays played better in the road version. Sure, Creighton seemingly couldn’t hit a bucket in the first 8 or so minutes of the game, but who knew; Texas Tech and Oklahoma State were too busy tripping over each other and playing in double overtime, so Jays fans didn’t get to see the first couple minutes of the game.

SIU staked an 8-point lead in the first half, but the Jays nibbled and nibbled until it was just a 2-point deficit at the break. Nate Funk scored 12 first-half points, and was joined by Dane Watts, Nick Porter, and Anthony Tolliver with 7 each. But, the Jays let Matt Shaw get hot from outside, and he (12 points) and Jamaal Tatum (11 points) paced the Salukis.

SIU wasn’t catching all of the breaks from officials, though, and were whistled for 14 first-half fouls. This, coupled with Creighton’s 5 steals (to SIU’s 1 pick) showed that CU came out aggressively and intent on stopping what has become a burden of a losing streak to Southern.

Creighton pushing SIU defensively in the second half, and the Jays recorded 7 steals in the second stanza. However, our best player was limited to just one shot from the field. Just one shot. ONE. Still, Creighton shot really well in the second half (61%), and the Jays had an 8-point lead halfway through the last half.

Funk got just one shot off in the second half in the 72-68 loss at Southern Illinois

But Creighton still couldn’t win. They still couldn’t beat SIU. Southern Illinois shot a Missouri Valley Conference single-half record 86% from the field in the second half; they missed TWO shots. TWO.

And what’s worse still? Creighton had a chance to tie or win at the end of the game! Forget the shooting percentages. Forget that Funk took just one second-half shot. He had the ball in his hand with less than 30 seconds to go and the Jays down 2 points. He tried to dribble-drive and go up for a shot, but the ball was disrupted on his way up from the court. He got a grip, found Porter just outside the paint, and Porter’s floater fell weakly off the front of the rim.

SIU rebound. CU foul. SIU win. Rinse, repeat. Just like the last 8 times the teams have played, the Jays lost. And this one hurt.

Not quite as bad as losing a couple of weeks earlier, but it hurt. It still hurts, especially as SIU has climbed the national polls (they haven’t lost in weeks) and currently sit at #11 in both rankings.

We lost to them by a combined 5 points in the regular season. 5 points that could have easily gone the other way. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. We didn’t, and it hurts.


Creighton 66, Northern Iowa 55

But, just as he did after losing a tight road game at Wichita State earlier in the year, Dana Altman would need to get his kids ready to go at home against a tough Valley opponent. And, after 20 minutes, things were reverting back to the old Cardiac Q situations that frequented the last couple of seasons at the Qwest Center OMAHA.

Creighton was getting outscored in the paint, and the Panthers took a 5-point lead to the break. Grant Stout (9 points) and Brooks McKowen (10 points) were making the Jays pay for lackluster defense, and McKowen’s contributions specifically were paining the Jays. UNI’s post play — Stout and Eric Coleman — is as good as any Valley team’s presence, but the Panthers’ guards aren’t exactly world-beaters yet. They’re young and inexperienced, save for McKowen. And he was putting the Panther backcourt on his shoulders.

But it was the strong, wide shoulders of Nick Porter that would cut and slash and pound their way into the lane in the second half, abusing most of those weak Panther guards along the way. Porter was perfect from the field and hit 7 of 8 free throws for 17 second-half points, grabbed 5 rebounds in the second frame, and dished out 2 assists in 17 minutes of play. He finished with a career-high 21 points, Funk (14 points) and Watts (16 points) pitched in to help offensively, and Creighton outscored UNI by 16 in the second stanza to post an 11-point win.

Nick Porter's tremendous second half lifted the Jays to a win vs. UNI

It was important for the Jays to get back in the win column, but the first-half effort left something to be desired. Needless to say, those desires would be left unfulfilled in the next two games; two games that could severely damage Funk, Tolliver, Porter, and Manny Gakou’s senior-year goal of ending their CU careers in the NCAA tournament.


Drexel 64, Creighton 58

So, coming into BracketBuster Saturday, all was (almost) right with life in The Valley. Creighton held what in essence was a three-game lead over Missouri State for second place in the conference (since we beat MSU here and here), and the Jays still had an outside shot to catch league-leader Southern Illinois (even though they beat us here and above). Creighton sat at 18-8, a sold-out crowd would pack The Phone Booth for a nationally-televised night game, and favorite son Kyle Korver was even in the house to raise a few bucks for his foundation.

