MVC's familiar-looking Cinderellas
The changes were supposed to be too great. The Missouri Valley Conference would certainly have a new face this season.
Creighton no longer had gunner/leader/mid-major poster boy Kyle Korver. Southern Illinois was without guard Kent Williams, forward Jermaine Dearman and coach Bruce Weber.
As a result, things were going to look different. Maybe Wichita State would emerge as the Valley's top program. Maybe it would be Southwest Missouri State or Bradley. But it hasn't quite worked out that way.
Things haven't changed much at all.
Creighton, maybe the most consistent mid-major program aside from Gonzaga, has moved back into the nation's top 25. And Southern Illinois, under first-year head coach and former Saluki assistant Matt Painter, is quietly leading the conference. The two schools, again first and second in the league standings, are a combined 25-3 overall and 11-1 in conference play.
Yes, it's quite possible that the Cinderella of the 2004 NCAA Tournament might have a familiar look.
That Dana Altman has kept the Bluejays rolling isn't completely surprising. Creighton, which has reached five consecutive NCAA tournaments, has been able to continue its success in the past despite losing players such as Rodney Buford and Ryan Sears. But the success of Southern Illinois, a team projected to finish in the middle of the Valley pack, has been much more surprising.
With Williams and Dearman gone, the Salukis lost 40 percent of their offense from a team that gave Missouri everything it wanted in the first round of last season's NCAA Tournament. If it wasn't for a late charging call on Dearman that wiped out a basket, it's quite possible that Southern Illinois would have won that game.
This season's team certainly doesn't have the same type of offensive firepower as a year ago, but it is a better defensively and rebounding. That's what Painter, the former Purdue player, began preaching from the moment he was promoted.
"They've taken a blue collar stance and they've kept working hard," said Painter, who added that the transition has been relatively smooth because the Salukis are doing nearly everything the same way they did under Weber. "It's sometimes tough on the offensive end because we don't have that one go-to guy. But we have very good athletes and good team quickness."
That quickness -- especially on the perimeter -- has led to the Salukis averaging just more than 10 steals per game. Guard Darren Brooks is the closest thing Southern Illinois has to a star. Brooks, who enters Wednesday night's game at Illinois State averaging 16.3 points per game, can shoot from the perimeter, but he is athletic enough to get to the basket and finish.
After Brooks, the Salukis are simply a bunch who just get the job done. Brad Korn is the only other player to average in double figures, but Painter has four other players who average between 7.4 and 8.9 points per game.
"We have a group of guys who just want to win," Painter said. "They don't care about scoring or who gets the attention. Our seniors want to put their own personal stamp on the program."
While the Salukis seniors aren't going to set many personal team records, they have been winners. If Southern Illinois wins 21 games this season (something that seems quite reasonable), Korn will have won more games than any player in school history. These seniors were a part of Southern Illinois' run to the Sweet 16 of the 2002 NCAA Tournament, reached the tournament last season and are certainly in position for a third consecutive tournament bid.
"I challenged them and said, 'You guys have to step up the way Creighton has stepped up in the past few years,'" Painter said.
So far it's working for the Salukis. It also appears to be working again for a Bluejays team that opened the season with 12 consecutive victories before losing at Northern Iowa.
But, this Creighton team is also a little different than recent versions.
While last season's team often scored in the 80s, this group is a little lower octane. Led by center Brody Deren, Creighton isn't as guard-oriented as in the past and the Bluejays aren't making as many 3-pointers as a year ago.
"We're not quite as explosive offensively," Altman said. "We don't have the spurts like we had last year."
Regardless, Creighton has been consistent in part because the Bluejays players stay four (or five) years, they learn the system and the learn how to win. In the past five seasons, Creighton has won at least 22 games each year, something only eight other programs complain. The list is pretty impressive as the Bluejays are grouped with Arizona, Butler, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky and Tulsa.
"We have four fifth-year seniors," Altman said. "They don't want to let it drop off."
But Altman acknowledges this season hasn't been easy, especially since point guard Tyler McKinney battling a nasty eye infection. McKinney hasn't played since Jan. 7 at Illinois State and he recently spent time at the University of Iowa hospital.
"He might not be back the rest of the year," Altman said. "The doctors will probably be pretty conservative with him. Right now he's a question mark. We're not sure if or when we'll get him back."
While McKinney isn't a huge scorer, he understands how Altman's offense works and how the coach wants it executed. Sophomore Johnny Mathies isn't doing a poor job, but the Creighton offense hasn't flowed as well.
Altman said he shortened his rotation because of inexperience at the point in recent games, but after losing at Northern Iowa a week ago, he's gone back to using his depth. The short rotation led to less attacking on the defensive end.
Like Southern Illinois, the Bluejays have great balance. Seven players average at least seven points per game. But if there's an emerging star in the Creighton program, it is guard Nate Funk. The sophomore is an excellent scorer and can really get going offensively. Is he the next Korver?
"Potentially, he's an awfully good player," Altman said. "He's made great strides, but I don't want to put too much pressure on him."
It's taken a little longer than expected, but Michigan State appears on the verge of playing like a team that can contend for the Big Ten title. The Spartans early-season woes have been well documented, but Michigan State played like a different team in victories last week over Penn State and Michigan.
After a non-conference season in which the Spartans were porous defensively, Michigan State held both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines to less than 60 points. The Spartans also rebounded the ball and got production from Paul Davis (16 ppg, 7.5 rpg in the two victories). As a result, Tom Izzo's team enters Wednesday's game at Northwestern only one-half game out of the Big Ten lead.
Izzo called the past week, "Ownership Week." He had his players talk on conference calls to former Spartans standouts Mateen Cleaves, Eric Snow and Antonio Smith. In addition, the Spartans have been able to work on getting better in recent weeks. That didn't happen much during the stretch that included losses to Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, UCLA, Kentucky and Syracuse.
Instead of improving, the Spartans were simply trying to prepare for each game. That's a huge difference. But, while improved, Izzo remains cautious.
"I don't think the world's been changed," he said. "But we've taken two steps."
|Games to Watch|
Southern Illinois at Wichita State, Wednesday
Undefeated in league play, this might the most difficult game so far for Southern Illinois. Wichita State, one of the preseason favorites in the Missouri Valley, defeated Creighton a week ago.
Texas Tech at Oklahoma State, Saturday
The Red Raiders routed the Cowboys earlier in the month. Now Oklahoma State gets a chance for payback. While both teams are in good position for the NCAA Tournament, the winner here is in better position to win the Big12 title.
Indiana at Michigan State, Saturday
The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten and the Spartans need this one to keep their NCAA hopes alive.
Missouri at Kansas, Monday
Rivarly Week starts with another great Big 12 game on Big Monday. This would be a quality victory that Missouri needs so badly. The Jayhawks, however, would like nothing more than to defeat their biggest rivals.
"Who knows? We may not have it tomorrow. We could be as different tomorrow as black and white or as apples and watermelons. You just have to continue to be focussed and play as well as you can. Momentum, I've never understood that."
-- Texas Tech coach Bob Knight when asked if the Red Raiders are gaining momentum with each victory during an 11-game winning streak.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com