ILS 68, CU 54; CU 111, BU 110 (2OT)
The Season Starts Friday
Tonight marks the start of my “Christmas in March” … Arch Madness Week!
I’ve spent at least three days in St. Louis in early March in each of the past nine years; this Thursday amounts to a decade of traveling (in sometimes horrible weather) to watch Dana Altman and the Jays partake in the Missouri Valley Conference postseason tournament in the Gateway City. It also marks the 9-year anniversary of Altman’s first MVC tournament title, secured by Rodney Buford and the boys during the 1998-1999 season.
To celebrate that accomplishment and the 5 other tournament titles secured in the previous nine seasons by the Jays, this week will feature a feast of blog entries. At least that’s the plan. Let’s start with recapping last week’s games. While the loss to Illinois State left much to be desired, Saturday’s Senior Night festivities were pretty fun, if you haven’t heard (*sarcasm included free of charge*). And it wasn’t just because of Nick Bahe’s Dana Altman impression, featured in the interview below.
Can They Rebound?
What a difference a couple of days make. Last Wednesday night, after the Creighton Bluejays were absolutely manhandled by Illinois State to the tune of a -21 rebounding margin, I was sullen and somber. Streaks were on the line. Seeding for St. Louis was on the line. A season sweep at the hands of the Redbirds (first time since 1997-1998) was on the line.
And the Jays couldn’t box out Anthony Slack. It wasn’t too hard to find him, at least on television. He was the gentleman dressed in the home whites with red trim who grabbed what seemed like every rebound within a five foot radius of his 6-foot-7-inch, 210-pound frame (a frame that was almost dressed in blue; Creighton was among the schools seriously recruiting Slack out of junior college).
Slack’s line: 15 points, TWENTY rebounds, and 4 blocked shots. Do you know the last time the Jays gave up 20 rebounds to anyone? It was 1990, and Notre Dame’s LaPhonso Ellis grabbed 20 caroms for the Fighting Irish against Tony Barone’s Jays team. Ellis was a top-five draft pick in 1992, averaged 12 points and nearly 7 rebounds per year in 11 NBA seasons, and completely owned Creighton that night. Slack might not rack up those impressive post-college numbers, but he sure duplicated the damage Ellis inflicted almost 20 years ago.
Slack continued to dominate the Jays, mirroring the success individually that his team has achieved as a group against Creighton this year. Slack had 11 points and 11 rebounds in a complete defeat of CU in December. ISU outscored the Jays in second-chance points 38-13 for the season; absolute mastery of the backboards and taking advantage of second (and third, and fourth) opportunities.
Historically, the Jays on average have never completely dominated the rebounding margin against MVC opponents during the past 7 seasons. After the ILS loss, CU stood in a statistical dead heat with its Valley opponents in that statistic: CU grabs 33 rebounds per game and allows 33 rebounds per game to the other MVC schools. Before last season’s 32-28 average margin in MVC play (led by Anthony Tolliver), the Jays had been outrebounded per game in the previous two seasons (32-33 in 2005-06 and 30-34 in 2004-2005). In those two years, Creighton finished as the 4th and 3rd seeds in the MVC tournament, respectively. In 04-05, Nate Funk not only led the team in scoring as the shooting guard (17.8 ppg) but he was also tops in rebounding as well (5 rpg).
Yet again, the Redbirds exposed the Jays on the glass. In the first match-up earlier in the season, the problem was Creighton’s defense. They made adjustments in the second meeting, forcing ILS to shoot just 39% from the field in the first half. And even though they trailed in the rebounding column 24-10 at halftime, CU was even with the host Redbirds on the scoreboard at intermission.
But P’Allen Stinnett had the flu. CU shot only 32% in the second half, while Illinois State turned things around to the tune of 46% shooting from the field. The Jays made just 7 of 26 3-point attempts, too, which was the only strategy they could employ after being effectively locked out of the lane by Slack and the other Redbird post players.
The Jays had their chances, but couldn’t get the shots, stops, or rebounds in consecutive possessions in the second half to thwart posting a losing MVC road record for the third time in the past five seasons. The two previous times? No NCAA tournament birth for the Jays (first-round MVC tournament exits in 03-04 and in 05-06).
Yes They Can!
The Jays faced more questions than just “can they rebound?” before the Senior Night game against Bradley. Would they go streaking?
It is well known among Jays fans the unparalleled success Altman’s teams have filled the record books with since he stepped on campus in the mid-90s. Coming into this year, Creighton found itself with three amazing streaks worth noting:
- 9 consecutive 20-win seasons
- 11 consecutive 10-plus conference win seasons
- 10 consecutive postseason births (in either the NCAA tournament or NIT tournament)
But after the absolute drubbing Altman’s Jays suffered against Bradley just two weekends previous, the continuation of these streaks looked improbable. Creighton would need a win at home on Senior Night over the Braves to secure two of these streaks for sure (and with 20 wins and a solid RPI ranking, a postseason birth was probable). Little did the seniors know it would be a sophomore who would almost single-handedly continue these important milestones.
