Last April 25, Dana Altman bolted for Oregon by way of the Lincoln airport, leaving the thankless task of breaking the news to his players to Creighton’s athletic director, Bruce Rasmussen.
It was a bizarre final weekend on the Hilltop, as Dirk Chatelain detailed in this excellent piece in the World-Herald. 12 players showed up at the Qwest Center on a late-April Saturday to shoot around, but found the doors to the locker room locked. As they searched for someone to get them access to a basketball, their coach was nowhere to be found. Eventually, Rasmussen called them into the locker room to fill them in. As that meeting was taking place — the meeting where they learned their coach, and most of his staff, was leaving — assistant Brian Fish was giving a tour of the Qwest Center to a recruit and his family. Literally at the exact same time. If you made that scenario up, people wouldn’t believe you because its TOO BIZARRE.
The strange day culminated with J.J Davis, then the sports director at KPTM-TV, walking patiently alongside Dana as he ducked out of the Vinardi Center under cover of darkness, politely asking him the questions everyone wanted answers to as a camera rolled. Dana stonewalled him, his head down, never acknowledging Davis was even there, and the footage was classic.
For most Jays fans, that was their final image of Dana — departing quietly, with no explanation, no comment, from an airport in another city to avoid a media crush. He certainly didn’t owe comment or explanation to his fans and boosters, but still, its a common courtesy most coaches offer before departing, and his failure to do so rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. It certainly was a bad last impression to make after 16 mostly successful years in which he had resurrected the program from the depths of irrelevancy into a perennial mid-major powerhouse. Otter’s retrospective of Altman’s 16 years on the bench is a worthy read if you need a refresher of what Altman meant to CU, or what he accomplished while there. If you’re thinking about doing anything but clapping politely when Altman is introduced Monday night, read that piece first — you just might reconsider. (Although I must admit, the idea floated by several fans of responding to his introduction with silence — kind of like the silence he departed with — did make me quietly nod my head.)
When he finally did an interview with a Omaha-area media member almost a month later, the question was posed to him whether he would ever consider playing Creighton in a home-and-home. The answer wasn’t an unequivocal “no”, but the tone told you that’s what he meant. And understandably so; no coach likes to coach against his old school, and especially not while players he recruited are still there. It took almost 25 years for Eddie Sutton to agree to a home-and-home with Creighton after leaving the Hilltop, and it was at his third post-Creighton school, Oklahoma State, that he finally agreed to do so; Tom Apke and Tony Barone never took on the Jays after leaving.
Yet here we are, almost 11 months to the day, and Dana Altman must return to Omaha — to the state-of-the-art arena the Jays would not call home if not for his teams of the late 90s and early 2000s — to play not only his old school but a team full of players he recruited. As he’s said in interview after interview, its awkward. Its also a best-of-three series, meaning the agony will get dragged out for an entire week if the teams split the first two games.
One quote, which several media outlets have run in the days leading up to the game, tells the whole story. “It’s just uncomfortable trying to compete against them. I’ll feel terrible if we lose. I might feel just as bad if we win.”
Len Gordy was on his staff for his entire 16 years in Omaha, and remains on the Jays bench. Basketball secretary Patty Galas worked with him for all but his first year on the Hilltop. Darian DeVries was on the bench for 12 years beside him. Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen was there for his entire tenure. All four remain close to Altman.
Antoine Young signed with Altman and the Jays when he was a freshman at Bellevue West. Altman was at Josh Jones’ bedside as the Omaha Central star recovered from open heart surgery as a high school junior, after having signed with the Jays. Kenny Lawson and Casey Harriman played for him for four years (both having redshirted their first years). Kaleb Korver has known Coach Altman since he was ten and his oldest brother, Kyle, was starring for the Jays. Gregory Echenique is at Creighton because his dad knew Altman from his own playing days. Darryl Ashford and Wayne Runnels were both recruited by Altman and played one year for him.
So, yeah, there’s a lot of emotional ties to a lot of people still connected with Creighton basketball. And that goes the other way, too: Kevin McKenna is on the Ducks bench, after starring for Creighton in the late 1970s and early 1980s, serving two stints as an assistant on the Jays bench, and twice being passed over for the head coaching job. There’s so many storylines, so many angles for potential drama, its easy to see why the game is on pace to shatter the all-time CBI attendance record.
What will the reaction be from the fans when his name is announced? Ah, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? There will be boos, certainly, but I’d bet dollars against beers that the applause drowns out the boos 4-1. It will nothing like the icy reception Greg McDermott received from Iowa State fans in Des Moines in November, and will certainly not resemble the hostile reception both Greg and Doug McDermott endured in Cedar Falls in January. That’s before the game, though. Once the ball is tipped, he’ll get the same treatment afforded to all visiting coaches — catcalls, boos, hostile words, heckling, you name it. When his jacket comes off before tip, the fans will let him hear it. When he stomps his foot to get an official’s attention, the crowd will roar its disapproval. That’s what I hope happens. Its what I’ll be doing, anyway.
