Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Special Edition: P'Allen's P'oster Dunk Over NU's Shang Ping

As I promised last night, the first Web-ready version of P'Allen Stinnett's massive dunk over Nerbaska's 6-foot-10 junior "power" forward Shang Ping is on the 'net. Special thanks to Creative Genius Polyfro, fanatic Jays fan and fellow Bluejay blogger.

More versions of this are bound to leak to the Web in the coming days; hopefully at least one of them will incorporate a sideline shot of Stinnett's first dunk of many more to come in a CU uniform.

More than a few people in attendance said it took the crowd a split second longer than usual to react to the dunk because they didn't seem to believe what they just saw. It happened with just under 1:30 to play in a game that was already decided, and there was nothing but murmurs and rumblings permiating throughout The Phone Booth for the rest of the game. People simply had to pull their jaws up from the ground.

P'lease enjoy.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Creighton 74, Nebraska 62

Jays Dominate, Much To Chagrin of Husker Nation

Three years ago, following Creighton’s 50-48 win over Nebraska, I filled the majority of this space with rants and raves about the abilities of Dana Altman. Specifically, I compared his coaching style and effort to that of Sadler’s predecessor, Barry Collier (he of one win against Creighton, which came in the NIT at the end of the disappointing 2003-2004 season). Two years ago, following Creighton’s short-handed 70-44 thrashing of the Huskers, I wrote about Bluejays flying across my bedroom window and my feelings that I expected Altman’s teams to win every game, no matter who the opponent, every time they take the floor.

Altman gets the most out of his teams, no matter where he's been

Obviously, I’m a big Altman fan. But a coach, while able to do so many things to get his team ready to play, cannot make shots fall. For as good as Altman has been in every stop of his coaching career (OK, insert “what about that brief trip to Fayetteville?” joke here), he can only control so many aspects of the game in order to help the Jays win, and shots dropping is not one of them.

First Half Near Perfection

But when the shots are falling, as they were during the first half of Saturday’s 74-62 win, it is hard for any team, no matter their conference or talent level or star power, to beat Altman’s Jays. Creighton combined great defensive effort with raw emotion and intent focus, and then waited for the shots to fall. It took a little while to materialize, as the first six minutes of the game went by and the only thing larger than Creighton’s 6 points were Nebraska’s 7 turnovers.

Stinnett shows hustle after poking the ball away from a Husker

But then a steal by freshman phenom P’Allen Stinnett led to a 3-pointer by Dane Watts. And then another steal led to a 3-pointer by Booker Woodfox. Over the next 13 minutes, the shots fell like the Huskers’ hopes as the Jays went on a 35-16 run and cruised into halftime with one of the most efficient halves of basketball anyone has seen at the Qwest Center. Altman had done his part: it was obvious from the opening warm-ups his team was more focused and energetic than Doc Sadler’s Huskers squad, and his constant substitutions and various defensive looks and personnel match-ups confused even the most experienced Nebraska players.

Kenny Lawson attacks the basketball and defends the hoop

But the one thing Altman couldn’t control — the shots — were out of control … in a great way. Creighton shot 57% from the field in the first half, making nearly as many shots from the floor as their opponent took (17 to 21, respectively). In fact, the Jays had as many baskets as the Huskers had turnovers. It was sheer domination. The scoring column was balanced; nine players contributed to the point total, but no one player had more than 9 points (Watts led the half with three 3-point makes).

CU hit 64% of their long-range shots, while they gave up just two three-point buckets to NU. The Huskers out-rebounded the Jays, but that was about the only spot in the box score where Nebraska was even close to outperforming Creighton. CU compiled 11 assists in the first half (so assists on 65% of their baskets) while NU recorded just 2 (on 29% of their hoops) assists.

