Sunday, January 27, 2008

Drake 68, Creighton 60 (OT); Southern Illinois 48, Creighton 44

Reality Bites

(WARNING: The following isn’t so much analysis about the last two Jays games as it is a Sunday morning brain spill. For reviews of the game, please turn to Jays beat writer Steve Pivovar’s recaps of the crushing overtime loss to Drake and the even more frustrating defeat at SIU. If you want to know what is on my mind this morning, keep reading.)

Bear with me this morning. I’ve got a lot of Dunkin' Donuts coffee running through my veins, a lot of thoughts bouncing in my brains, and two Bluejays losses on my mind. Those ingredients comprise a volatile concoction.

When I was an immature 13-year-old, I considered 1994 the worst year of my life. Granted, that’s looking back 14 years (wow … can it really be that long ago!?!) and adding all of the weird and completely meaningless things together that I thought, at the time, were completely compelling and important, but you catch my drift. I was in 8th grade, for goodness sakes.

Starting in 1987 and continuing until the spring of 1994, I spent my formative years listening to the ferocious rock of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, the “grungy” albums Ten and Nevermind from Pearl Jam and Nirvana, respectively, and all of the Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers in between.

During that same time, I watched the first basketball games I can remember. Bob Harstad (#2 on CU’s all-time scoring list) and Chad Gallagher (#3 on the same list) were freshmen during the 1987-1988 season. From their sophomore seasons until they graduated, and from the time I was 8 until I was 10, all they did was win. I really had no idea what was going on, but I considered those guys gods. Duan Cole could do no wrong. The Long Distance Matts (Roggenburk and Petty) couldn’t miss a three-pointer. And the Dynamic Duo, Harstad and Gallagher, were unstoppable.

All of that came to a screeching halt in March of 1991. The Jays beat New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but then lost their second-round game against Seton Hall. No more Harstad. No more Gallagher. Tony Barone left for Texas A&M, and Rick Johnson was named head coach.

The next three seasons were a blur. The Jays went from winning 20 games back-to-back-to-back during the Duo’s sophomore, junior, and senior seasons to promptly losing 19 games the year after they left. Then came an 8-18 year, followed by a 7-22 season that featured a 2-5 start with the two wins coming against University of Nebraska-Omaha at the Civic and Florida A&M at Ak-Sar-Ben. That’s right … the Jays played a home game at Ak-Sar-Ben.

That was 1994. Actually, that win over Florida A&M (who, sadly enough, didn’t bring their award-winning marching band – if so, that probably would have been the highlight of the afternoon) came in December 1993. Just a few weeks before, in that same building, Nirvana (a.k.a. “My favorite band on Earth” at the time) played on a Thursday night. A few months earlier they had released In Utero, the studio follow-up to the transcendent Nevermind. My friend Danny Maxwell (check out his band Little Brazil) called me that fateful Thursday evening. His brother had an extra ticket to see Nirvana.

I passed. The Jays were hosting Nebraska at the Civic.

That’s right. A mere four months before Nirvana’s lead singer would cease to exist, I chose to watch Nate King and the Jays lose to NU by 14 points. I figured I could see Nirvana again, after the inevitable follow-up to In Utero came out a few years later and they hit the road for another massive tour.

Needless to say, that game against NU wasn’t one of Johnson’s seven wins that season, only three of which were Valley victories. And needless to say, Nirvana wouldn’t tour again. In April 1994, two of my favorite things in life — CU hoops, and my idea of the only good music that existed — were in complete disarray. No more great grunge albums were on the horizon; it was a music genre that had seen its rise to popularity stop almost instantly with the death of Cobain. This was punctuated with the opening of the movie Reality Bites in February 1994, which was the anti-thesis of what grunge music represented. It was the death blow to my favorite music and the introduction of main-stream “alternative” music, which as a term encompassed the kind of artists and music that would have made Cobain and others cringe.

And reality did bite at that time. 22 losses. I wasn’t part of the generation Cobain belonged to or wrote his music based on, but I was part of the generation who merely thought the music rocked. At the same time, I wasn’t part of the generation that really appreciated how good the late 80s and early 90s were for Creighton hoops, but I knew that seven wins weren’t going to cut it.

But just as one part of my life was seemingly come to an abrupt end, another was being rescued. Less than a week before Cobain killed himself and effectively ended the music genre I loved, Dana Altman was introduced as the 14th head coach in the history of Creighton Bluejays men’s basketball.

The rest, as they say, is history, but for some Jays fans it is the only history they know. There are some Jays fans that spent their formative years watching Altman resurrect the CU hoops program. For them, the reality that right now we are an average basketball team does more than bite … the unfamiliarity is scary. Ten years after Harstad and Gallagher started their Creighton careers, Altman and Rodney Buford led the Jays to 18 wins and a second-place MVC finish. For the 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old Jays fans running around the Civic during that season, they know nothing but victories.

Freshmen and sophomores at Creighton right now who grew up in Omaha haven’t seen the Jays finish lower than 4th place in the conference since they’ve been paying attention to CU hoops. They haven’t seen the Jays lose more than 4 conference games more than once or twice in their lives (the Jays are currently 5-4 in MVC play). They’ve seen seven trips to the NCAA tournament. They’re also the ones probably freaking out the most after back-to-back losses to Drake at home and Southern Illinois on the road.

