Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Preview of the Madness

God bless my dad. He’s tried to keep me focused all season on updating this site, regardless of how the Jays have played and what the outcomes have been. As an avid fan first, and then writer second, it was hard to pound away at the keyboard after the losses early in the season, and it didn’t get any easier after the Drexel and Illinois State debacles.

But, this is what we as fans and the team and the university have been waiting for since the horrible end to last season in the NIT against Miami — it is March Madness time, baby! (Sorry, that was a little too “Dick Vitale”-ish).

The last time the Jays played in the NCAA tournament was a Thursday two years ago, in Cleveland, against eventual bracket-wreckers West Virginia. The Jays started hot, gave up a lead, went toe-to-toe the rest of the way with the Mountaineers, and then lost on a gut-punching play with less than 5 seconds to go in the game.

Nate Funk’s played in two NCAA tournament games, and it is an understatement to say he’s gotten better with each outing. The first was Creighton’s loss to end the 2003 dream season, a 79-73 disaster against Central Michigan out in Salt Lake City. In that game, Funk played like a true freshman is usually accustomed to in their first Big Dance contest — poorly. His 6 turnovers in 17 minutes led the team, and the performance left a lasting impression with Funk of just how much he had to improve his game — from his fundamentals to his physic — if he wanted to be successful at the highest level of college basketball.

Needless to say, he accomplished that in 2005, when against West Virginia he scored 23 points and grabbed 6 rebounds to lead the Jays in the nail-biting 2-point loss the Mountaineers. But it was his three-point attempt with a few seconds on the clock and a tied game that was blocked, with the block resulting in a rare fast-break dunk in the closing moments to cost the Jays a victory. However, according to his quote in this morning’s Omaha World-Herald, he’s got bigger plans for this year:

"I've come up empty on both of my trips," said Funk, a freshman on the 2003 squad that lost to Central Michigan and a junior for a 2005 loss to West Virginia. "That left a bad taste in my mouth, and I want to do everything I can to change that."

Sounds good to me. We all know that he decided he was going to turn things on and take over before the Valley post-season tournament started, and we all know what happened then. Can he take the game over against Nevada and help pave the way for the Jays to advance in the tournament? Can he get the necessary help from Anthony Tolliver, Nick Porter, Dane Watts, and the other Bluejays? As Dana Altman has said all season long, the tournament is all about match-ups. So, that being said, here are some of the match-ups we’ll keep our eyes on during tomorrow afternoon’s first round contest between the Wolfpack of Nevada and the Bluejays of Creighton.

Nevada Offense vs. Creighton Defense

Nevada is an all-around offensive nightmare for opposing teams’ defenses. They are one of the most deft scoring teams in the nation, ranking 25th in the nation at 77.9 points scored per game.

They are led by All-America candidate Nick Fazekas (6 foot 11 inches), who scores 20.5 points and grabs 11.2 rebounds per game, but have scorers at four of the five positions on the floor. Marcellus Kemp (6 foot 5 inches) goes for 18.3 ppg from the small forward spot, and Ramon Sessions (6 foot 3 inches) adds 12.5 ppg at the guard position. Everyone can shoot, as the team hits 48.9% of their field goal attempts (including 40.8% of their three-point tries).

But will the old adage “defense wins championships” pertain to this first round showdown? Creighton is 21st in the nation in scoring defense, allowing a paltry 60.4 points per game. Moreover, the Jays allow opponents to shoot just 41% from the field, and just 35% from three-point range.

You can bet that Tolliver is going to be busy guarding Fazekas, but Altman won’t rely solely on the A-Train to slow down the Wolfpack’s best player. Expect the Jays to show Nevada numerous looks on defense, and finally settle on the tough, switching man-to-man guarding that gave them success in St. Louis two weeks ago. The Jays’ zone will hopefully cause some problems in getting the ball down to Fazekas and allowing Kemp to drive to the interior of Nevada’s offense, but it will be extremely difficult to slow down the Wolfpack’s group of experienced offensive studs.

Creighton Offense vs. Nevada Defense

Nate Funk. Is it as easy as that? No, probably not. But all things start with Funk offensively for this season’s Jays, and if he has an off game there is little chance of pulling off what would be (based on seeds) and upset (although Nevada is favored by just one point in Vegas). Does Nate need to score 33 like he did in the MVC semifinals against Missouri State? No, probably not. But we’d take that, wouldn’t we?