As for the reception for Brian Fish? No comment.
The Ducks were not expected to sniff the postseason, CBI or otherwise, this year. Most prognosticators had them pegged for dead last in the Pac-10, and many figured they might struggle to win 10 games all year. In typical Altman fashion, his team slowly but surely got better as the year progressed, and they peaked in February and March. They’re just 19-17 overall, but are 5-1 in their last six games with the only loss coming to Washington in the semifinals of the Pac-10 Tournament after pulling off two upsets in two days.
Altman said one of the major reasons for opting to play in the CBI was that his seniors wanted to play more games, and senior forward Joevan Catron has responded to his coach heeding his wish to play on. He has tallied three consecutive double-doubles in CBI tournament play, and currently ranks third in the CBI’s history for rebounding average (11.3), while ranking fourth in total rebounds (34). He also ranks third for made free throws (28) and tied for fifth in free throws attempted (34).
Catron’s performance in the CBI is no fluke; he’s a solid player who has played in a school record 130 career games, and this year he averaged career-bests for points (15.5 ppg) and minutes played (27.5 mpg). He leads the team in scoring, rebounding (6.7 rpg), field goal shooting percentage (.464, 170-of-366), field goals attempted and field goals made, free throws made (169) and attempted (234) while ranking second in minutes played. For his efforts, he was named Second Team Pac-10 All-Conference in a vote by the coaches.
He has scored over 32 percent his points this season (169 of the 526) from the line, so unlike many big men, he’s more dangerous shooting free throws than he is shooting in the paint. He matched a school record with 169 made free throws this season, shooting 72.2 percent from the charity stripe, and has been clutch late in games, upping his average to 82.2 percent in the last five minutes (37-of-45). He’s also a big-time player after halftime, averaging 9.2 of his 15.5 ppg during the final 20 minutes of a game. He posted 20 of his 24 points in the second half of the CBI semifinal win over Boise State, and in the CBI win over Weber State, he scored 18 of his team-high 24 points in the second stanza. He also scored 14 of his 18 points in the second stanza of a Pac-10 Tournament semifinal against Washington
The 6’6″ forward, who weighs in at 240 pounds, is generally smaller than the players that guard him and slower than most of them, too. But ask any Oregon observer, and they’ll tell you he’s the heart and soul of the team — most opponents have tried to take Catron away with double-teams and force others to beat them.
One of the beneficiaries of those double teams has been sophomore forward E.J. Singler, who had a stellar year, but managed to better his offensive numbers in Oregon’s Pac-10 Tournament and CBI contests, averaging 16.8 ppg, while shooting 53.4 percent on field goals, 50.0 percent on 3-pointers and 96.3 percent from the free throw line.
On the season, Singler leads the Pac-10 in free throw shooting percentage (.871, 101-of-116), ranks second on the team in scoring (11.7 ppg, 422), rebounding (5.6 rpg, 203), blocks (0.7 bpg, 29) and 3-point field goal percentage (.395, 51-of-129). He ranks third on the team in field goal percentage (.459, 135-of-294). He was named to the Pac-10 Conference All-Tournament team, after averaging 18.7 points and 5.0 rebounds over three games and a semifinal appearance. During the tourney, he produced a career-high 24 points in UO’s upset quarterfinal win over UCLA, and the previous night he scored 22 points in an opening round victory over Arizona State.
Singler has reached double figures in scoring a whopping 25 times this season, including in each of Oregon’s last six games. In addition to his big Pac-10 tourney outings, Singler has had several other strong performances. He posted 19 points and nine rebounds Jan. 1 against Arizona State; in their near upset of then No. 9 Missouri, Singler tallied 19 points and nine boards, and on Dec. 11 against Willamette, he posted 18 points and 17 rebounds (a career high). He also had a 16-point, 11-rebound effort in a win over North Dakota State. He’s also led the Ducks in rebounding on 15 occasions this season, grabbing 10 or more rebounds three times.
Its easy to think the series comes down to Catron vs Echenique, the team’s two best big men duking it out for interior supremacy. And its fun to think about the series coming down to Altman vs Greg McDermott, because Creighton knows Altman’s tendencies and schemes almost better than the Ducks players, as you’d expect with the plethora of Altman-era Jays remaining on the team, while Altman is less familiar with Greg McDermott, having not coached against him since he left UNI for Iowa State. But more likely, the series will hinge on the play of Singler vs Doug McDermott. Watching the Ducks, Singler seems like the only player with the combination of size and instincts to guard McDermott, but will expending energy on defense take away his offensive firepower? If it does, Oregon will need someone else to step up.