The reality is that the Jays are in the middle of the pack of a tough conference; not only in the standings but in the statistics, as well. But this isn’t an underachieving team full of veterans; these Jays are inexperienced. That is the reality. P’Allen Stinnett has shown some amazing abilities on the basketball court. But he has played like a freshman more often than he has played like a veteran. Realistically, were this year’s Jays the MVC team best suited to leave Carbondale with a win? Probably not. Does this year’s team have the composure suited to pull out a close overtime win against a team that has one loss so far this year and has won more than just a few close games? Probably not. That’s the reality.

But you know what else is a reality? Dana Altman almost always has his teams playing their best basketball of the season toward the end of the year. February starts next week, and that is usually where Altman and the Jays make up the most ground. This Creighton squad is young but talented, inexperienced but getting accustom to MVC play, and on the wrong end of some close scores but competing hard. Reality bites right now, but if history is any predictor things will get better. They seemingly always do.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Creighton 86, Indiana State 69

The Good Kind of “Sick”

Chad Millard was sick last night, but not the good kind of “sick”.

Not “sick” as in “man, P’Allen’s dunk over that 6-10 Chinese dude from Nebraska was sick.” Not “sick” as in “Drake won again last night?! That’s sick.” Nope, the kind of sick that involves puking and IVs and exactly what you expect sick to mean in the middle of January.

Creighton’s last game against Indiana State made a lot of people sick, and a small part of that was Millard’s play. The only thing he accomplished during his 10 minutes of play in that 62-54 loss was throwing a flagrant elbow in the direction of a Sycamore player, which resulted in a technical foul against the Jays and effectively ended his time as a starter for Dana Altman this season.

He’s been steadily improving his hustle and level of play (and, as a result, his minutes) during the past couple of games. It is too bad he was sick last night. If the rest of the team’s actions and intensity were any indication, Millard might have posted the best game of his relatively young Creighton career.

Millard's shot wasn't what he was throwing up during the Jays' win vs. ISU

After being embarrassed in Terre Haute earlier in the month, the Jays were firing on all cylinders in the home rematch with (and homecoming of) Kevin McKenna and his Indiana State squad. Led by the potent scoring duo of junior Booker Woodfox and sophomore Cavel Witter and the shot-blocking ability of freshman Kenny Lawson Jr., Creighton led from start to finish and won their fifth straight MVC game since starting 0-2 after dropping the road game with ISU.

The Jays shot 57% from the field for the game, including 52% from three-point range (they hit 12 three-pointers), and 82% from the free-throw line. In fact, for an entire 40-minute stretch, last night marked the Jays’ highest shooting percentage this season. And the shots were falling from everywhere. Almost half of Creighton’s 15 first-half field goals came from long range, led by Woodfox’s 3 three-pointers and 2 each from Witter and Nick Bahe. In fact, those three Jays outscored Indiana State by themselves for the first 20 minutes.

Woodfox puts the "jump" in jumpshot

And Witter and Woodfox didn’t stop at halftime. Woodfox was actually better in the second half, at least based on percentages. He was a perfect 3 for 3 from the field — all three-pointers — and tallied a career-high 20 points on the night. Witter spent a lot of his time in the second half at the free-throw line, going 6 for 8 from the charity stripe and finishing with a career-high 21 points.

Woodfox has tallied 36 points against the Sycamores in two games this year. Think those numbers make McKenna a little queasy?

He was a lot happier when he got the job than he was last night doing the job

But it wasn’t just Booker and Cavel chopping down the trees last night. Lawson, the young but talented pivot who is steadily increasing his production, swatted a career-high 5 shots last night, to go with his 8 points and 8 rebounds (7 defensive) in 22 minutes of action. Couple those numbers with Walker’s 4 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 block in 13 minutes of play, and you’ve got yourself a center posting a dozen points, a dozen rebounds, and half a dozen blocked shots in 35 minutes. That’s the good kind of “sick”.

Lawson continues to improve on defense and when crashing the boards

Two familiar names usually responsible for a decent number of the Jays’ points each game, Dane Watts and Stinnett, didn’t play as well as CU fans have come to expect of the senior and freshman. Stinnett picked up a couple of quick fouls (déjà vu to the last game he played against ISU) and scored 6 points in just 18 minutes. Watts hit the boards hard, cleaning up 8 rebounds, but made just 2 of 6 field goals and finished with 7 points. On a night when two of the top 15 scorers in the league posted about half of their season averages, it had to make McKenna sick that his Sycamores could get no closer than 10 points for the last 30 minutes of the game.

Want to know a few other numbers that are causing some upset stomachs among the other MVC coaches?

  • Woodfox’s three-point shooting percentage has catapulted during the last 7 games, placing him among the top five most accurate long-range shooters in the conference. He’s knocking down trifectas at a 47% clip for the season, including an eye-popping 63% during MVC games. Among players with 20 or more three-point attempts in conference play, he is the best statistical three-point shooter by more than 10 percentage points than the next closest player (Illinois State’s Levi Dyer, who hit 5 of his 12 long-range shots in conference play against the Jays in one game). Simply put, Booker is scorching hot from outside the arc.

  • The Jays have won 5 straight MVC games, including 3 conference road games. Four of their next 6 games are at home, including Tuesday night’s showdown against league-leading Drake (7-0 in Valley play). In fact, the Jays get the Bulldogs twice in 8 days, and will face another set of nasty canines (the Southern Illinois Salukis) in between match-ups with DU. Drake’s the only team in the Valley with as much momentum as Creighton right now, and the Jays have a chance to disrupt the Bulldogs’ rhythm twice in a week.