Nope, this comes down to how the rest of the starters chip in. Tolliver, Watts, and Porter each need to finish baskets. Creighton’s averaging a pedestrian 67 points per game, which is exactly what Nevada gives up to opponents on average. It will be difficult for Tolliver and Porter and Watts to grab offensive rebounds on missed shots, because Fazekas is one of the best rebounders in nation. So, they’ll have to make their shots go down on the first try, and they’ll have to try and draw fouls early and often.

Porter needs to test the Nevada perimeter defense immediately, and try to get to the hoop right from the start. And it will be up to Watts to continue his hot shooting from the outside, because with limited time to prepare most coaching staffs will look to completely take away a team’s star player … Funk for Creighton, Fazekas for Nevada. That should leave plenty of outside shots for Watts, who will most likely have a couple of inches on whoever is guarding him to start the ballgame.

If Creighton can avoid turning the ball over, and get some early shots to fall, that will allow them to control the pace of the game — something that is critical if the Jays are going to earn the victory.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Let's Dance! (Part Three)

(Editors note: Panon pointed out that in my hurry to namedrop as many 90s artists as I could in the last installment of the blog, I failed to mention that the only CD to be played on the drive to or from St. Louis was Journey's "Greatest Hits". Nothing like cruising 5 miles over the speed limit to "Don't Stop Believin'".)

Creighton 67, #11 Southern Illinois 61

That image, above, is about the best possible way to sum up what was another successful trip to St. Louis and Arch Madness for the Creighton Bluejays.

I’m sure that if you asked every one of this year’s Bluejay players, they’d tell you the same thing; if they won the MVC post-season tournament, they’d want to beat Southern Illinois in the championship game. Creighton has a solid recent history against the Salukis on the Scottrade Center court (or on the Savvis Center court in 2003 and 2002), but the more immediate history talked about by fans and media alike was Creighton’s 8-game losing streak to SIU coming into the Valley championship game.

There was more at stake than a championship and an automatic ticket to the NCAA tournament. Only one current Bluejay player knows what it is like to beat Southern Illinois, and it was that player — the young man above, cutting down the nets — who made sure that the rest of his teammates would know that feeling, too.

He’d have help, and the supporting cast seemed to want this championship — this win over the Creighton’s toughest league rival — just as much as Funk the Fearless Leader. The game inched along for the first couple of minutes, the Jays opened up a lead, and then the Salukis took what would be their only lead of the game at 23-22 with just under 7 minutes to play in the first half. But just like they had done in Omaha and in Carbondale earlier this season, they hung tough; the Jays clung to a 4-point lead at halftime.

And while Creighton gained leads late in both of the regular season match-ups, they eventually lost in heartbreaking fashion both times. They would not do it again, although the championship game was not without some excitement toward the end of the game.

Led by Funk’s 19 points, Anthony Tolliver’s 15-point, 13-rebound double-double, and Nick Porter’s 15 points and 5 boards and 6 assists, the Jays didn’t skip a beat seemingly the entire game. They attacked SIU’s vaunted pressure defense, never really letting the Salukis get into a position to force unreasonable turnovers (CU turned it over just 9 times in 40 minutes), and they made the afternoon very uncomfortable for Jay-killers Matt Shaw (just 3 of 8 shooting) and Randal Falker (3 points and 5 fouls in 22 minute of (in)action).

It was a thing of beauty, actually, and we had a birds-eye view for everything. Creighton’s crowd was a distance disadvantage compared to the fans from Carbondale; it is three times as long a drive from Omaha to St. Louis as it is from SIU. However, just like in 2002 and 2003, it was the maroon-clad fans leaving early, clad in the infamous “I H8 Cr8ton” after losing the game that mattered for the third time in a row. During a weekend where everything went exactly the Jays’ way, the stream of disgruntled Dawgs exiting the floor (including the SIU players) was the final touch.

Top of the world at the Scottrade Center — our birds-eye view

Actually, I’ll take that back. The final touch came when seniors Funk, Tolliver, and Porter — three players who will carry with them three completely different distinctions and descriptions in the annuls of Creighton basketball history — marched across the stage to accept not only the Valley championship trophy, but also three of the five spots on the Valley all-tournament team.

