Team preview: Creighton
Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2005-06 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. To order the complete 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).
(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
A national airline asks this question in an ad: "Got to get away?"
If you asked any member of the Creighton basketball team that question at the end of last season, they would have given you a resounding answer -- "Yes!"
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One of the hottest teams in the nation at the end of last season had its year come to an end in heartbreaking fashion with a 63-61 loss to West Virginia in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Guard Nate Funk's last-second three-pointer fell short at the buzzer, and the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament champions saw their eight-game winning streak, and season, come to an end.
"You need some recovery time," said Dana Altman, who reached the 300-win plateau as a head coach last season during the team's tournament run. "[Losing a game like that] hurts. I feel really bad for the seniors."
Fortunately for the Bluejays, they didn't lose many seniors from a team that led CU to its fifth MVC Tournament title in the last seven seasons.
And even better, they return one of the best players in the Valley in the 6-3 senior Funk (17.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg). The Iowa native blossomed in his second season as a starter, raising his scoring average almost seven points per game, while earning first-team All-Valley honors.
"He had a great year for us," Altman said. "He's worked very hard this off-season and we hope it pays off for him this year."
Last season Funk shot 47 percent from three-point range, 51 percent from the field and 81 percent from the free-throw line.
Funk is one of four starters back for the Bluejays, who return seven of their top nine players. The biggest losses for CU are point guard Tyler McKinney (6.4 ppg, 5.4 apg) and key reserve guard Kellen Miliner (9.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg).
In addition to Funk, 6-0 senior Johnny Mathies (11.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.1 apg) returns to the backcourt for his third straight season as a starter. Mathies was the MVP of the MVC Tournament last season, averaging 13.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 2.7 steals, and became the first player to earn postseason all-team honors after not being chosen to an all-league team.
"Johnny really came on for us last year and was a big reason [CU was hot at the end of the year]," Altman said.
With the loss of McKinney, Mathies could see some time at the point this year, but Altman prefers to use him at off-guard.
The point guard battle in camp will be between two newcomers, 6-0 junior Dominic Bishop and 6-0 freshman Josh Dotzler.
"At the other four spots we have experienced players and also off the bench, so that should help [either new guard]," said Altman, who is not looking for someone to carry the team, just to fit in.
Bishop averaged 11.0 points, 5.7 assists and 3.1 rebounds last season in leading Brown Mackie College to the NJCAA Division II national title. He's a left-hander with quickness and a bit of a scorer's mentality.
Dotzler (13.4 ppg, 7.5 apg, 5.1 rpg, 5.0 rpg) led West High to a Nebraska state title in consecutive years. Dotzler is more of a classic point guard who looks to distribute first and run the show.
Adding depth in the three-guard system are sophomore Pierce Hibma (2.9 ppg, 1.1 rpg) and 6-5 sophomore swingman Brice Nengsu, who arrives from Weatherford Junior College, where he averaged 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds.
The real impact in the backcourt figures to come from 6-3 junior Nick Porter, if the talented guard can stay healthy. Porter missed last season with a knee injury that required two surgeries to repair. He appears on track to be in the lineup this season, and the Bluejays would love to add his athleticism and big play ability to the mix.
"I thought last year that we had to have him in order to have a chance to be successful," Altman said. "If he's healthy and ready to go, he'll give us something different."
The youth movement in the frontcourt worked out well for the Bluejays last season with 6-8 Dane Watts (6.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg) earning All-MVC rookie team honors. Watts worked his way into the lineup and started the final 23 games, scoring 14 points in the MVC title game against Missouri State.
Another player who capitalized on his role as a first-year starter was 6-8 Anthony Tolliver (3.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who enters his junior season. Tolliver seem to do a little bit of everything for the Bluejays as was evident in the conference finals where he had eight points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
Two seniors who provide some valuable minutes off the bench are 6-7 forward Jimmy Motz (5.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and 6-9 center Jeffrey Day (5.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg), who had a team-high 51 blocks.
Motz shot a team record 48.6 percent (54-for-111) from three-point range and adds another weapon on the perimeter along with Funk and Mathies. The trio helped CU rank fourth in the nation in three-pointers made at 41.4 percent.
Joining the mix up front is 6-8, 260-pound banger Manourou Gakou, who comes from Paris, France. Gakou spent last season at Cloud County (Kansas) CC and averaged 12.7 points and 7.6 rebounds.
"He'll give us another inside scorer," Altman said.
Another big body will help CU on the glass, which is one area the team got outplayed last year. The Bluejays averaged 29.9 rebounds per game, while the opposition posted 34.2.
The lack of rebounds didn't prevent the Bluejays from collecting their seventh straight 20-win season, which makes them one of only 12 D-I schools to accomplish that feat. It also didn't hinder the team's eighth straight postseason trip, which includes six appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite all the success at a mid-major school over the last 10 years, Altman has not jumped at the chance to move to a bigger program.
"I have a good situation here," he said.
Southern Illinois might draw more national attention, but it's hard to find a better program in the Valley the last 10 years than Creighton. The names change on the back of the uniform, but the Bluejays remain in the hunt for a MVC title every season.
Don't expect it to be any different this year.
Funk and Mathies are both big-time guards who know how to get the job done -- especially in big games. If Porter can comeback healthy, they might be even more dangerous in the backcourt.
Inside, Watts and Tolliver need to build off their success last season, and Gakou figures to add another force in the paint.
The one thing the Bluejays lack is a seasoned point guard, but neither Dotzler nor Bishop has to come in and be a star, just steer the talented ship in the right direction.
Baring a key injury, the Bluejays will be one of the top two or three teams in the Valley this year and should be heading for another postseason trip.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).