  • Creighton leads the Valley in blocked shots during conference play. For a team that had absolutely no proven defensive presence in the low post coming into this year, Creighton’s young pivots have been learning on the fly during the first half of the season. But beginning with Lawson’s first career start (in the third conference game) and through the first one-third of the MVC slate, Lawson, Walker, Watts, and Millard have continued to swat shots away at an accelerating rate. Lawson’s 1.43 blocks per game, Walker’s 1.33, and Watts’ 1.14 are good enough to rank third, fourth, and seventh, respectively, during MVC play.

The Jays were standing at 0-2 after two conference contests, and a sickening feeling was setting in among diehard Bluejays fans. But Altman had a remedy, and the Jays have posted a nice winning streak that keeps them in contention for a regular season championship. They’re looking up at two teams in the standings, and they’ve got two chances to take out the Lead Dog (literally) in the next 8 days.

These things won’t cure Millard’s illness, but hopefully they’ll make him feel a little bit better. The 17,300-plus people in attendance last night felt a bit better, and I’m sure Altman does too.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Live "Glog" --- CU @ UNI (ESPN2, 6 p.m.)

OK. Something new.

It is a chilly night in The Big O, so my wife and I decided to stay in tonight and watch ESPN2's non-HD broadcast of tonight's Creighton-Northern Iowa tilt.

To make things even more interesting, I decided to introduce a new challenge to Bluejay Basketball. Tonight will be the premier of the in-game "glog," which we all know is shorthand for "game log." Not as sexy and catchy as "blog," mind you; in fact, it sounds like some sound that would follow a winter cough or sneeze.

The glog will serve a couple specific goals. Two specifically:
  • It will help me work on my swearing problem during heated Jays games. Hopefully with a minute-by-minute deadline I'll be too busy typing away and listening to both my wife's heady commentary and my buddy Panon's hilarious observations to swear at lazy turnovers or missed box out opportunities.

  • It will help me work on my speed typing, which is always important. Maybe I can take over for the fired Hollywood writers and quickly pen a few pilots once I get my typing speed up to Cavel Witter-type speed.

So, here we go. We'll post during every ESPN2 commercial. If it was an NFL game, we'd be able to write a book. However, we'll see how many updates that translates to during an ESPN2 basketball broadcast.

Just two Jays fans sharing their thoughts. As Stuart Smalley would say, "is that so wrong?!"

6:00 p.m.: We have our first technical difficulty -- the DVR just shorted out. But we're back, just in time to see P'Allen Stinnett drain a 3. Why not, he's made almost everything lately.

With 14:37 left in the 1st half:

Pro: great steal by Josh Dotzler near the timeline. Con: Overthrows a 6-9 Kenny Lawson on an alley-oop attempt. Hard to throw it over a guy's head when he has arms longer than someone from the Fantastic Four.

P'Allen launches his second long-range shot, this time it is waaay out. He shot that thing from Waterloo. And it was nothing but nylon (T. Scott Marr-style).

Note to Panthers fans: Don't beg for ESPN broadcasts if you don't plan on filling the seats. LOTS of empty spots in the lower sections. Is this Qwest Center Northeast?

Commentator (and frequent turnover artist against the Jays) Doug Gottlieb says that UNI 7-footer Jordan Egelseder could turn into a pro. Like Patrick O'Bryant? That's for you, Braves fans.

Lawson should take notes from his fellow frosh, Kenton Walker, re: dunking. USE TWO HANDS.

With 10:21 left in the first half:

What? Illegal screen on UNI? Jeez, I thought only the Bluejays were the only team called for that foul in the MVC.

Nick Bahe hit is first three-pointer, but misses two good looks with two in-and-out 3s.

P'Allen all over the place, yet can't finish on an inside lob further away from the hoop than initially planned, and can't corral a steal in front of UNI's Eric Coleman. Those would have been two huge momentum-swinging plays.

Coleman is a flat-out beast. Not that we needed an in-game, live "glog" to point that out.

With 7:56 left in the first half:

Gottleib just started dropping the "when I was at Oklahoma St., we played Creighton twice. Boy, they were good." That's because you turned the ball over all the time, Doug. Plus, you missed a bunch of free throws.

Booker Woodfox = Ice Man. Cold water runs through the veins in his shooting hand, I swear.

The Bluejays are putting TONS of defensive pressure on the Panthers right now, but they've been burned on a couple of sell-out lunges for steals between the three-point arc and midcourt.

With 5:45 left in the first half:

Bahe another wide-open miss. Panon asked if he's too wide open.

And just when he gets done saying that, Bahe with the hoop and the harm after a steal by Walker. Makes the free throw.

Kaleb Korver makes his first apperance in 54 minutes of game action.

And just as that happens, Coleman get an offensive goal tend, errr, I mean a tip-dunk, and then future Gottleib NBA draft pick Egelseder gets a travel, errr, I mean a lay-up after picking up his dribble in the lane and not deciding what he wanted to do with it until Walker had seemingly lost interest in defending the shot.

CU 28, UNI 26. Jays timeout to slow things down.

With 3:25 left in the first half:

Missed 3 by Watts with a good look in the corner

Egelseder again with a missed shot but gets his own tip to go. Draft stock moving up. Where would Kiper put him?

Dotzler with the jump shot. Nope, that's not a typo.

30-second timeout by UNI, but to quote the play-by-play dudes, "we'll keep it right here."

With 3:13 left in the first half:

Immediately following coming back from the 30-second timeout, UNI knocks the ball out of Korver's hands and out of bounds. So, it's the under-4 media timeout. Time to catch a few breaths around here.

