Team Personality: In the past Creighton played up-tempo, generating easy offense from its three-quarter-court press. Now, however, head coach Dana Altman concedes the dynamic has changed. “We aren’t scoring like we used to,” he admits. This CU edition works to grind out difficult wins instead of battering opponents with constant, unrelenting offense.
More than anything, the team’s personnel dictates the way Altman chooses to play.
The purpose of the press has changed from denial to delay.
Indiana State coach Royce Waltman reflected, “I think they do a good job with their defense. Their press always reduces the clock which makes it hard to score.”
As the regular season winds down expect even more hard-fought wins along with some tough, tight losses.
Biggest Game: Creighton’s biggest game of the season—at least to date—happened yesterday when the Bluejays visited Southern Illinois, a close game which the Bluejays lost. It’s no longer a secret that there are good teams across the board in the Missouri Valley this season. During the MVC Media Day, Altman acknowledged, “The top teams have always been there, but the difference is the balance is improved.” Realistically, seven or eight teams are good. No teams are great, but the two best right now are Creighton and Southern Illinois.Both the Salukis and the Bluejays came into the contest at 11-3 in the Valley, leading the conference by two games over Missouri State. SIU eked out a 72-68 victory on the heels of a ridiculous 86 percent second-half shooting performance. Now the Salukis have sole possession of first and also have a comfortable tiebreaker advantage over Creighton, having also defeated the Bluejays on January 20 by a score of 58-57.
Creighton has a good shot at winning the last four games on the schedule and still has the inside track on locking up the Valley’s second seed, so the biggest potential game left this season is a rematch with Southern Illinois in the MVC Championship.
Has to be on the floor: Nate Funk. Both Dane Watts and Nick Porter supply occasional offensive flourishes, but Funk’s contributions are invaluable.
While countless references have been made to Nate bringing the funk, his game is anything but funky. Neither the positive, jamming musical connotation nor the negative, goofy-looking descriptions apply.
Nate Funk is direct. All of his moves attack the basket and typically breakdown defenders. His game is extremely efficient, beautiful in its simplicity. Between Funk’s pull-up jumpers and slicing lay-ups, watching the Sioux City
This fundamental skill has enabled Funk to lead the league in scoring, already dropping 20 or more points on eight separate occasions.
Fortunately for Creighton, the most indispensable player has never fouled out. The game will end with Funk on the court. He is a finisher in every sense of the word.
Crunchtime Crutch: One of the overriding characteristics of the Jays is unselfishness. When leadership is needed, Funk steps proudly to the fore. He leads the team in scoring, minutes, three-pointers made, steals, and assists. The pre-season Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year is in good position to earn the more memorable postseason award.
Straw that stirs the drink: Pierce Hibma, former walk-on. To walk on is to show dogged determination and unwillingness to fail. Hibma went one step further and earned a scholarship with his high energy and body-endangering hustle.
Hibma works hard for offensive rebounds and his effort is generally rewarded. His body pays the price though, as evidenced by his 3-inch right triceps scar. Hibma also missed the season-opener with a deep thigh bruise. Thankfully, his fitness level is unquestionably high aside from the injuries he initiates.
Impact newcomer: Isacc Miles. While Isacc has miles to go before adapting to the Creighton way, his natural athleticism forced him into the lineup on day one.
For now he is a quiet contributor with nearly a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.
The small details he is learning. For instance, Altman wants the ball dribbled directly at him before a timeout is called.
When Miles picks up on the nuances of Bluejay ball, he will be a top flight Valley guard. Right now he is simply a reliable, understated point man who averages only one turnover per game.
Potential Pitfall: Impenetrable perimeter. The CU offense works best when the lead defender is beaten off the dribble or a gap is abused. Once the help defender slides over, the Bluejay perched on the 3-point line is more open.
The potential pitfall arises if a team is unaffected by their drive attempts at which point there are no open players to kick it out to. Guards Funk, Miles, and Porter have exceptional penetration skills, but supremely fortified perimeter defense is the solution to the problem.
Creighton plays a lot of 2-3 zone with the guards defending the top of the key. Funk and Dotzler realize the responsibility is high up front.
“We tried not to put Anthony in tough positions,” reflected Funk after toppling Indiana State. “When we let our guys get by us, it gets him in foul trouble.”
Foul trouble has been Tolliver’s bugaboo, and the team lacks a legitimate backup center.
Much like a football line war, controlling the point of attack on both sides of the ball is paramount for the Creighton Bluejays.
How to reach the Sweet 16: Like Duke has been trying to do, Creighton is winning differently this year with an increased dependency on stingy defense.
Regularly playing in front of 16,000+ fans, CU will have no trouble competing when the spotlights are brightest. For a team in a “mid-major” conference, CU certainly has big-time depth. Do not expect foul trouble anywhere in the backcourt or on the wing to hurt this squad.
Creighton has a go-to scorer in Funk, but he is not going to overpower anyone offensively. The Bluejays’ defense needs to come up big and whittle the game down to a few meaningful late possessions. In that scenario, Creighton’s coaching and experience should take over.
This squad is a top-shelf Missouri Valley team that with a little luck and a lot of the Creighton trademark toughness could reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2002. product in action is a tutorial on finding your shot.