Second Half = Gasps for Air

And then it all just stopped. Almost without warning, Creighton’s offense regressed to the tune of zero assists in the second half on 7 field goals. Zero 3-point makes. The effort was there, but not with the same level of intensity that takes over the entire bench when everything is going right and you have your intrastate rival on the ropes ready for the knockout. Nebraska decided to get physical with the Jays, and it led to nearly the same amount of free-throw attempts for CU as they had field goal tries in the half.

But all of that didn’t matter, because of three things.

1. Creighton won, and they’ve won 8 of the last 9 regular season match-ups against NU. Style points don’t exist. The first half was outstanding, but in some ways the second half was even better because CU didn’t give up the lead. Offense puts you ahead, but defense wins games. Creighton stopped Nebraska when they needed to. And you know why? …

2. ... Because of Cavel Witter. The speedy sophomore point guard scored a team-high 10 second-half points and was perfect from the free-throw line in the closing stanza, but it was his defense and his intensity that slammed the door on NU. After the Huskers cut Creighton’s 27-point halftime lead to 9 with just under 6 minutes to play, Witter calmly hit two free throws. A few minutes after he initially turned back Nebraska, he closed the door on them for good, scoring a lay-up, recording a steal, and then adding another lay-up in a span of 15 seconds. It will be scary to see what Witter will bring to this team night in and night out, especially because he’ll be able to play with …

3. ... P’Allen Stinnett. Insiders on the Hilltop spent most of the summer gushing about Stinnett’s raw talent, his love for the game, and his willingness to play with emotion and intensity. They also said he could dunk like Rodney Buford. Because of my worship of Buford’s play while at Creighton and my wait-and-see approach to Creighton’s usual incoming freshmen, I wasn’t an easy person to convince.

Jays fans haven't seen anything like P'Allen since Hot Rod's time

But if his opening-night scoring explosion and his great all-around effort in the last game were not enough proof, those in attendance or watching on TV saw at 1:32 mark of the second half a dunk that wasn’t like those Buford used to throw down at the Civic — it was better. Read the next sentence carefully, and then prepare to see video proof of the event in the next couple of days.

Stinnett, all 6-foot-3, 170 pounds of him, took the ball of a made shot by Nebraska, stutter-stepped past overmatched Husker recruit Ade Dagunduro, drove the ball to the lane with one other Husker in sight, and completely posterized NU’s Shang Ping.

Ping is 6-foot-10 tall, weighs 230 pounds, and watched as a skinny freshman from Las Vegas played Vince Carter to his skinny French center.

Click on the link to catch Carter’s dunk, and then ask yourself this question once you’ve seen P’Allen’s P’oster dunk over Ping: is Carter’s more impressive because he jumped completely over a 7-foot-2 guy who was standing on the ground, or is P’Allen’s more insane because a 6-foot-10 guy tried to jump and block his shot.

Call me a believer. The kid can do it all, and he knows it.

UPDATE: Click below for a replay of Stinnett's dunk via the game broadcast on KMTV 3 in Omaha.

Tough Road on Horizon

Through three games, the Jays are 3-0 with home wins against DePaul and Nebraska, two teams that will struggle to finish in the upper half of their respective “super” conferences. Creighton’s three best non-conference opponents (that we know of; see: Bracket Buster in February) await the Jays, however, after a match-up later this week against Savannah State. Altman’s Jays travel to Philadelphia to face Drexel, head to Cincinnati to battle Xavier, and then play host to St. Joseph’s, all in a span of 8 days.

Time for the new birds to fly from the nest and test their wings.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Creighton 76, Mississippi Valley State 46

The Calm Before the Storm

Saturday was one of those “Top 10” days everyone in Omaha wishes they’d experience more often during the fall. Most years, fall isn’t a season around here as much as it is an idea, glorified on TV shows or in books (which Omaha residents are watching or reading during the first snow day of the year, seemingly hitting earlier and earlier each autumn).