Kyle Korver raised money for his foundation at Creighton's game vs. Drexel

And everything seemed fine. The Jays seemed to be coasting. Turns out they were in neutral.

The Jays took at 6-point lead into halftime, with neither them nor the Dragons starting out on fire; Drexel shot 29%, the Jays 32%. But Creighton opened the second half with a bit of a surge, and they took a 10-point lead with 11 minutes left to play.

And then the coasting turned to neutral, the Dragons went from driving the speed limit to swerving in and out of control, and the crowd did the same as the Jays were outscored by 12 points in the second half and dropped just the second home game of the season.

It was a weird game; Altman and Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint both picked up technical fouls, Nate Funk couldn’t buy a basket (went just 3 of 11 from the field), and Tolliver’s fouling issue reared its ugly head again with the A Train fouling out.

But it was Tolliver’s 4th foul, not his 5th, that doomed the Jays. With 11 minutes left, Creighton held that 10 point lead, and then Tolliver was called for his 4th personal foul on a basket by Drexel’s Frank Elgar. He sat on the bench until the 7:52 mark, and in that time Drexel went from being down 10 to being ahead by 2 points. The Jays would never recover, and the season suddenly was inching closer to, ahem, the Bubble in front of a national television audience.

Tolliver's foul trouble cost him valuable time on the bench, and perhaps a win for the Jays


Illinois State 65, Creighton 55

OK. It was a non-conference game. Drexel’s a good road team. Shake it off. Still a get-well game coming up against one of the lower teams in the MVC. The Jays can take Illinois State on the road. No big deal.

Oh, it was a big deal. It was a big, get-the-pin-out-and-get-ready-to-burst-the-(ahem)bubble kind of deal.

Again, the Jays came out in the second half stuck in neutral, the other team just drove (literally, drove for lay-up after lay-up after lay-up) right past them, and Creighton could do nothing but see their at-large chances all but go up in smoke.

At least that’s what I (and most of the other Bluejay fans within the Metro Omaha area) thought. With all of these Web-based prediction sites updating their NCAA tournament “Dance Cards” on a daily basis from about Valentines Day on through Selection Sunday, it is hard not to get caught up in the are-they-in-are-they-out conversations.

And two losses toward the end of the season in games that you controlled at halftime were the kinds of things that the Billy Packers of the world looked for in order to keep schools like Creighton of their tournament projections, in order to make way for schools with big budgets and bigger fan bases.


Creighton 71, Wichita State 54

The Jays needed to rebound — actually, hitting some shots would work just as well, too — and what better team to bring to Omaha on Senior Day than Mark Turgeon’s Wichita State Shockers.

That might sound a bit off, considering this time last year the Shockers were celebrating a regular-season league title and just starting a magical trek through the NCAA tournament that would result in a Sweet 16 birth.

But after starting this season as hot as any team in the nation and climbing into the Top 10 just before Christmas, the second half of WSU’s season was just as noticeable in a negative way. The Shockers came into an ESPN2-televised afternoon game with a record of 17-12 overall and 8-9 in MVC play; marks that have every black-and-gold clad fan in Kansas wondering what happened to a team that was playing pretty well at the start of the year.

This game was a sellout, too, and The Phone Booth was looking like The White Pages — Creighton jumped on the promotions bandwagon and organized an event hoping to have as many fans as possible wear white to the game, in an attempt to create a visually stunning effect on national television.

The crowd was a "white out" for Wichita, which brought the Jays a win

Not only did the White Out work, but Creighton worked Wichita, the seniors left the Qwest Center (hopefully for good) with a win, and it was in large thanks to a junior.

The letter “X” gets all the love with the term “the X-factor,” but its northern neighbor in the alphabet, W, should get some publicity here. Dane Watts, or the “W-factor” as we’ll call him for the rest of this season, has been simply remarkable down the stretch of the regular season, and Saturday’s game was no different. He’s averaging 10 points and 6 rebounds a game for the season, and he has really come on as of late to give Funk and Tolliver and Porter some help on the offensive side of the ball.

He’s scored in double-figures in 8 of the last 9 games, and the Jays are 6-3 in those contests. In the Illinois State loss, Watts took only two shots. In the other 8 games, he is averaging 15 points. Most importantly, he’s shooting 56% from three-point range in those 8 games, rocketing up the conference games-only chart to place among the best three-point shooters percentage-wise in The Valley.