It must not be such an exciting game, since my wife is cheering while reading a novel. That's why she's brilliant, though: best multitasker around, I'll put money on it.

Jays up by 5 with the basketball, but have gone a little colder since starting the game absolutely torrid from the field. Dana Altman's got his sub pattern working its magic, and you can almost hear Coleman gasping for air as he sees Lawson and Walker and Millard and Watts check in and out for one another. Jealous much?

With 0.00 left in the first half:

Coleman now with a goal tend on both sides, and neither were called. He "blocked" a Millard shot on the drive. Whatever.

P'Allen catches the ball in the corner. Quick pump fake, makes a few moves, and blows past Poor Guy #22. Foul. Not surprised.

Watts with a spin move but loses it because of double team pressure. That's his kryptonite, those double-teams just under the foul line.

Stop me if you've heard this before: Witter moves the ball quickly and easily into the frontcourt, but then ... wait for it ... can't seem to slow down and turns it over. Oh well.

Egelseder looks like Buffalo Bill from "Silence of the Lambs." He's about one more basket away from throwing on a mumu and dancing with make-up on.

UNI misses their final shot, the clock runs out, and the Jays head to the break with a 7-point lead, 35-28.

HALFTIME BREAK ... PASTA DINNER by the wife ... perfecto!

Let's start the second half ....

Watts steps out and hits a three, followed by Stinnett's mid-range jumpshot. Getting close to a big run from the Jays.

And it commences, as Bahe misses a shot, but Watts keeps it alive for Lawson, who slows down his game a bit and waits for P'Allen to cut to the hoop for the nifty dish and layup. AND ONE!

(Side note: Poor Guy #22, unlike Poor Guy #14, is from Ankeny, my wife's home town. And unlike the Ankeny Bulldog, Ryan Sears, this Poor Guy isn't playing well. At all. His hip check on P'Allen is his 4th foul, which will most likely relegate him to the bench with a seat next to non-playing Ben Jacobsen.)

With 14:30 left in the 2nd half:

Gottleib manages to mess up Stinnett's halftime shoe switch story. Doesn't matter, though ... P hits the free throw.

And Gottleib won't let his mistakes in the story rest. Give it up, self-proclaimed champion of the mighty mid-major MVC.

Bahe makes a dude fall with his crazy moves in tradition (actually, the dude just fell down. We'll credit it to Bahe's shifty moves), then with two Jays converging on the wings, he decides to pull up and MAKE a mid-range jumper. Nice execution

Lawson just got P'Allen'd; oh, wait, I mean posterized by Coleman. Watts didn't help, either. Makes the free throw after the and-one opportunity.

How many tip chance can you get? What is this, Vegas? Jeez ... more than five opportunities for an offensive put-back after a missed 3 by Milard, but Pierce and Kenton can't make it happen.

With 11:01 left in the 2nd half:

Here comes Creighton's 3rd straight game blowing a double-digit lead. A 15-point bulge to start the half has now dwindled to 9 after a 1 for 2 trip to the free throw line for Millard. Hold your breaths starting now...

Watts not strong with the ball again facing a double team. He needs to get the ball out quicker. it is a necessity. (Side note: Dane got a hair cut, and looks Marine-esque. He's grabbing some rebounds with Marine-like intensity, too.)

UNI is now on a 14-1 run, which leads Altman to call a timeout.

All of this Panther offense occurred with their best player on the bench catching a rest.

Panon keeps whispering "deja vu," and he couldn't be more right. It's like Harriman and Millard are out there trying to guard Spencer Laurie, PJ Couisnard, and Gal Mekel.

Millard answers with a big 3, then Harriman takes a charge! Let's go to the break.

With 7:56 left in the 2nd half:

Always looking for a slogan or a selling point, this week has been dubbed by the brains at ESPN as "A Week of Impact." Seriously? "A Week of Impact"? From now on, I'm calling this week "AWOI".

Rodney "Rodzilla" Buford reference by Gottleib. I miss Rodney.

Jays are ICE COLD, and the Panthers hit another trey.

49-45 Jays, who are in danger out giving up their hard-earned lead again.

Watts get drilled by Mr. Double Double, Eric Coleman. But he makes both free throws.

Lead back to 7, heading into a timeout on the floor.

With 5:17 left in the 2nd half:

Bahe's shifty moves get him in trouble, as he's called for palming and carrying the basketball. Turnover Jays, their 10th of the night.


Gregg Marshall in the house! Coleman flopped, little contact (nothing malicious, for sure, especially from Millard, the elbow-wielder), but Jacobsen thought it was and Bahe knocks down his second set of technical free throws in as many games.


Bahe on the other end of a beautiful backdoor pass by Millard! Jays up 9!

Watts for three after a great steal by Stinnett! Jays up by 12!

Altman with a smile, are you kidding me?!?!?

Panon says DE JA VU again, this time because of the similar run CU went on after Marshall's techincal no-no Saturday against Wichita. Just don't blow this lead now, Bluejays.

With 3:44 left in the game:

GREAT stat by ESPN2 during the game. The Jays started the game 4-4 shooting, then went on a 2-16 slide, and has now made their last 3 shots. To quote Altman from last week's Omaha World-Herald, these guys are "consistently inconsistent".

Jays turn it over, then Watts bails out a Panther guard trapped in the corner with 5 left on the shot clock with a foul. Under-4 media time out is here.

With 2:46 left in the game:

Altman's "Hurry Down" offense does it again. No shot on the possession after UNI hits some free throws, as Millard and Dotzler pass up open looks to run out the clock. This isn't Big 10 football, guys.