But with high temperatures in the upper 50s and lower 60s (Omaha actually set a record high today — 73 degrees), and with the sun shining brightly into the windshields of the crazy drivers cruising down Dodge street, everyone around town was on the go. Weather like that never sticks around for more than a day during this time of the year (if we are lucky enough to get it in the first place), so runners ran, walkers walked, and grocery shoppers showed up in droves to complete their Thanksgiving dinner purchases.

Black Friday shoppers prepare to storm the check-out with carts full of popular toys

The day felt like the calm before the storm. Forecasts for this week showed possible snow and more probable temperatures reaching as high as the upper 30s. Even more likely than cold temperatures? The craziness of the start of the holiday season, which begins like clockwork each year with the delightful cornucopia of traditional gravy-based foods sitting on tables across the nation.

ANYWAY, you might classify Creighton’s 30-point victory against the Delta Devils as the calm before the storm, as well. Later this week, the Jays will host in-state rival Nebraska, which kicks off a difficult couple of weeks of non-conference games sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas break for the student athletes. And while Saturday’s game featured the fifth-largest home crowd in Creighton history (16,730 Jays fans), most of those in attendance were going through the motions — for better or for worse — seemingly practicing for the onslaught of the upcoming tilt with the Huskers and the start of the conference season in about a month.

You can’t really blame the crowd; folks around CU hoops have become somewhat spoiled with the tremendous crowds filling the state-of-the-art Qwest Center on a nightly basis, and the fans are accustom to a level of play and execution far above what they first experienced during Dana Altman’s first year or two as head coach. So even though all of the local press writers reported that Altman and his team were not looking past the Delta Devils, the same couldn’t be said about the fans; they chalked this up as a win even before they filed into The Phone Booth.

Dane Watts did his best to assure those fans their premonitions were correct. He scored the first 6 points of the night for Creighton, subbed out, caught his breath, checked back in, and then scored the next 7 points of the game. It was an overall great night for The Great Dane. He took advantage of an undersized Delta Devils squad (no starter taller than 6’ 6”) to the tune of a career-high 26 points (10-12 from the field, 6-8 from the free throw line), adding 9 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists in just 25 minutes of action.

Watts (pictured against MVSU in '06) was unstoppable

Watts wasn’t the only one putting up points in the paint for Altman’s Jays, as Creighton outscored MVSU 46-14 in the blocks. And once again it was an entire team effort for the young Jays, as everyone played at 11 of the 14 on the roster logged at least 10 minutes of action.

I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the effort from P’Allen Stinnett, who will keep all those leftover Nate Funk #10 jerseys flying off the shelves of the campus bookstore and other retailers as long as he builds on his impressive scoring outburst against DePaul and Saturday’s more well-rounded box score. He matched Watts for the highest total of minutes played, scored 9 points, dished 6 assists (including a couple of “extra” passes when he gave up a good shot attempt for a teammate’s great look), 2 steals, and ZERO turnovers.

Stinnett (pictured in high school) had a good all-around effort in his second collegiate game

But P’Allen’s most impressive performance Saturday night would be the calisthenics he performed when The Nickel, Dustin Sitzman, checked into the ballgame with 3 minutes to play, scored a hoop and grabbed 2 rebounds, including an offensive board that led to a lay-up that gave all 16,000-plus in attendance Godfathers Pizza. Stinnett was so pumped for his teammate all he could do was jump up and down and act like a fool, even causing the stoic Altman to crack a smile when he looked back at his freshman phenom (Dana probably stopped smiling immediately and told him to stop, though, instead of risking a hamstring pull — that’s how high the kid was jumping).

Fan favorite Dustin Sitzman scored 4 points against MVSU

But for these great individual performances, and the relatively solid team effort, this was a 9-point game with 9 minutes to play. But back-to-back three-point plays by Josh Dotzler (lay-up) and Watts (thunderous dunk) ignited a 16-1 run over the next 5 minutes, a run also featuring great passing from freshmen Stinnett and Kaleb Korver and simply picture-perfect three-point shots by Korver (1) and Chad Millard (2).