Dane Watts' tough play and sweet shooting have the Jays poised for a run in Arch Madness

Against Wichita State, he hit his first 5 three-point shots, with a release so effortless that it almost looked simple for him. Watts’ shot was inconsistent from the perimeter earlier this season, but instead of bringing down the team by continuing to jack up shots, he hit the boards hard and has recorded a few double-doubles this season while seemingly always being around the boards regardless if he is pulling down the caroms or not. He finished with 15 points on the day, a day that was marked by the fact that a sold-out crowd was able to tell seniors Funk, Tolliver, Porter, and Gakou how much they care, if only by the boisterous applause and standing ovations showered down from the stands as Altman called timeouts in the last minute of play for each of his seniors.

Scenes from Senior Day (Tolliver, Funk, Gakou, and Porter)


It was hard work, but they Jays have hopefully gotten back on track after a couple of problem losses to Drexel and Illinois State. Just in time for Arch Madness, too, as Creighton looks to segue the #2 seed and second-place finish into a solid showing in St. Louis.

I’ll take a look at the 2007 Arch Madness Missouri Valley Conference tournament bracket and break down all of the predictions tomorrow, as the Jays get set to shift into high gear and bring a title back to Omaha.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Did You Miss Me? I Missed You!

Did You Miss Me?

Has it really been three weeks?

How could I have been so bad as to leave all of you fine folks hanging by a string?

First, I think I take for granted just how lucky I am to catch almost every Creighton game either in person or on local, regional, or national television. My good friends the Nicolarsens are at the fate of Chicago cable television when they want to catch a Jays game, save for the one or two games they might be able to make an appearance for in Omaha during a given season.

In this day and age of DirecTV, TiVo, and all the other robots that can juice your television up with college basketball games at all hours of the day from seemingly every college city coast to coast, I forget that sometimes the Jays get lost in the television signals and some of you can’t watch the games.

So, where were we?

Three weeks gone by, and the Jays have once again grasped the city of Omaha from a winter-induced sports boredom and made both die-hard and casual fans proud with their strong-willed teamwork and execution. It is chilly throughout most of the country — especially in the cities where most of you are reading this right now — but more than 16,000 people keep packing the Qwest Center OMAHA game after game to watch Dana Altman’s squad fend off (almost) all challengers for the top of the Missouri Valley Conference standings.

A little bit of catch-up, shall we? (Again, sorry for the delay. No excuses, really … just getting caught up in the day-to-day grind during the shortest days of the year.)

Creighton 65, Bradley 54

When I last wrote, the Jays were a couple of days removed from a difficult, we-had-it-and-we-let-it-go loss on the road to Wichita State. The Shockers came away with a 3-point win, thanks to Kyle Wilson’s hot shooting and the Jays continued tough luck on the road. However, the Jays entered the game at Wichita with a 5-1 conference record, and if you told most Jays fans on Jan. 16 that CU had split the mid-January road trip with Northern Iowa and Wichita State, most would have locked you in a closet before you could take it back.

The Jays struggled on the road early in the season, and when Bradley rolled into Omaha on Jan. 18, it marked a difficult home-court challenge during what most observers thought would be CU’s most difficult week of basketball of the season — @ UNI, @ WSU, at home against a Bradley team shooting lights-out on the season, hosting Southern Illinois, and @ Missouri State. That hurts just typing that stretch of games.

Turns out some home cooking was just what the Jays needed to right the ship, avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time during the season, and move to 6-2 in the conference race.

Nate Funk took over (25 points), Anthony Tolliver controlled the paint (13 points, 10 rebounds, Nick Bahe hit some big three-pointers (9 points), and Dane Watts pulled down 10 more rebounds. But the most important numbers after the game were 37% and 22%.

CU held Bradley’s offense to just 37% shooting from the field and just 22% from long range. Coming into the game, Bradley was one of the top three-point shooting teams in the nation. But, Creighton’s solid scoring and field-goal percentage defense prevailed, and the Bluejays pulled out a crucial mid-week game. Next up … the Ugly Dawgs.

Southern Illinois 58, Creighton 57

It hurts me to type that score, and it hurts me even more to reminisce about this game.