And just like that, UNI hits a 3 off the turnover. This is shaping up to be another cardiac finish for our Jays...

With 1:06 left in the game:

Jays run the clock down again after a missed attempt by the Panthers, but this time Bahe gets a shot off on a nice dribble penetration by The General, Dotzler, and he HITS A HUGE THREE.

Dotzler then hits two free throws, the Jays force a turnover by Coleman, and with a minute left they're up by 12 and going to the stripe to add to their total.

With less than a minute left in the game...

Watts misses the front end of a one-and-one, P'Allen only connects on one of two shots, and then he tries to steal it from behind and puts Jared Josten (second-best free throw shooter in the Valley) on the line again. Jays up 9. Bahe gets trapped in the backcourt and has to take a timeout.

Seriously, try HARDER to give the game away. Although, Altman can't get mad because of defensive intensity ... Stinnett and Millard are trying to steal, but they shouldn't be.

And then Dotzler throws it down the court ... to a Panther. Out of a timeout. And UNI scores 2 points. Ugh. Makes. Me. Sick.

With 34.9 seconds left in the game:

Jays give it away on a tie ball. Seriously, I'm not making this up. However, Creighton dials up a nice defensive set and forces a turnover as UNI tries to inbounds the ball. Watts get fouled, but he had a clear path the hoop for a layup. He makes me forget that, though, because he hits two free throws.

And the Jays win!

68-59 is your final, in a game the Jays could have easily won by 15 points. But as they say, and win on the road is a good win, and I'm sure Altman will take this one. But Creighton's lack of ability to close out other teams (regardless of where the game is) leaves me scratching my head.

So for Panon and my wife, we'll sign off and I'll go ice my fingers ... this live updating thing has taken its toll.

Go Jays! Next up, a Saturday Showdown during "AWeek of Impact" (wow, it makes me shiver with akwardness to type that "slogan" from The Sports Leader) with Indiana State. The Jays are looking to exact revenge upon the Sycamores.

Creighton 77, Evansville 59; Creighton 68, Wichita St. 65

Rebounding and Defense

If you’ve heard Dana Altman say it once, you’ve heard him say it a million times; his Bluejays teams always must play better defense and rebound more passionately. Heck, if Big Sports 590 AM or T. Scott Marr himself wanted to sell a new sponsorship of Altman’s post-game interview, a home security company or online dating service just might be the right marketers for the segment. No matter if his team wins by 2 or 20, Altman consistently speaks to Jays fans driving home from the Qwest Center or listening on the couch after road games about the need for bending knees and banging for boards.

Altman's gotta be pumped up by his team's rebound from a 0-2 MVC start

So while Altman’s Jays actually lost the battle of the boards against Evansville (41-39) and barely edged Wichita State in the same category (27-26), metaphorically the Jays continue to elevate their rebounding effort. You see, after posting a near-perfect 9-1 start to the season, the Jays were knocked down a branch or two to start the Missouri Valley Conference season. Losses at home to Illinois State and on the road to Indiana State served as a violent wake-up call to a young team that may or may not have gotten ahead of itself in terms of “Bracketology” projections and other such post-season non-sense. But what has occurred since is a mixture of natural talent, peer leadership, and experienced and proven coaching methods, all leading to a three-game rebound.

The first step was as difficult as it was exciting; executing 25 minutes of inspired, heady, and enthusiastic team play against Missouri State, bracing for the inevitable run by the home team, and then riding the clutch performance of your star freshman to win by one point. Figuratively, all of Altman’s players answered the challenge and elevated their effort to rebound — not the ball, per se, but their season. Going 0-3 to start MVC play would have been tantamount to disaster; just ask the Bradley Braves.

Adding Black and Blue to the Purple Aces

So last Wednesday, when the Purple Aces arrived on the Jays’ home court, the symbolic rebounding effort had to be there, but so did something else: defense. Not the kind that comes with sliding feet to get into position or getting a hand on a steal or taking a charge; defense of momentum, of the home court.

Don’t get me wrong, the literal kind of defense is good, too. In fact, that’s what triggered the win against Evansville. The Aces shot just 38% in the first half, and Creighton blocked 2 of their shots, stole the ball 5 times, and forced 7 turnovers. It got even better in the second half, once the Jays started hitting a few more shots and getting some explosive play off of Evansville turnovers. They forced 12 more EU turnovers, blocked 7 more shots (Kenny Lawson Jr. had 3 and Kenton Walker had 2 in the second half), and recorded 7 more steals while holding the Aces to sub-40% shooting again.

The Jays defended the momentum they seized on the road at Missouri State, and the rebound from the inauspicious start to conference play continued. The sweet home cooking back in Omaha would end soon enough, however, as the team would leave for its third road game in four contests.

Lawson has cracked the starting lineup and made a difference defensively against EU...

... While Walker is blocking shots and providing energy in limited back-up minutes

Worked Up In Wichita

Speaking of a team needing to rebound, I present to you the Wichita State Shockers. Nope, not the team led by fearless former head coach Mark Turgeon. Not the team that went to the Sweet 16 just a few seasons ago. A team without the “Walking Afro,” Sean Ogirri. A team without Kyle Wilson, who hit big shot after big shot after big shot against the Jays in his time as a Shocker. No, this is Gregg Marshall’s team. Or maybe it isn’t.