So, the Jays responded to the calm before the storm in emphatic fashion, crushing the Delta Devils over the final 9 minutes of the game and securing some quality minutes for the aforementioned Stinnett and Korver, as well as the rest of the newbie class. Kenton Walker only played 5 minutes, but he dominated the boards when he was in and grabbed 7 rebounds in limited time. Cavel Witter played another set of controlled minutes, using harnessing his quickness to effectively operate Altman’s game plan. But he showed again that when called on to give opponents fits with his speed on offense and defense, he’ll be ready to go.

Kenny Lawson was perfect from the field (6 points), Casey Harriman was the opposite of perfect from the charity stripe (0-4 for a guy with a tremendous shot), and for the second straight game Booker Woodfox forced some shots and couldn’t get many of them to fall (4 points on 2-8 from the field). Aaron Brandt missed a shot in 4 minutes of action, but he displayed some of the raw athleticism that will make him a valuable asset in his future career as a Jay.

Perhaps the guys experiencing the most of the calm before the storm were Pierce Hibma (2 points in 12 minutes), Nick Bahe (0 points and 3 rebounds in 11 minutes), and Dotzler (3 points, 2 assists, and 2 turnovers in 22 minutes). Bahe and Hibma, both fifth-year seniors, have been through these early tests before and know what lies on the other side. Dotzler is still fighting to get healthy after two injury-plagued seasons, so his early rest is probably more important than logging 30-plus minutes against an overmatched opponent. These two senior specialists (Hibma his hustle and knowledge, Bahe his shooting and charisma) and the junior floor leader will have their chances to shine in big situations and use their experience in a game situation to swing momentum in the Jays’ direction.

The storm starts in earnest this weekend; hopefully our experienced upperclassmen leaders will calm the younger Jays down and this talented yet fresh team can stay focused on posting wins one game at a time.

The calm leadership of Watts, Hibma, Dotzler, and Bahe is crucial this season

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Creighton 74, DePaul 62

It was a night for new beginnings. Much has been written and said about the vast amount of changes experienced by the Creighton men’s basketball program in the last 8 months, but all the opinions and prognostications ended for about two hours Friday night – just long enough for this season’s Jays to write their own first chapter to a new volume of Bluejay basketball.

Friday morning, I wrote about expectations. Specifically, not knowing what to expect from this season’s team, other than knowing Dana Altman would be on the sidelines, getting everything he possibly could from his apt pupils. After Friday night, if you believe the giggly Jays fans leaving the Qwest Center after a remarkable comeback by the Jays – some familiar to the 16,000-plus in attendance, some not so much – or the observers sharing their expertise on post-game radio shows or Internet message boards, expectations are again through the roof.

Back for his 14th season on the CU sideline, Dana's the one constant Jays fans can count on

For better or worse, that’s what happens when you can’t seem to buy a basket for the first 10 minutes of the game, spot the visiting team a 17-point lead half way through the first 20 minutes of action, and expect your roster of fresh faces and redshirts to bring the blue out in The Phone Booth and rally to victory – and then pull it off.

If expectations are out of whack, you can blame one guy: P’Allen Stinnett. He of the contagious positive attitude, 23 points in his first career Division I game – all coming in the second half – and numerous electric plays that sent CU fans scurrying to figure out which former Jays to compare to young Mr. P.

Expect P' Allen's smile to get even bigger with more 20-plus point evenings on the horizon

Or blame Dane Watts. Finally, a familiar face. He of more than 85 consecutive starts dating back to his freshman year. When the going was rough for the Jays against the Blue Demons in the first half, Dane stayed steady and scored 8 points and grabbed a first-half high 4 rebounds in just 9 minutes (due to 2 personal fouls). Due to Mr. P’s second-half explosion, Dane didn’t need to score much in the second stanza. But he grabbed 5 more boards, giving him a team-high 9 for the game. Solid.

