Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Illinois State 73, Creighton 49

Great Expectations

I’m slowly starting to feel like a normal human being again. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that is flexible with office hours, which at the beginning of each March translates to a 400-plus mile drive (each way) for a weekend full of hoops and camaraderie in St. Louis.

Throw in an ailing back, shared hotel rooms with a dozen close friends, temperatures in the upper 70s, and cold beer fresh from the city’s world-renowned brewery, and I’m sure you can conjure enough ideas about why I might not be 100% right now.

But perhaps the most damning and destructive of ingredients my group of friends and I were exposed to this past weekend was the emotional rollercoaster set in motion by the Bluejays’ basketball efforts.

That’s what happens when great expectations meet poor execution.


The tone of this blog has been decidedly sunnier during the past month-plus of CU wins. With a 10-game win streak in tow to St. Louis, I don’t think it is a stretch to say Bluejay fans held great expectations – as they always do – for the team in the postseason tournament. But the sunniest part of the weekend, save for Booker Woodfox’s amazing shot against Wichita State (a shot that should have never been needed), was my Friday morning run from the Sheraton down Market street to the Arch.

At that point in time, the weekend was perfect. The bright sun beat down, shining off the enormous steel landmark, brought with it warm skies and smiling faces throughout downtown St. Louis. And while the weather would stay perfect for the length of our stay, Creighton’s month-long win streak would come to a gloomy end and cast a long, dark shadow on the team’s chances for playing in the NCAA tournament.

I already wrote a little bit about Creighton’s win over Wichita State while sitting in the Club Lounge of our hotel Saturday morning. With 16:41 to play the Jays held a 22-point lead (47-25). From that moment on, the Shox went on a 37-16 run. Heck, with 13 minutes left Josh Dotzler stole a pass near midcourt, was able to contort his body while lying on the ground, throw the ball behind his head to P’Allen Stinnett, who then finished with a Sportscenter-worthy dunk on the other end.

Save for Woodfox’s amazing game-winning shot that would be Jays fans’ final time to cheer in St. Louis. From that remarkable reaction by Dotzler and finish by Stinnett to the end of the game, Stinnett committed three turnovers, got a steal but missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity at the free throw line, and then committed another turnover with 13 seconds left and the Jays clinging to a 2-point lead. The sophomore, who in the first half was crashing the boards and playing pretty well, finished the game with 7 turnovers.

This shot, and Dotzler’s amazing pass, were about the only highlights in STL

Did the Jays survive? Sure. They could have coughed up a 22-point lead and lost the game (like Texas A&M did tonight in Oklahoma City), but instead gave more than 3,000 Jays fans in St. Louis a reason to breath a deep sigh of relief and prepare for a showdown against Illinois State on Saturday night. But in reality, the damage to Creighton’s chances in Arch Madness had been done during the last 10 minutes against WSU.


During the past two seasons, no team has given the Jays fits quite like Tim Jankovich’s Redbirds. It has been detailed here and here and here and here. It was fitting then, I guess, that in order to advance to the title game of a testy MVC tournament CU would need to conquer Illinois State on a neutral court. Sure, the Jays had posted a win in the regular season finale against the Redbirds, but that was on senior day in front of a home crowd eager for a taste of the regular season title. And while the Gateway City was filled with Jays fans all weekend, this game wasn’t going to come down to crowd support; matchups would prevails.

Unfortunately for Dana Altman’s Bluejays, they couldn’t matchup against Illinois State’s 55% shooting from the field and an astounding 68% accuracy from 3-point range. The Jays shot 22% in the first half against ISU, making just 7 field goals (including just 1 3-pointer). The Redbirds, on the other hand, hit 13 shots (6 of which came from long range) and physically destroyed Creighton’s chances of hitting a few easy baskets to reverse the poor shooting efforts.

It is no secret that the matchups Creighton would be favored in were all on the other side of the bracket. But after an 11-game win streak and a share of the MVC regular season title, it felt like the Jays’ dreams of dancing in March came down to a game (and an opponent) they just weren’t prepared for. Again, I stress the fact that it really didn’t matter what Creighton would have done offensively — the Redbirds were absolutely unconscious from the field, led by Osiris Eldridge and Champ Oguchi. But you have to wonder if the great expectations of an Altman team playing in St. Louis, where Dana’s squads have done so much damage in the past decade, were too much of a distraction from the task at hand: surviving and advancing.

Well, they certainly didn’t survive the onslaught brought by Jankovich’s Redbirds on Saturday. And their ability to advance to the goal they all had at the beginning of the season is in serious jeopardy, too.


In all honesty, I consider only 3 of Creighton’s 7 losses “bad” losses. Sure, losing a lead late at home against Northern Iowa felt bad at the time, but they won the league, too. And those two 2-point losses on the road in the same week of November conjured much consternation among Jays fans everywhere, but winning on the road is difficult and it was early in the season. That goes for the loss at Wichita; every team in the MVC is good for at least one road stinker each season against a team that they should beat.

No, Creighton has 3 losses that I feel extremely bad about, and 2 of them came at the hands of the Redbirds. I hate that we lost at home to Drake, but loss might have served a greater purpose: it was after that horrible effort that the Jays ripped off 11 straight wins. Still, it is a bad loss. But the 22-point loss in Normal back in January and this 24-point drubbing in the Arch Madness semifinals stick firmly into the claws of Bluejays everywhere.

Do the Jays deserve to be in the Big Dance? You can make a case either way. The computer numbers are good. Even with the loss in STL they are among the hottest teams in the nation. They win on the road at a higher percentage than most teams in the top 10 conferences. They beat New Mexico and Dayton at home and St. Joe’s on the road. They won the MVC title. But the losses to Illinois State stick out to me as daggers in the heart of a potential at-large bid. We weren’t competitive in either game, and unfortunately for CU the Redbirds are more akin to what potential opponents in the NCAA tournament would look and play like.

That doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not they’ll get in, but it has direct implications on whether they could do anything once they get to the dance. If they can’t figure out a way to beat teams like Illinois State, they’ll be making a mere cameo appearance in any postseason tournament in which they play. Poor execution trumps great expectations every time. Hopefully the Jays get a chance to revive those expectations on the national stage.

I guess if Booker’s shot went in, anything is possible.


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