You see, in the days leading up to the showdown against the Shockers, much was made locally in Omaha about the behavior of the new Head Wheat Shocker as it relates to his, errr, grace under fire. With his team 8-7 coming into the weekend and with just one win in conference play, Marshall has been critical of his team’s play and its talent. He had voiced his displeasure with his current players publicly a few times, including jabbing remarks about how these players aren’t “his guys” and that if he had his kinds of players here right now the team would be faring much better.

This was a familiar sight Saturday night, except Marshall was a bit more, um "emotional"

But these are his players; they’re the players he’s being paid handsomely to coach and teach and make better. And for most of the game against the Jays, it actually looked like it was working. The crowd was in a frenzy, the Shockers hit two end-of-shot-clock jump shots in the first 10 minutes of the game, and even though the Jays were hot from the field you got a sense the Shockers were going to bring all they could to deny the Jays their continued emphasis on rebounding and defense.

The game went back and forth through the first 30 minutes of action. With 11 minutes to play, WSU tied the game for the eleventh time, a fortune that would be short lived. The next time down the court, Josh Dotzler hit a shot. Then, Shocker Wendell Preadom committed a foul, causing Marshall to fling his suit jacket off in disgust and orchestrate a few arm motions toward the officials.

Bingo. Technical foul. Open the flood gates.

Two technical free throws by Nick Bahe. Two free throws by Dotzler. A three-pointer by Dane Watts. A blocked shot by Watts. A basket by Cavel Witter. A jump shot by P’Allen Stinnett. Another bucket by Witter.

Twelve point lead. Just like that, in 5 minutes of action, the Jays led by a dozen. Marshall had egg on his face, with the CU run occurring immediately after his childish technical. Just like the Missouri State game the home team would storm back, partially because of some horrible mistakes and untimely personal fouls by the Bluejays and partially because of some long-range masterpieces from P.J. Couisnard and Mantas Griskenas. With just under 2 minutes to play, the game was tied again.

But the defense and rebounding continued, and when it mattered most the Jays headed Altman’s advice and won the way he knows teams must, especially on the road — grabbing boards and hitting the deck. After missing a shot, Stinnett tracked down his own miss for an offensive board and was fouled on the put-back attempt (missed the shot). He calmly hit two free throws (just like he did all night a week previous against Barry Hinson’s Bears). He took a charge during the last two minutes of the game, as well. And when the Jays needed a stop, Dotzler stole an errant pass from WSU’s Gal Mekel and went coast-to-coast for the lay-up to put the Jays up by 4. Dotzler would foul Mekel, leading to two free throws, but Stinnett would score the final point of the night from the free-throw line, the Jays defended the final shot attempt by the Shockers, and cheered their way off the floor with a three-point lead.

Stinnett’s all-around gems against EU and WSU earned him MVC Newcomer of the Week honors … for the second week in a row and the third time this season.

Rebounding and defense. Defense and rebounding. Altman wouldn’t have it any other way. And with his players seemingly buying in to those philosophies, an emblematic rise back to the top one-third of the MVC standings has taken place.

Your “Two-for-Tuesday Rock Block” Bonus Blog: I’m going to try something different during tonight’s game versus Northern Iowa. With it being on a Tuesday (boring), on the road in the middle of Iowa (boring), and on national television (ESPN2 … the opposite of boring), I’m going to pull a “Bill Simmons” and record an in-game diary of all the action.

Scratch that. Delete “diary” and replace it with “analysis and witty banter”. It sounds much more masculine. I guess.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Feast and Famine

Feast and Famine

Creighton’s 50-49 victory at Missouri State last Saturday conjured mixed emotions among my fellow Jays fans I watched the game with. The locally produced television broadcast was extremely confusing at some points (not that I’m complaining about having almost every CU road game carried on at least some sort of television channel), both because of the sometimes perplexing commentary and the even more erratic play of the Jays. Sifting through the statistical anomaly that is the box score from the Jays’ final game at the Hammons Student Center proves more frustrating than anything; I was impressed with the Jays’ hard-fought, backs-against-the-wall victory, but rather stunned by the game data.

Altman has called on both P'Allen and Dane to lead the Jays' offense

First Half

  • Creighton holds MSU to 18% shooting (4-22 from the field), allowing just 15 points. The Jays talked following the Indiana State loss about the lack of energy and emotion evident during the setback in Terre Haute. Their first 20 minute of defensive play against Barry Hinson’s Bears seemed to channel a level of effort Jays fans haven’t seen in what seems like a long time. Creighton picked 6 steals, one of which led to another signature P’Allen Stinnett slam dunk, and added 4 first-half blocks (two of which came from Kenton Walker, the gifted true freshman who was the first man off the bench for new starter Kenny Lawson Jr.).
  • Stinnett scores 10 points in 10 minutes. Much has been made in the past week (well, really the past month) about the Las Vegas freshman’s torrid talent, which seems to be matched only by a somewhat burning attitude. Altman went out of his way in different media reports to reiterate his message to the future Bluejay star, which was simple and seemed to prove effective: focus on making plays and supporting your teammates, not on complaining and jawing with the opponents and officials. The young man, who CU fans can tell wants nothing more than to win and to support his fellow Jays, adhered to Altman’s wishes, and it paid off in every statistical category. Stinnett led the Jays in scoring for the half and played solid defense after a few missed assignments early in the stanza.
  • Twelve Bluejays saw meaningful minutes, or at least made meaningful contributions in limited minutes. Senior Dane Watts, playing in front of family and friends making the short trip from Warrensburg to Springfield, recorded 5 points and 3 rebounds while pacing the Jays with 15 minutes of action in the first half. As mentioned earlier, Lawson started and played 11 minutes, scoring 4 points and recording 4 rebounds. And even though his backup, Walker, only played 2 minutes, he blocked 2 shots and grabbed a board in his limited minutes. Junior guard Booker Woodfox continued where he left off against ISU, during which he scored a career-high 16 points. In 8 minutes of action, he had 4 rebounds and hit his only shot attempt — yep, you guessed it … a three-pointer.