Many Jays fans felt that Funk deserved the Player of the Year award for the conference’s regular season, but he finished second behind Southern Illinois’ Jamaal Tatum. Many Jays fans felt that Tolliver deserved that award last year, as he transformed his game and elevated the Jays to a different level before the rest of the team ran out of gas (and succumbed to more injuries than an episode of “M*A*S*H); but that award went to Wichita State’s Paul Miller. And for his remarkable second half of the season, many thought that Nick Porter was snubbed in the regular season awards after garnering last year’s Newcomer of the Year.

But it was Funk, Tolliver, and Porter, surrounded by their teammates and a court full of yelling, screaming students and friends, who earned the awards that counted. Personal accolades are nice, but again, just like beating SIU, I’m sure that each and every one of them would tell you the same thing; that hoisting the Valley trophy is the best award possible.

Don't Stop Believin'

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Let's Dance! (Part Two)

When I last left you, I was busy reminiscing about Creighton’s quarterfinal victory against Indiana State, a throttling that both set the tone for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to follow and marked Royce Waltman’s last game as head coach of the Sycamores.


There are a couple of guarantees every time we follow the Bluejays down to St. Louis for Arch Madness:

1. There will be some sort of mini natural disaster related to the hotel room. Sometimes it is man-made (couch cushions left outside on a 12th-story deck on a rainy night), and sometimes it is out of our control. The later reared its ugly head this year, in the form of a broken toilet. Luckly, we had prepared and rented a two-bed, two-bath suite. Toiletes abound!

2. The lobby and bar at the Sheraton (Creighton’s team hotel and the designated meeting place for thousands of Bluejay fans all weekend long) will be so congested with inebriated fans that strangers — and even acquaintances — whom you’ve been standing next to for a few minutes will turn around and act like they’re just meeting — or seeing — you for the first time. Jays fans + alcohol + hotel lobbies = short-term memory loss and friendly (and sometimes frequent) reintroductions and awkward waving spells.

3. Throughout the weekend, a collection or genre or era of music will take shape as the underlying soundtrack for the trip.

This doesn’t just happen in St. Louis — music is obviously a staple of the American road trip. But when you’re sharing a room with Creighton’s Dancing Guy* you know the music will start jumpin’ and the bass will start bumpin’ and it won’t stop until the road trip vehicle makes its last turn down the final stretch of pavement and in to a driveway 400-plus miles away from the Arch.

Practice makes perfect, even for Dancing Guy

[*You might know “Dancing Guy” as the 2006-2007 champion of the Dance-Cam dance-off at Creighton home games. During the 12-minute media timeout in the second half, the good folks in the Creighton Athletics marketing department fire up “Apache” by The Sugar Hill Gang, and fans throughout the Qwest Center unleash a few minutes of booty-shakin’ dance moves.

Well, Dancing Guy is a fan favorite, not only at the Q, but across all swatches of Bluejay Nation.]

So, I’ll pace the rest of this entry based on a few of the artists and tunes that stuck out during Creighton’s run to the MVC tournament championship.


“Is This Hootie Again?”

Dancing Guy drove his car, Rhoda, to Arch Madness, and Mrs. Dancing Guy, Panon, my fiancé, and I took the rest of the seats in the caravan. And Dancing Guy was prepared; he gave Rhoda a little “surgery” a couple of days before the trip and had a car adapter kit for his XM satellite radio installed before the drive to the Gateway City.

That meant no fumbling with CDs during the drive (although as you’ll come to find later, one essential disc made it into the dashboard) and no mindless scanning for yet another country music station in central Missouri (or southeast Nebraska, or southwest Iowa). It meant 100% commercial- and static-free songs from any genre or era we could think of.

We started in the 90s and we really never left. Almost 7 hours later, a lot of good friends had stopped by to check in on us: the Material Girl, numerous Power Ballad hair metal crooners, and just about every one-hit wonder whose song marked an important time in each of our adolescent and early adult lives.

But it was Hootie who took the cake.

Hootie and his Blowfish only wanted to be with us, via satellite radio, during our drive to STL

As I’m sure most of you are well aware, I’m not exactly blessed with great skills in mathematics, so I’m sure I couldn’t exactly tell you the odds that we’d hear more than one Hootie and the Blowfish song in our drive to St. Louis, but they can’t be that good. With literally hundreds of thousands of songs to choose from in the decade, how did this happen?

