A Preview of the Madness
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.