Watts' play was solid as usual

Or blame Chad Millard. Mr. P might get the bulk of acknowledgement for his tremendous second half, but it was Millard’s torrid three-point shooting that got the Jays going half way through the first half. Coupled with his heady play at the front of Dana Altman’s press, which led to a steal and lay-up following one of his three pointers and got his teammates on the court and in the stands fired up and ready to apply more pressure on DePaul, Millard showed the all-around abilities Jays fans were hoping to see after watching the sophomore forward only on the court last year wearing street clothes as a transfer.

Newcomer Millard made his presence felt on both sides of the ball

Nothing of note went exceptionally wrong during Creighton’s home opener Friday night, which in and of itself is a victory considering all of the relatively inexperienced players taking the court at the Q. Except for the slow start, which could be expected from a young squad, Altman’s pressure defense looked fairly composed, as did most of the new guys. Altman was able to sub sets of three and four players in at a time, mixing and matching players together trying to get a feel for how certain players would interact on the floor at the same time. The returns were mostly positive: guards Kaleb Korver and Casey Harriman each had nice passes from the perimeter to the paint, leading to some easy looks (not easy baskets, however; we’ll get to that later).

Kenny Lawson, although a little sped up on the offensive side when receiving the ball in the post, grabbed 4 rebounds in 10 minutes of play against some relatively large gentlemen in the post for DePaul. Cavel Witter played an extremely savvy game and maximized his minutes on the floor, going perfect from the field (including one three-pointer), perfect from the free throw line, dishing 3 assists, not turning the ball over once, and inducing two Blue Demons to trip over themselves with ankle-breaking crossover dribbles. Oh yeah, that was in just 14 minutes of play.

Lawson's efforts didn't translate to much offensively, but his energy sparked CU's rebounding

And it might come off as “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” but the score could have been much more lopsided if not for the missed lay-ups and point-blank chances Dotzler, Watts, Lawson, and others could not convert to baskets. Both teams scored 32 points in the paint, but Creighton easily left 10 or 12 more points on the rim and backboard. As frustrating as that was, and as maddening as the in-and-out misses from the perimeter in the first half, my dad and I were able to look at those non-baskets positively after the contest.

Because of the press, and because of this team’s athleticism and speed, we were able to get shots on our own. Only Altman and his coaches could tell you just how many times plays broke down on offense, but when a young man like Kaleb Korver — a true freshman trying to make the most of his minutes on the floor — sees the shot clock winding down, fakes a three-pointer and draws the defender in the air, and then pounds the ball on the floor twice, draws contact, and just misses an off-balanced leaner, you know you have something good in the works.

Again, the passing was crisp and benevolent; most Jays made the extra pass when the opportunity presented itself, which led to some good looks (again, not all of the shots went down). But Creighton only shot 39% for the game; those near-misses will one day be makes, and then they’ll be able to set the press more frequently, leading to more steals and easier looks. A vicious circle, to be sure … for their opponents.

And again that is all the game was: the beginning of something. Whether the Jays can get better in practice this week and build on season-opening momentum is yet to be seen; a let-down is surely possible with not-so-ferocious Mississippi Valley State coming to The Phone Booth a week before rival Nebraska shows up Turkey Day weekend. It might be just the beginning, but it could be the start of something this school has yet to see on the basketball court.

Friday, November 09, 2007

2007-2008 Season Preview

The Future Is Now

The best thing about the future is that it only comes one day at a time.
Abraham Lincoln
So, I realize that leading a commentary with a quote, especially one attributed to one of the most recognized leaders in history, is a bit cliché. However, since the events of March 16, 2007, minutes after another heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss, the future of Creighton’s basketball program has indeed evolved on a day-by-day (and sometimes, minute-by-minute) basis.