It was just the sign of things to come in the weekend. Dustin Sitzmann and Brice Nengsu both received their most playing time in months. We found a random piece of wood burning in a parking lot near Laclede’s Landing (St. Louis’ somewhat-similar version of the Old Market). We actually beat Southern Illinois.

It all started with Hootie.


“We Want the Funk!”

Creighton 75, Missouri State 58

You’ll have to forgive any Jays fans leaving the Scottrade Center after Saturday’s semifinal win over Missouri State (Another improbability statistically, right? Beating MSU three times in one season? AGAIN (it happened most recently in 2004-2005)) who were whistling George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic’s seminal funk hit “Give up the funk”.

Nate Funk took the 2007 Arch Madness tournament over, and he started his campaign for the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award by laying 33 points on Barry Hinson’s Bears. He made 10 of 15 shots from the field, 3 of 6 three-point shots, and hit all 10 of his free-throw attempts in 38 minutes of play. He was (relatively) well rested after being able to sit most of the second half against Indiana State the night before, and he made difficult shots look easy in what amounted to arguably his best offensive performance of the year. He made great passes (3 assists to show for it), grabbed 8 rebounds (2 offensive caroms), and reminded three of four tables full of media and sports information directors why Omaha and the rest of Bluejay Nation considers him to be the Player of the Year in the Valley.

Nate's last name and this guy's middle name: FUNK

Lost in the funkiness of Nate’s night was Nick Porter’s continued dominance in the tournament. Porter, from Compton, California (which itself has produced some of the most legendary hip-hop performers and gangsta rappers in the last two decades), posted 19 points and 13 strong-armed rebounds, marking his first double-double in a Bluejay uniform.

Coming into this year, everyone associated with the Creighton basketball program regarded Porter’s play as the “X” factor to the Jays’ success; in fact, it has been. In games early in the season when Porter struggled to take some of the scoring load off the shoulders of Funk and Anthony Tolliver, Creighton struggled. When he has been at his best, so have the Jays.

Just like Dre and Snoop, Porter's representin for the 2-1-3

You can insert any Dr. Dre lyric or any Snoop Dogg song title into this paragraph, and it would serve as fine imagery to describe the tough, gritty performance turned in by Porter during the championship weekend. Just like the leaders of West Coast rap, who represented neighborhoods like Long Beach and Compton, Porter had to take what he wanted, with no one giving him an inch to make a move with basketball or to take it softly to the hoop. He created the space with his strength and some special dribbling skills, and he drew fouls and finished plays at the basket with controlled power and physical tenacity. Tough and hard-nosed, just like the music from his area, and just in time to help Nate and Anthony take the Jays to the title game.

Next: The only song that matters — “The White and the Blue”; and, a preview of Creighton’s first-round NCAA tournament match-up against the Nevada Wolfpack.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Let's Dance! (Part One)

To quote the last installment of

“All you need to know is that Dana Altman is undefeated in Arch Madness championship games. It won’t be 80-46 like 2003, but the Jays win. Everyone is happy. Everyone can celebrate. And God will cooperate, with sunny skies for the celebratory drive home across the Show Me State Sunday.”

Rarely do sports prognosticators, good (sometimes) or bad (most times), get to say, “I told you so.” But, this is one of those times. And you know what? It feels good to be able to thump my chest about this one.

Sunny skies across the Show Me State … it couldn’t have been closer to the truth. When all 12 of the guests in our two 2-bedroom suites at the Crowne Plaza in downtown St. Louis awoke Sunday morning to the smell of smoky bar clothes and an impending checkout deadline, the skies were Bluejay blue. It was a sign, in fact, that everything was looking up for Creighton hours before they would step on the court against the team’s most recent nemesis and replace 8 straight defeats and years of frustration with a shiny new Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship trophy.

A far cry from the first day of the tournament, which found hundreds of Jays fans stranded in Omaha and surrounding areas due to blizzard conditions throughout the Midwest. But those Jays fans who were able to make it to the Gateway City, and those who watched from home in between trips outside to shovel the snow, saw three straight game that represent why Dana Altman is the best coach in the conference, why Nate Funk is the best player in the conference, and why the Creighton Bluejays are the toughest draw in Arch Madness.

During the next three days, I’m going to take a look back at Creighton’s three-game streak through the Arch Madness tournament, which they capped off with a championship game win over rival Southern Illinois.