Second Half

  • Jays shoot just 22% (4-18 from the field), make just 1 of 10 three-pointers, and record only 1 assist. Wow. Didn’t see this coming. Talk about regressing back to the woes of the Indiana State loss. Creighton not only scored only 4 baskets in the half, but not one Bluejay had more than one field goal make — no one could get on track. Creighton turned the 14-point halftime lead to an 18-point margin two minutes into the second half. MSU whittled away the lead, however, and CU’s only three-pointer of the half came at a crucial time. Watts hit his second long-range shot of the game at the 11:33 mark, putting a temporary stop to a 10-0 Bear run.
  • Creighton turns the basketball over to Missouri State 13 times in the second half. As previously mentioned, the Jays started the second half where they left off at halftime. Watts and Stinnett each scored two free throws, and in the middle of those points Lawson hit another sweet jump shot from just outside the paint.

    And then nothing. Nada. For the next 7 minutes, the Jays couldn’t even get shots off, and when they did they missed badly. Evidence: the following plays occurred during that 10-0 run for MSU ...
    - 16:42 Woodfox turnover
    - 16:19 Josh Dotzler turnover
    - 15:42 Walker turnover
    - 15:10 Cavel Witter turnover
    - 14:23 Nick Bahe turnover
    - 14:00 Missed 3 Pierce Hibma
    - 13:42 Lawson turnover
    - 13:07 Stinnett turnover
    - 12:54 Dotzler turnover (charge call)
    - 12:05 Witter turnover

    I highlighted Hibma’s missed shot because it was the only attempt the Jays made from the field during the sickly streak. Turnovers yet again cost the Jays; this time it kept them from increasing a lead on the road, instead of in the past when the mistakes halted their comeback attempts against Xavier, Illinois State, and the Sycamores.

    Witter was hit hardest by the bad kind of generosity; his game-high 7 turnovers signaled rock bottom for the sophomore guard from Kansas City who started his Jays career with numerous nifty plays and a 20-point outburst at Drexel. It was fitting then, during this strange game, that Witter was the only Bluejay to record an assist in the second half. Everyone made their fair share of mistakes, though. For the game, starting guards Dotzler (3 TOs) and Bahe (3) and go-to scorers Watts (2) and Stinnett (2) all had more turnovers than assists.
  • Stinnett goes cold from the field, but heats up at the free throw line. In the first half, Stinnett yet again had a streak during which it seemed he could do no wrong offensively. Whether it was pull-up jump shots or drives to the basket, he was seemingly unstoppable. But after his customary shoe change, his golden touch from the field disappeared. P’Allen went 0-6 from the floor and 0-3 from long range (including a rushed three-point attempt with 3:25 left on the clock and the Jays trying to expand on a 3-point lead).

    However, Altman trusted his freshman to make plays, and regardless of Stinnett’s troubles from the field asked him to shoulder the offensive load down the stretch. The young phenom obliged, pressuring the MSU defense and drawing foul after foul against a Bears team that seemed a step slow trying to contain the explosive athlete. He scored all of his 8 second-half points from the free-throw line, going 8-10 and knocking down the eventual game-winning point with 56 seconds to play. He was also involved, along with Hibma, in forcing a Bears turnover immediately following that go-ahead free throw, which allowed the Jays to run another 30-odd seconds off the clock.

Hopefully, Saturday night was a defining moment for Stinnett and the rest of the Jays. Only they can build on the effort, and it begins Wednesday at home against Evansville. It is a game the Jays should win, but stranger things have happened — like the complete change between the first and second halves against Barry Hinson’s hapless MSU Bears.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Illinois State 80, Creighton 67; Indiana State 62, Creighton 54; Creighton 50, Missouri State 49

The Amazing Race

My idea of reality television is whatever sporting event happens to be on ESPN or the dozen other sports-specific channels on digital cable. I never became an addicted devotee to “Survivor”. I gave up on “The Real World” after Pedro and Puck and before the show’s participants became caricatures of what former Real Worlders they were supposed to portray – the heavy-drinking Southern boy, the flirtatious and flighty sorority girl, and the rest of the promiscuous and emotionally unstable guys and girls.

To the best of my knowledge, the endless hours of hoops and football and baseball games I devoured were the only true reality TV. The number of shots falling on the court or runs scoring in a given inning never seems scripted, even if some officials’ calls did. But my wife, who shares my love of sports and competition (but who is able to apply a more realistic and level-headed approach to her fandom) has me hooked on one of her favorite reality TV shows -- “The Amazing Race,” an Emmy-winning adventure across the globe.

I’m not exactly a connoisseur of The Race, but I get the gist of things. Each of about a dozen different teams complete both physical and intellectual challenges to vie for better position in a contest sending them from one country to another in search of the next clue and prize. But just like the games on the television screen, just when some things on The Race seem too good to be true, that’s because they probably are.