Cavel Freaking Witter
There are so many story lines surrounding Creighton’s 111-110, double-overtime nail-biter win. Where to start?
- Bradley’s Daniel Ruffin, arrested just one week previous for domestic assault, dressed for the game and listened to a chorus of boos echo throughout The Phone Booth every time he touched the ball. It didn’t stop him from putting up 30 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and almost winning the game by himself for the visitors.
- Bradley’s Jeremy Crouch made almost as many 3s (7) as Creighton did as a team for the game (10). Crouch, one of the most feared shooters in the Valley, scored 29 points.
- Theron Wilson, the birthday boy on Saturday, scored 24 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and joined Ruffin, Crouch, and Sam Manascalco in playing more than 40 minutes in the game.
- Stinnett made just 2 of 8 shots from the field, one of which was a sick dunk on an alley-oop from Josh Dotzler, but he finished 10-12 from the free-throw line and recorded 14 points and 5 rebounds for the game. His technical foul, assessed after he stepped to the aide of teammate Booker Woodfox (who was given a forearm/elbow shiver from Rashad Austin) and apparently opened his mouth in the direction of Austin, gave Bradley the momentum they used to erase a 17-point deficit in the second half.
- Woodfox shot worse than his usual percentage, but he still ended up with 13 points. That’s nearly a dozen straight games Booker has come in and scored double-digits for the Jays off the bench, a streak that is tops in the nation.
- Kenny Lawson continued to improve, posting one of his top performances of the season in limited minutes. After giving up his starting spot to Pierce Hibma on Senior Night, Lawson scored 14 points (perfect 7-7 from the field) and grabbed 7 rebounds in just 18 minutes of play. He is getting better at hedging out to the high pick-and-roll on defense, which hopefully will lead to increased minutes for the freshman from California.
However, all of these individual feats pale in comparison to Cavel Witter’s night.
- 42 points (13-20 shooting; 12-13 from the free-throw line); 3 rebounds; 7 assists; 4 steals; a fair number of cross-over moves that left BU defenders breathless (and maybe shorts-less); a countless number of clutch shots.
Forty-two points. More than Nate Funk scored in a Jays game. More than Kyle Korver. Most since Rodney poured in 40 points in a late December game against these same Bradley Braves. Witter’s night was the most explosive scoring outburst in Qwest Center history. He scored the last 10 points in the second overtime after scoring the final 5 points for the Jays in the first overtime.
He was, in a word, sensational.
On a night when the seniors were honored, it was the newcomers stepping up and saving the day. Because of the other finals around the Valley that afternoon and evening, the game meant nothing more seeding-wise than to figure out who would be the home team in the upcoming quarterfinal match-up on Friday between these same two teams. But as I looked around the raucous crowd after the final buzzer after 50 minutes of game time, and as I watched the Jays and Braves players slowly carry themselves off the court, you could see the satisfaction and relief in the eyes of Jays fans and Jays players that they continued the streaks!
Dane shared some memories and words of thanks with the crowd
Unfortunately, anyone outside of Omaha probably didn’t get a chance to watch the craziness ensue. The game wasn’t picked up by MVC TV for broadcast, as the powers that be instead chose the Illinois State-Southern Illinois game. That battle for second place went to the Redbirds, who swept SIU (just as they did Creighton) and now are the hottest team in the MVC going into the conference tournament. Thankfully, the Creighton Athletic Department posted a link to the CU-BU game replay in its entirety for free (access it here: http://www.gocreighton.com/mediaPlayer/video.dbml?DB_MENU_ID=&SPSID=0&SPID=66&DB_OEM_ID=1000&CLIP_ID=70644&CLIP_FILE_ID=75679&CONTENT_TYPE=ONDEMAND and then click on “Free Video – Creighton vs. Bradley MBB).
It was arguably the most exciting game played in the relatively short lifespan of the Qwest Center, bringing back the recent memories of other “Cardiac Q” results such as Tolliver’s game-winner against Wichita State a few years ago…
… Or maybe even this season’s comeback against the Shockers.
Hopefully we won’t see anymore games at the Cardiac Q this season. The Jays will need to win the MVC tournament to reach the NCAA tournament again, but an NIT berth is almost certain. It is amazing to think a team with as many newcomers and inexperienced key contributors as the Jays have relied on has posted 20 wins yet again. While the team’s 9-1 start in non-conference play was a surprise, their road struggles in conference play were not. The fact this team has a chance to play in the postseason yet again speaks volumes about the seniors and the coaching staff; they’ve laid the foundation for the continuation of unprecedented success within the Creighton basketball program.
The Jays have the talent and depth to win Arch Madness; if they can rebound in St. Louis literally like they did figuratively against Bradley, I like their chances.