Creighton 59, Indiana State 38

As you know, the Bluejay caravan that was packed up and set to leave Thursday morning didn’t hit the road until later that afternoon, costing us the chance to watch the play-in “first round” games at the Arch Madness tournament. No problem, we all thought; we’ll just take our time getting to St. Louis, enjoy a couple of been-in-an-icy-cooler-for-7-hours beers, and watch the highlights of the boring play-in games on the local news from the hotel bar.

Then the first phone call from The Reverend — Drake topped the century mark in an 101-96 win over Evansville in overtime. Oh, and a bunch of Drake players, Klayton Korver included, decided to shave their heads before the game. And after the game, Coach Tom Davis said that if they won the whole tournament that he’d shave his head into a Mohawk.

Was I already inebriated? I hadn’t had a drink, yet that sounded like something that I might think up while discussing the bottom half of the Valley with my roadtripping partner.

Oh well, we thought. The second game won’t be that exciting.

Except it was. Not an extremely well-played game, by any stretch of the imagination, but close and fun nonetheless. Indiana State trailed practically the entire game, yet the Sycamores chipped and chipped and chipped (like the bark/tree reference?) at the lead until fabulous freshman Marico Stinson hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with less than a minute to play to give Indiana State a win and another game to coach for Royce Waltman.

So, with a trip delayed by “thundersnow” (don’t laugh, it is what they really call it, even though it sounds like the name of an AC/DC song) and two solid play-in games missed, there was no choice but to shake our collective heads, enjoy a couple of cold ones, and prepare for what would be a bountiful feast of hoops on Quarterfinal Friday.


Poor Royce Waltman. There’s such a thing as going out on top. Then, there’s such a thing as watching your team shoot 23% from the field, get outrebounded by 11 boards, and commit 17 turnovers in you last game as a head coach. The game was back and forth for much of the first half, but everyone in the Scottrade Center could feel that the Jays were going to push the pedal down and speed right past the Sycamores, who less than 24 hours previously had come from behind against Illinois State to secure a showdown with Creighton in the quarterfinals.

With just under 7 minutes to play in the first half, Creighton trailed ISU 18-17, but then Nate Funk took over. The Jays’ leader scored 6 points in a 15-2 Bluejay run to end the half, a run that also saw freshman Isacc Miles drain two 3-pointers.

And that was just the start. Creighton roared out of the gates after halftime, giving up just 2 points in the first 3:30 of the second frame while climbing out to a 20-point lead. The lead would fluctuate for the final 16 minutes of the game, but the outcome was never in doubt. Funk came out of the game with just under 10 minutes to play and didn’t step foot on the court again until the two teams were exchanging handshakes at mid-court.

Sycamore fans packing up? Evansville fans leaving our hotel, actually, but close enough

It was just the beginning of a long weekend for Creighton, and it marked the end of an era at Indiana State. Waltman, ISU’s coach since 1997, went 134-164 in 10 seasons with the Sycamores, with his team finishing in last place in the MVC in five of the last six seasons, and again in 2007. It was his teams in the early 2000s that gave the Jays fits, however, and he led Indiana State to the NCAA tournament as the regular season champion in 2000 and as the tournament champion in 2001. But he couldn’t continue the success.

“I’m very proud of what we did so quickly, but we failed. We were in a position to build on what we had and we didn’t. There’s nobody to blame for that except myself,” Waltman said. “We made some recruiting errors and some mistakes. I’m embarrassed by that.”

If there was ever a complete contrast to Waltman’s demise, it is Altman. The Dean of The Valley unlocked his office on The Hilltop for the first time in the spring of 1994, inheriting a team that went 7-22 in the 1993-94 season. From that season on, Altman’s teams increased their win totals for 6 straight years, culminating in NCAA tournament appearances in 98-99, 99-00, 00-01, 01-02, and 02-03. The win over Indiana State was Creighton's 20th this season, marking a league-record 9th straight year of 20 or more wins for the Jays.

Waltman didn’t build on the success of guys like Nate Green, Michael Menser, Matt Renn, and Kelyn Block. Altman built on the foundation of Rodney Buford, Ryan Sears, Ben Walker, Donnie Johnson, Matt West, John Klein, and Kyle Korver.

And Nate Funk.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Arch Madness 2007

Now this is a white out, huh?