Before we can begin to figure out where this new season of Bluejay Basketball will take us, it is important to know where we have been. To say the past 8 months of Creighton basketball have been surprising is an understatement, at best.

The Long Walk

March 16, 2007, holds the same place in my heart as March 17, 2005, and March 20, 2003. But as I sat on a friend’s couch, surrounded by three die-hard Jays fans on a late Friday afternoon with my head buried in my hands, the 2007 version of Big Dance heartbreak felt worse than those other two instances.

This was, in some way, the end of an era. Because of injuries to Nate Funk and Nick Porter that delayed the exhaustion of their eligibility and Anthony Tolliver’s unprecedented development during his junior and senior seasons, most prognosticators and fans wearing blue-tinted glasses pegged last season’s Jays squad as “the one” — the one that could finally advance to a Sweet 16 or further. A perfect storm: Funk healthy after a medical redshirt year, Porter facing an ultimatum to live up to pre-knee injury expectations, and Tolliver continuing to diversify his game and grow into a legitimate pro prospect.

Last season’s success in St. Louis was the crowning achievement for a team that fought through bloated expectations, nagging injuries, little bench help, and a brutally tough Valley conference schedule. They entered New Orleans with a legitimate shot at another successful non-BCS conference school, the Nevada Wolfpack. They left taking a long walk.

Funk and Tolliver and Porter did everything they could. In the end, it wasn’t enough, as the Wolfpack claimed a six-point win and forged ahead in the tournament while the Jays flew home. But Altman first walked. He walked back to the team hotel following the loss, and he took junior forward Dane Watts with him.

Before the game, I wrote the following about Watts’ possible effect on the outcome against Nevada:

…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.

I was right. Watts was open all … day … long. He got 12 shots off, 8 from long range. However, none of those three-pointers dropped. Not one. He made a career-high 5 three-pointers on Senior Night against Wichita State less than a month before the tournament game, and had made at least 2 long-range shots in each of the MVC tournament games. He just couldn’t get one to go down.

That didn’t stop him from contributing, by any means. He grabbed a CU-high 10 rebounds, chipped in 2 assists, 1 block, 1 steal, and committed no turnovers. But the shots that didn’t fall could have meant the difference, and Altman knew that his soon-to-be-senior leader didn’t have time to sulk or keep his head down about the lackluster offensive performance.

So the two of them walked back to the team hotel. Only a couple of people know what was said, but the symbolism of the trek back to the hotel wasn’t lost on Watts.

…"I'm the guy with the most experiencing coming back," Watts said in the quiet locker room after the loss. "I'm really going to have to step up and be a leader of this team all summer, helping them get ready for next year."

Little did Watts know that his walk with Altman that day could have been one of the last taken by a Bluejay and the Dean of Missouri Valley Conference coaches.

The Long Flight(s)

So, yeah … Creighton had no basketball coach for a couple of hours in April. You might have heard a little something about it. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, it was kind of a big deal.

April Fools Day fell on a Sunday this past spring, and I walked out of church that morning to find a “missed call” on my phone from my dad. He called to see if I had heard the news. “Altman is going to Kentucky. Tubby left,” he said. I almost went back to the church for confession after dropping a few choice words on the sidewalk, but then thought to myself, “This is it. Altman's gone.” However, being as gullible as I am, my dad had perfectly set me up for the APRIL FOOLS joke. Not a laughing matter, I told him. Don’t play around like that.

What a difference a day makes. Monday, April 2, marked what would have to be a great day. The Cubs (my next favorite team, God help me) were in Cincinnati to start another probably-doomed MLB season (turned out OK, I guess), the NCAA national championship game was to be played that evening, and my fiancé and I were scheduled to start our pre-marital counseling sessions in between those two events (my now-wife is and always has been a loving and compassionate sports fan).