Get Ready for The Amazing Race, MVC-Style

The same can be said for Creighton’s last couple of games. If you looked at the statistics and the 9-1 record compiled by Dana Altman’s team in the non-conference section of their schedule, there wasn’t much to complain about. The race started quickly against DePaul, the Jays kept up the pace against Nebraska, and they experienced some smooth sailing against a series of lesser foes the week before Christmas. If this was “The Amazing Race,” the Jays were about due for a “Detour” on their road toward the finish line. They received a few in the past week.

Redbirds Get Another One

Coming into this Missouri Valley Conference season, Creighton had lost only six conference contests at the Qwest Center. One … twothreefour of those failures came against the Southern Illinois Salukis (a team that hasn’t lost in The Phone Booth), and the other two occurred during the 2004-2005 season. Barry Hinson’s Southwest Missouri State Bears (yes, before the name change) beat the Jays behind a solid game from Blake Ahern, and Trey Guidry led Illinois State to an overtime victory on the Jays’ home floor two weeks earlier.

The Redbirds are the only team besides SIU to have more than one win against the Jays in the Crown Jewel of Valley arenas, and they got there by dismantling Creighton’s previously steady full-court pressure defense and stifling the Jays’ offensive rhythm. P’Allen Stinnett poured in 22 points and flashed a little more of his signature style and overwhelming athleticism, but it wasn’t enough to counteract a balanced offensive attack featuring five ISU players scoring in double figures.

In fact, it was Creighton’s worst home loss since 1996. It was reminiscent of the beatings the Redbirds used to dispense against CU on a consistent basis between 1993 and 1998, when the ‘Birds beat the Jays 10 straight times. That’s something the A.K. Jays fans (“A.K.” meaning “After Korver”) might not realize; Illinois State won back-to-back Valley regular season championships twice in the 1990s (1991-1992, 1992-1993, 1996-1997, and 1997-1998) and remains one of the foes Altman has the least amount of success against statistically during his tenure as the Head Bluejay.

So the race that started so well for Altman’s Jays encountered its first major set-back; sure, losing on the road to Xavier in December was tough to handle, but winning a conference championship means much more than picking up a non-conference victory months before post-season play. Along with Drake, the Jays entered conference play with arguably the most momentum and one of the best non-conference marks among Valley schools. The home loss to the Redbirds erased all of that momentum, and the Jays would need to get back to their winning ways against Indiana State.

Next Stop … Terre Haute?

The past few trips to Terre Haute have not treated Creighton kindly. The last two Jays squads to qualify for the NCAA tournament (2006-2007 and 2004-2005) lost at Indiana State during the regular season (74-72 in January 2005 and 55-52 in January 2007). And with Altman’s team needing a win to avoid starting 0-2 in conference play, they’d have to beat an old friend.

ISU coach Kevin McKenna, a member of Creighton’s Athletics Hall of Fame and one of the top basketball players in school history, knows Altman and these players extremely well. McKenna spent nine different seasons as one of Altman’s assistant coaches, including the previous two seasons. The only time between 1994 and this year that McKenna didn’t work for Creighton was during his four-year run as head coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. But during three of those four seasons McKenna led the Division II team up against the Jays, and UNO lost by just single digits in each contest (two of those losses were to eventual NCAA tournament participant Jays teams).

Needless to say, he’s not the guy Altman wanted to see during a road game with Creighton looking for their first MVC victory of the short season. And 40 minutes later, the Sycamores made sure the Jays stayed in their slump. Altman’s squad struggled from the outset, unable to display any energy on the defensive side of the court and showing a lack of cohesion on offense. It was like the other coach … knew what was coming. Oh wait, he probably did.

It’s Early, but … Backs Against the Wall?

I had not been able to brush the confetti out of my hair and throw away the New Year’s Eve champagne bottles, and the Jays were already 0-2 in conference play and staring at another road game — this time in Springfield, Missouri, the site of some pretty lopsided Jays losses during the past two decades.

Barry Hinson’s Missouri State Bears blew a double-digit lead against the Jays at the Qwest Center last December, then lost to Nate Funk and Anthony Tolliver during A-Train’s final homecoming last winter. But before that Jays road win, Creighton had won only 5 times in 20 games at MSU’s Hammons Student Center.

Make that 6. Creighton posted a 50-49 win in their last game at Hammons (the center is being replaced by a new basketball facility next season), with freshman phenom P’Allen Stinnett solidifying his role as go-to scorer for the Jays.

The game featured all that is right and wrong with this year’s Jays squad, and it deserves a more thorough examination. That’s for tomorrow.

For now, though, the Jays are back on the winning track, chasing down a handful of teams ahead of them on this leg of the Valley’s version of The Amazing Race. Drake, Illinois State, and Indiana State are 3-0 after this weekend’s games. Northern Iowa is 2-1, and the Jays join Wichita State, Missouri State, and Southern Illinois at 1-2. Bradley, one of the most explosive and impressive MVC teams in non-conference play, lost point guard extraordinaire Daniel Ruffin to an injury and have limped out to a 0-3 conference record. Evansville, who played Drake close for 38 minutes Sunday afternoon but lost, is also 0-3.

There are bound to be more detours during the next two months. Who knows if current frontrunners will be able to keep their frenetic pace, or if they’ll fall back to the pack as the weekly grind of the conference season begins to take its toll. All we know for sure is that unlike coaches Keno Davis (Drake), Tim Jankovich (Illinois State), and even former Jay McKenna, Altman has been here before. He’s been through the ups and downs, and he’s finished at the head of the race year in and year out. The first two games of this conference race were just a slight stumble; hopefully the Jays will be back to full speed during the next couple of stops of The Race.

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