About the Ducks: One-time Creighton recruit Tyrone Nared has played in all 36 contests for Oregon this year, including starts in the last 18 games. His two best games have come against California, where he registered a career-high 16 points on Feb. 24 in Eugene, and posted a double-double effort with 14 points and 10 rebounds on Jan. 29 in Berkeley … Former Husker Jay-R Strowbridge is Oregon’s third leading scorer (9.4 ppg), upping his average to 11.1 points per night in the Ducks’ 18 conference games … The Ducks have the best turnover margin in the Pac-10 (+2.9), and in conference games only, Oregon is a league-best +2.9, with USC ranking a distant second at +1.0 … Oregon has committed fewer turnovers than its opponent 26 times this season (13 out of 18 Pac-10 outings) … The Ducks also rank second in the conference for free throw shooting (.742, 495-of-667) and steals (8.3, 297), while ranking third in assist/turnover ratio (1.1, 501-450) … Oregon has a 15-1 record when shooting a better field goal percentage (just 4-16 on the year with a worse field goal percentage) … The Ducks are 5-2 when they shoot 50 percent or better (just 14-15 when under 50 percent), and are 12-3 overall when they grab more rebounds (6-13 when out-rebounded, 1-1 with same number of rebounds) … Oregon is 14-4 when they hold a first-half lead (4-13 when the fall behind at halftime, 1-0 when tied).
One Big Paragraph with Lots O’Dots™: The Bluejays have posted three double-digit victories in the CBI thus far, an 85-74 victory over San Jose State on March 15, a 102-92 win over Davidson on Monday and a 82-64 triumph over UCF last Wednesday … Monday will be Creighton’s ninth consecutive game against a team that reached the postseason, and the Jays are 5-3 in the first eight games of that run … In the first three years of the CBI championship series, the team that hosted game one has won all three championships, and the team to win game one has won all three championships … Creighton is 4-7 all-time when facing former head coaches, going 3-6 against Eddie Hickey (0-2 at Saint Louis, 3-4 at Marquette), and 1-1 against Eddie Sutton when he was at Oklahoma State … Creighton has not played a home game against an active Pacific-10 school since Oregon State visited the Omaha Civic Auditorium on Nov. 25, 1978 … Creighton’s 3-0 performance in the 2011 CBI, presented by Zebra Pen, has extended the program’s streak to 11 straight wins in events promoted by the New Jersey-based Gazelle Group. Creighton went 4-0 in both 2002 and 2004 in the Guardians Classic (promoted by the Gazelle Group), and is now 3-0 in the 2011 CBI.
The Series / The Last Time They Played: Oregon won the only previous meeting with Creighton, 75-64 on Dec. 26, 1974 in Portland, Ore. The Ducks were ranked 19th at the time, and the contest was played as part of the Far West Classic.
Greg McDermott has never faced Oregon, but he went 2-9 when coaching against Dana Altman (all when he was at Northern Iowa). Altman has never coached against Creighton.
Other fun notes tangentially related to the series: Oregon head coach Dana Altman had a home record of 97-18 (.843) in seven seasons at Qwest Center Omaha, but he never coached on the visiting bench. Oregon assistant coach Brian Fish was 0-1 on the visiting bench at Qwest Center Omaha, as the San Diego team he was an assistant on lost the first regular-season game in venue history, 79-44. Oregon assistant coach Kevin McKenna has never won on the visiting bench either, going 0-3 as a head coach at Indiana State, and losing an exhibition game from the visiting bench as head coach at Nebraska-Omaha. Both Joevan Catron and Jay-R Strowbridge also are 0-1 from the visiting bench at Qwest Center Omaha. Strowbridge lost to Creighton, while Catron lost to Nebraska.
Gratuitous Linkage: Jay Bilas’ pomposity and arrogance toward big-time programs is legendary. But his anti-VCU rants on Selection Sunday were overboard even for ESPN. So its good to see him owning up to his mistake on Twitter, after earlier seeming to revel in his stubbornness over them not being worthy of a bid:
“Crow: actually, it tastes like chicken. Are they serving it at the VCU banquet?! Leftovers make good sandwiches, too.”
Out of Context Simpsons quote:
Homer: “Marge, can we get a duck?”
Marge: “No Homer, you already have a monkey.”
Homer: “…Can the monkey get a duck?”
This Date in Creighton Hoops History: Creighton has never played on March 28.
Completely Random, Totally Rad Music Video of the Day: As I’ve said all CBI long, I’m superstitious, and since I made the choice to play Billy Idol for the first round, I’ve got to keep doing so since they keep winning. Enjoy.
The Bottom Line: It will be an absolutely insane environment in the Qwest Center, as fans turn out first out to thank Altman for his 16 years on the Creighton bench, then to root for the Jays to smash them to pieces. I think the Jays ride that emotion to a big first half lead, then hold on for a victory.
Creighton 81, Oregon 72