Needless to say, things didn’t exactly go as planned that day. I started hearing rumors that morning about a plane from Arkansas planning a flight to Omaha. So much for rumors. The entire day was one catastrophic punch to the midsection after another; Altman was leaving. Leaving for Arkansas. He’s got a press conference scheduled already? He’s CALLING THE PIGS!?!?!

It was comical, almost. A sincere Altman, standing at a podium with red banners and ferocious Razorback images draped behind him, trying to calmly reiterate that while he was excited for this new job, he knew there were a fair number of people “back home” who wouldn’t be so happy with his decision, while a boisterous crowd of administrators, players, fans, and press gathered to lead the PIG SOOIE chant.

But my buddy Abe Lincoln must have seen something else coming. That evening, the future of Creighton basketball was at best in flux, and at worst disintegrating. The last time a successful head coach left the men’s program, the Rick Johnson era started and bottomed-out with a 7-22 season in 1993-1994 that brought his three-year winning percentage to .289. Altman had rebuilt everything. And now he had flow from Atlanta to Arkansas to Omaha to Arkansas? Really? The future was indeed coming one day at a time, and this day would be remembered by Jays fans far into the future of the program.

Treadmill Terror

Or just until Tuesday, April 3.

Again, Tuesday was a wasteland in my little part of the world. Work was a little more difficult to complete. Lunch didn’t taste as good. I’m not kidding when I say I spent most of my brainpower figuring out who would be the next coach of the Bluejays and what I would do with my original “Altman’s Army” t-shirt.

Like most afternoons, I hit the treadmill. I should have worn a helmet on my jaunt that day, though, because about one mile into my jog the words that would forever change the course of CU athletics ran across the bottom of the TV screen in front of my treadmill.

“Dana Altman.” “Changes mind.” “Coming back.” “Creighton University.” “Flight on its way to Eppley.”

Are. You. Kidding. Me?!?!

That also happened to be what Arkansas fans were thinking, as well. Dana changed his mind. He wanted to come back home. Omaha is home. Creighton is home. And I almost cracked my head on the side of the treadmill.

Was this really happening? Altman was losing most of his scoring and rebounding at CU and was taking over an Arkansas roster full of talent and experience. Rumors again started to swirl. Academic problems in Fayetteville? Staff issues? Or was it just Dana’s love for Creighton? For the administration? For his family’s home?

Again, just like that walk with Watts, only a few people really know what made him change his mind. But what 17,000 people in the seats on Friday night will know, and what many more thousands of Jays fans across the country know, is that they’re happy he’s back.

The Goodbyes

The graduation of Funk, Tolliver, Porter, and Gakou, and Altman’s departure and arrival were not the only personnel changes during the Bluejays’ offseason. Just a week before Altman’s bout with indecision, Creighton assistant Kevin McKenna left his alma mater to coach fellow Valley school Indiana State. Last season’s primary freshman contributor, Isaac Miles, left school and transferred to Murray (KY) State. Brice Nengsu, the athletic-yet-inconsistent enigma sitting toward the end of the bench the previous two seasons, left as well, leaving a few holes in a roster already facing the departure of four seniors. Add Ty Morrison’s 2006 exit from the program into the mix, and you couldn’t help but understand why Altman would be attracted to a school with most of its roster intact from the previous year. But he still had his experienced and well-rounded forward senior-to-be (Watts), he still had his charismatic shooter who has seen just about every situation there is to see in college hoops (Kansas transfer Nick Bahe), he still had his Mr. Hustle (Pierce Hibma), and he still had his floor general (Josh Dotzler) finally healthy.

Who else?

The Hello

On Father’s Day 2007, my dad, my brother, and I went to see the answer to that question ourselves. We slipped into a crowded gym at Omaha South High School, grabbed a few metal folding chairs, and watched for a couple hours as the new faces that would soon grace the Jumbotrons at The Phone Booth ran up and down the floor to the applause of a few hundred Creighton basketball fanatics.