It is late morning on the Thursday of Arch Madness, and instead of driving past numerous truck stops and “Adult XXX Movies” shacks on I-29 and I-70 on my way to the Gateway City, I’m sitting at home waiting for the powers that be to open I-29 — it has been closed due to blizzard conditions in southeast Nebraska and southwest Iowa.

So, does that mean I won’t be able to watch the two play-in games tonight like I wanted to? Yes. Does it mean that the first St. Louis beer will be later and later and later in the evening now? Unfortunately, yes. Does this mean my hotel room in downtown St. Louis might be empty tonight instead of full of coolers, bags full of clothes, and overflowing trash cans filled with junk food wrappers? Argh, yes.

Five of us planned to leave this morning around 9 or 9:30 a.m., putting us into St. Louis in plenty of time to check in at the hotel, have a couple of brews and some dinner, and mosey on over to the Scottrade Center to catch the two “first round” Valley tournament games.

Alas, that won’t be happening, but just like every trip to St. Louis, there will no doubt be some timeless stories that come from this weather setback. Also, this weather is a good omen for the Jays.


In 2002, as a junior in college, two carloads of friends and I decided to hit the tournament via the road. The only times I’ve flown to the Gateway City for the tournament, the Jays have lost before the championship game, and we vowed in 2002 to see three wins. But, a storm was brewin’ throughout all of southeastern Nebraska and southwestern Iowa, and it was heading straight for Missouri.

So, did we stay home? No! We took a page from the REO Speedwagon song book and started “ridin’ the storm out”. We left just as things were getting bad in Omaha, and led the storm directly to St. Louis. We left 30 degrees and snowing for 55 degrees and drizzle, but that Friday night in St. Louis was one of the more memorable evenings from my college career (at least for me it was, as I’m sure some of the people in our room don’t exactly remember much from that night).

ANYWAY, we woke up Saturday morning in St. Louis and there was snow falling just outside of our hotel room next to the Arch, and the only thing falling more frequently that weekend were baskets from Kyle Korver and Terrell Taylor and the rest of the Bluejays. Creighton won their three games, clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament, and prepared to take on the Florida Gators. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Jays were the #2 seed that year, and they beat Southern Illinois for the Arch Madness title. The same can happen this year, although it will take two wins against a bracket containing 3 of the Jays’ 5 conference losses just to get to the championship game. Will it happen? I don’t know. Can it happen? You better believe it.

For whatever reason, Dana Altman’s teams thrive in tournament situations. From the MVC tournament championships in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2005, to the tremendous showings recently in the Guardians Classic and Rainbow Classic, the Jays have won their fair share of tournament titles. In fact, Creighton has not failed to win a league tournament title in back-to-back years since 1997 and 1998. Creighton is 13-2 in their six previous appearances in the tournament as a #2 seed, including those titles in 1999, 2002, and 2003.

Standing in the Jays’ way, however, is a bracket full of tough match-ups. Not only has the Missouri Valley Conference lived up to my billing early this season as the “Valley of Death” during the regular season, but the tournament could be more of the same. Every possible match-up features teams who have struggled against one another at least once during league play. While the seeds are aligned for another classic Creighton-Southern Illinois championship game, there is a strong possibility that the Jays and Salukis might be watching the championship game from the hotel.

So, with that I give you my tournament predictions. Last year I was pretty far off, but that’s because I’m biased. And, like last year, I wear my Bluejay Bias on my sleeve (and in this blog).

Thursday Night: “First Round” Games

Also known as the play-in games, the winners of these two games will take on Southern Illinois (12 p.m. Friday) and Creighton (6 p.m. Friday), respectively.

The home team won both games in this season’s series between Evansville and Drake. The Bulldogs won last week in Des Moines by 3 points, and the Purple Aces won by 21 points earlier in the season.

My pick here is Evansville, as their guard play and low post play is more consistent than the Bulldogs. Drake’s pressure defense will cause some Purple Ace turnovers, but I think Evansville will have enough tonight to hold off the ‘Dawgs. This game has direct implications for Creighton, as the Jays will take on the winner. Creighton dropped road games to both of these teams, most recently Illinois State last week (and Indiana State earlier in the year). The road team won both meetings between these teams this season, with Illinois State spanking the Sycamores by 15 points on Valentines Day. Indiana State won in Normal by 4 points early in January.