Everything was set. The crowd was ENORMOUS. We’re talking 17,000-plus people, which wasn’t only a record for a Creighton basketball home game, but also an all-sports record for The Phone Booth. People were in their seats early for a change, and the student section was completely full and spoken for about an hour before the game.

The atmosphere was tremendous, and the only thing that could have brought the record crowd down — other than the impending snow storm that would engulf the city during the course of the game — was a slow start by the beloved Bluejays.

Slow is being kind. How we only trailed by 5 points at halftime is still a mystery to me. CU shot 27% in the first half from the field, including 0-4 from long range. We couldn’t get a look at the basket without what seemed like two or three SIU players right in our players’ faces, and even when we got open looks it seemed as though the Jays were expecting to get knocked down or something … and the shots were hard off the back of the iron and bouncing all over the place.

But, as is usually the case in most college basketball games, the home team makes a run in the second half if they trail at intermission, and this contest was no different.

Funk did everything he could to will the Jays to the victory, hitting the go-ahead shot in the middle of the second half. In fact, the Jays held a 50-43 lead with just under 5 minutes to play, and couldn’t put the game away.

As is usually the case during a Creighton-SIU game, the officiating was the talk — or the scream — of the crowd, as a few foul calls late went against the Bluejays. Tolliver and Watts both fouled out of the contest while trying to guard Randal Falker and Matt Shaw, respectively, all night, and it was the loss of our post presence that cost the Jays big points on defense down the stretch.

Too painful. Just an excruciating loss. Funk had a desperation heave at the buzzer rim in and out, a shot that miraculously would have given the Jays a win and sent the Qwest Center into oblivion from the crowd noise.

But, it was simply another loss to the Salukis, a team that we just can’t seem to beat.

Creighton 66, Missouri State 62

Needless to say, I didn’t take the loss to Southern Illinois very well. And, my usually sunny disposition in life didn’t get any brighter when I looked ahead on the schedule and saw a downright angry Missouri State team waiting to host the Jays a couple days after the SIU collapse.

If you weren’t already aware, Creighton absolutely STOLE a win from MSU two days before New Years Day 2007, and I mean “STOLE” in the worst, most criminal way possible. MSU missed free throw after free throw after free throw down the stretch, Watts and Funk hit some big shots in the closing minutes, and Tolliver played tremendous, shot-altering defense to give the Jays a 1-0 start to the conference season.

So, forgive me if I didn’t think Altman could find a way to get his kids past the heartbreaking SIU loss and ready to go into a hostile environment where lately the Jays hadn’t fared so well.

But Altman didn’t really have to do much. The seniors handled that.

Funk (21 points), Nick Porter (18 points), and hometown boy Tolliver (13 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 blocked shots) led the Jays to an invaluable, if not improbable, 4-point win, completing the season-sweep over Barry Hinson and his Bears. Funk was nearly unstoppable, as he seemed to hit every shot he took (actually finished 7-13 from the field), and Porter gave the Jays fans exactly what they expect from him every game — a slashing, driving scoring machine who can do a little bit of everything offensively while also grabbing some rebounds.

But it was Tolliver’s night, and he made the home crowd undoubtedly jealous that MSU had let one of Springfield’s native sons leave for a Valley rival. The A-Train didn’t shoot particularly well on the evening, but everything else he did was spectacular. He had an ESPN-Top-10-Play-worthy blocked shot; even the official, after he told Anthony to calm down a bit and not get the crowd riled up, said it was a tremendous play and congratulated him on the swat. His assists after being double-teamed led to clutch baskets down the stretch. And, as always, he was an emotional leader for a group of guys trying to regroup after the devastating SIU loss.

Creighton 71, Indiana State 55

If there was ever going to be a letdown home game, it would probably come on this cold and blustery Saturday afternoon tip-off, against a lower-level Valley team. However, CU lost to this supposedly lower-level Valley team on the road, and Creighton could ill-afford to give the Sycamores the season series sweep.

So, the starters carried the load (again), led by Funk (again) who went for 20 points. Tolliver, Porter, and Watts all had big games offensively. It was a seemingly pedestrian effort for a team that seemingly had exhausted a season’s worth of effort during the excruciating 5-game stretch that preceded this lazy afternoon contest. Plus, the Jays had Peoria on their mind, looking forward to trying to secure the second conference season-sweep of the week.