The Council Bluffs Summer League, in its second year, offered a few glimpses at the returning Jays — Dotzler looked stronger, quicker, and still in control; Watts looked faster, fluid; Bahe kept shooting and talking — as well as some focus on some of the Baby Birds. Kenny Lawson and Chad Millard sat on the Jays bench last season, redshirting because of medical issues and transfer rules, respectively. But they played on this day, and played fairly well. Cavel Witter hit the court, flashing his speed and ability to score at will. Booker Woodfox dropped 32 points on a team comprised of mostly current and future Nebraska Cornhuskers. P’Allen Stinnett tried to dunk on anyone and everyone, even attempting to scale Mount (Aleks) Maric.

The summer league allowed for Jays fans to watch the team up close and personal: kids running around with wide eyes, hoping to get an autograph from Tolliver or Dotzler or one of their other favorite players. It also gave fans a sense of comfort: we have players. They might be young, but they are here. They are talented. And if they played this well without Altman around, what kind of things are they capable of with arguably the best coach in Creighton history teaching them for the next few seasons.

Oh, Canada!

If you have a young team with holes throughout the entire roster, what’s the best way to get them to gel? Plays the Canadians! Seriously, though, NCAA Division I schools are allowed a preseason trip every few years, which are preceded by a few weeks of practice. This entry is already pushing 2,000 words, so I’ll spare you the details. However, Altman was able to schedule the Jays to take place in the 2007 Battle of the Border in Calgary. And the Jays, for the most part, did pretty well. They won all five games, scoring more than 85 points in each contest, avenging a close win in the first game against Saskatchewan (87-82) with a blowout against the same team a day later (92-66). The Jays flew back to the states with a lot of quality time on the court, and no catastrophic injuries. Sure beats the last time they went north, when Tyler McKinney almost permanently lost his sight and his college basketball career.

Fingers Crossed

So, after a few weeks off to conform to NCAA guidelines, the Jays started fall practice with some valuable court time and coaching time already under their belts. However, as Altman would be the first to say, they are a long ways away, fellas. Fall practice came and went without any major injuries, however, which is something that has plagued Altman’s teams as of late. By all accounts of practices on the Hilltop, this year’s squad is blessed with speed, talent, and athleticism. However, with loads of inexperience also in tow, don’t expect things to click right away for the newcomers — or Altman’s offense, especially.

The Second Coming

The second coming starts tonight. If you’re going to the game, watch the pregame video closely. The theme sums up what many fans are thinking: this team has talent, but it is currently standing in the shadows of years of proven success.

It is time for the new Jays to take off.

Most people knew what to expect when Funk, Tolliver, Porter, and the other Jays stepped on the floor the last couple of seasons. They knew what to expect from Johnny Mathies. Kyle Korver. Larry House. The Big Fellas (Dabbert, Deren, Grimes). Ryan. Ben. Rodney.

And that is what is great about this season. Everyone will place expectations on this team, but the best part about the journey is that it will happen one day at a time. We’ll be watching as Dotzler and Watts try and do what Sears and Walker did in 1999-2000: Bridge The Gap.

There is no reason why Lawson and Walker and Millard can't equal what Swenson and Brody and Dabbert and Tolliver accomplished.

There is no reason why Cavel and Booker can't bring the same energy and scoring power Larry House, DeAnthony Bowden, and Johnny Mathies brought to the floor.

There is no reason why Kaleb can't add to the Korver legacy his brother Kyle started.

There is no reason P'Allen can't blossom into the all-around terror Buford was on the court.

And because of Altman, and because the future only happens one day at a time, there is no reason the 2007-2008 Creighton Bluejays can't move the program toward new heights.

Altman will get the most out each and every one of these guys and the other Jays on this roster. He has developed dozens of basketball players into successful teams in his tenure at Creighton, and if you believe the backers of the program and the “insiders” who think they know a thing or two about this team, the best is yet to come in a bright future for this team.

Just one day at a time.
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