This marks a tumultuous time of the year for Indiana State coach Royce Waltman, as has been the case seemingly every year since 2001. They Sycamores are playing on the first night of the tournament yet again, and things don’t bode well for them in tonight’s match-up, either. Illinois State has been playing well as of late, having won 4 of their last 5 games, and they’ll make it 5 out of 6 tonight. Redbirds win, ending Waltman’s career as Indiana State head coach, and will meet the Jays for the second time in two weeks Friday night.

Friday: Quarterfinals
Southern Illinois held off the Purple Aces on Senior Day in Carbondale last weekend, and Evansville has a history lately of playing the Salukis pretty well regardless of where the game is.

SIU is steaming hot, with a long win streak intact and looking to defend their 2006 Arch Madness championship. Evansville’s Matt Webster (second-team All-MVC) vs. SIU’s Randall Falker (first-team all-MVC) is an intriguing match-up, but it will be SIU’s pressure on the perimeter, led by league Player of the Year Jamaal Tatum and All-defensive team member Tony Young, that will pave the way for SIU to move to the semifinals.

This game proves to be a great showdown between two different styles: the motion, long-range shooting offense of Bradley versus the feed-the-post, twin towers style of Northern Iowa. UNI beat Bradley last week in Peoria, all but ending the Braves’ at-large NCAA tournament hopes, completing the season sweep of the Braves (they won by 11 points earlier in the year).

As is usually the case in St. Louis, it is really difficult to beat a good team three times in a season. This game should be close, but the difference will be the guard play. If Will Franklin and Daniel Ruffin can control the basketball and get some shots to go down, they’ll be in pretty good shape against a UNI backcourt with just one player (point guard Brooks McKowen) who has seen significant playing time in Arch Madness. I pick the Braves to avoid the 3-0 record against the Panthers, setting up a Bradley-Southern Illinois match-up in the semis.

Not much to write here, surprisingly enough. Do you think Creighton wants a little payback against the Redbirds? The Jays were cruising to an at-large bid “lock” before setbacks to Drexel and at Illinois State last week put the Jays squarely on “the bubble”. I’m biased, like I said, but I think regardless of who the Jays play in this game they will pull away at the end. Just like seemingly every Jays game this season in league play, this game will be close but the Jays will win by double-digits, putting them in the semifinals against …

This will be the best game of the night. Wichita State still has the talent to get on a roll and win three games in three days. They’ve severely underachieved for the majority of the season, and they are used to a tournament atmosphere. However, they haven’t won a title in St. Louis in quite awhile, and it isn’t going to happen this year, either.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t beat Missouri State, a team that just like Creighton is fighting for their NCAA lives. The Bears were left out of the tournament last year after losing early in Arch Madness even though they finished the season with an RPI of 21, marking the lowest-ranked RPI team ever to not be invited to the Big Dance.

Barry Hinson and Blake Ahearn and the rest of the Bears want to leave no doubt that they deserve a bid, and obviously the best way to wrap up an invitation is to win the whole darn thing.

That being said, as a Jays fan I want this game to be a knock-out, drag-out affair that lasts into the wee hours of morning. I think it will be a repeat of last week’s MSU win, but only in style of play. My first upset of the tournament: Wichita State beats Missouri State, leaving the Bears biting their paws until Selection Sunday.

Saturday: Semifinals

Southern Illinois vs. Bradley

Creighton vs. Wichita State

We’re getting ready to go test the roads, so I’m make this short. Do I think Bradley will give the Salukis all they can handle? Yes. Do I think that Southern Illinois is going to lose before Saturday? Nope. In a three-games-in-three-days tournament, defense reigns. And defense, ladies and gentlemen, is the name of the game for the Salukis. SIU wins a close one.

I would be hypocritical to pick Wichita State here, and I honestly don’t think my fingers will allow me to type “Creighton los…” see, I couldn’t do it. Jays win a physical, hard-fought game, with Anthony Tolliver being the difference against the smallish Shocker front line.

Sunday: Championship game

All you need to know is that Dana Altman is undefeated in Arch Madness championship games. It won’t be 80-46 like 2003, but the Jays win. Everyone is happy. Everyone can celebrate.

And God will cooperate, with sunny skies for the celebratory drive home across the Show Me State Sunday.

And with that, I’m going to get into my sled and hit the highway.

Go Jays!
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Go Jays!