Creighton 82, Bradley 71

Driving around before this crucial conference contest, I had a bad feeling: How were the Jays going to contain Bradley’s offense for a second time this season? On the road? How could the Jays get out of Peoria with a season sweep?

And then I got a flat tire.

For those of you who don’t know, tires and I don’t get along. I don’t know what I’ve ever done to them to receive the kind of treatment I get in return, but it is as if my car is magnetic and all of the random loose nails and screws in the city of Omaha are attracted to Blonda (that’s the nickname for my car, the Blue 2001 Honda).

So, armed with a poor disposition, a flat tire, and snow falling all around me, my fiancé and slushed our way over to Goldberg’s II to watch the game, drink a beer or two, and keep an eye on Blonda from across the street at 50th and Dodge.
It was the best flat tire I’ve ever had. Probably the only one that was followed by so much good. By the time I had dropped my car off and crossed the street, Isacc Miles and the rest of the Bluejays had seemingly let the air of the Bradley Braves’ tires. The lead reached double-digits quicker than I could say “beer and burger, please,” and the rest of the next two hours were spent trying to keep myself under control in a sparsely populated mid-town restaurant as the Jays clung to a lead.

Things got scary, but the Jays held on. Not only to the game, but to their grip on first place in the Valley standings with SIU.

Creighton 67, Drake 62

Pierce Hibma. The man. The myth. The legend.

In all seriousness, Creighton loses to Drake without Pierce Hibma. There isn’t one game so far in the 2006-2007 season that you can say the same thing, and there might not be another game the rest of the season when that statement will be true. Who knows. But again, in front of his family and friends, Hibma — from Pella, Iowa — made Des Moines’ Knapp Center his home for the second straight year, and he propelled the Jays to victory.

Creighton opened up a lead midway through the first half, and then, as they did at Indiana State and at Evansville before in the season, they gave it away. They stopped defending. Drake got hot from about everywhere on the court, and the Bulldogs took a 2-point lead into the locker room at halftime.

And I wasn’t there to see it.

I was freezing my extremities off in Chicago. As some of you know, I have a love-hate relationship with the Windy City when it comes to CU hoops. I was there for Terrell Taylor’s shot in the 2002 NCAA tournament game against Florida. I was also there for Funk’s injury and the insult that followed in a 2005 loss at DePaul.

But, thanks to the powers of cable television and a city that has more sports bars that it seems to have public restrooms for the drunks piling out of the sports bars to, um, handle their business in, I was able to gather with my friends the Nicolarsens and about 20 other Jays friends, fans, and alums to watch the contest.

And thanks to Pierce Hibma, it turned out to be a good night. He hit 4 three-point shots in 17 minutes, once of which was Korver-esque from about 30-plus feet away. To say he gave the team a lift is an understatement — they were lost for awhile, and he stepped up and got things back on track.

And then the usual suspects — Funk, Tolliver, and Watts — brought the victory home with some clutch shots and some even better intangibles. Tolliver himself took a charge and blocked a shot in the closing minutes to give the Jays the stops they needed to escape central Iowa with a victory.

All thanks to Pierce Hibma.

Creighton 79, Evansville 74

And then just like that, it seemed to be all for not.

Creighton had just one week until the much-anticipated rematch at Southern Illinois, and all that stood between the Jays traveling to Carbondale tied with SIU for the conference lead was a showdown at The Phone Booth with the Purple Aces.

Except, for the first 20 minutes, the Jays didn’t show up to the showdown. Evansville shot 65% in the first half and climbed out to a 14-point halftime lead. The Jays’ zone offense looked zoned out, and no one was rotating over to guard perimeter or mid-range jump shots. And the Aces continued to knock down the shots.

I wonder what Dana said at halftime.

Creighton, obviously realizing that a battle with SIU on ESPN2 wouldn’t be complete if they dropped this mid-week conference home game, completely switched gears. CU allowed just 26 second-half points, climbed right back in the game offensively with two big scoring bursts in the first 10 minutes of the second stanza, and completed the win by shooting 52% in the second half and 75% from the free-throw stripe down the stretch.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty awesome. 11-3. Tied for first in the Valley. Going to Southern Illinois to try and steal a game at what has become a ridiculously difficult place to win a road conference game for any team in the conference.

More on that later today. I need to muster up the calm and cool collectiveness to put my thoughts into words.
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