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Great Teams: 1973-74 (Part I)

This is the third in a new series exclusive to White & Blue Review in which we’ll go back and look at each of the NCAA Tournament teams in Creighton Basketball history. Today we continue the series with the 1973-74 squad. Parts II and III will run later this week.

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The Travelin’ Jays

 

The “Travelin’ Jays” was a concept begun by coach Red McManus who, upon taking the head job in 1959, coined the phrase “border to border and coast to coast.” It was more than just a phrase, though — it was a mantra, a mission statement, really. Under McManus, the Jays began the tradition of going all over heck to play. As an independent, they had the freedom to play anybody anytime, and they did.

But the idea of the Travelin’ Jays didn’t really become a national sensation until Eddie Sutton was hired a decade later, when it began to border on the masochistic. The senior class in 1973-74, over the course of their three-year careers, took road trips to TWENTY states, routinely to play games against ranked teams, logging over 65,000 miles to and from campus. To play this sort of schedule is insane; to do it and excel is astounding. But excel they did: that senior class went 53-29, and finished the 1973-74 season ranked 17th in the country.

Sports Illustrated took notice in February of ’74, running a feature on the team as the Creighton Bluejays became national darlings on the strength of their adventurous scheduling. In that piece, Eddie Sutton explained their scheduling philosophy.

“Oh, I know a lot of coaches must think I’m insane with this traveling thing. But we’re an independent with 14 kids on our roster from 11 different states and with 65 alumni groups across the country who want to see us play. So we go everyplace, and we’ve gotten a reputation for it. Any time we travel I think of it as an education for our players, not just as a sightseeing tour. Creighton is a tough school academically, and if there’s something interesting in the area where we’re playing basketball, we will investigate it.”

You would think traveling so much would make recruiting difficult. On the contrary, it actually helped them get better players — with very few if any regular season games televised, even by the top programs, playing all across the country helped expose Creighton’s players to pro scouts in more places than would be possible at a school playing a more regional slate. Gene Harmon, who finished his career third on the all-time scoring list (and now ranks 14th), told Sports Illustrated that the Jays travels are the major reason he spurned the Nebraska Cornhuskers despite being from Schuyler, Nebraska. “Playing far and wide has given me the kind of exposure I would never have had in a conference like the Big Eight.”

Rightfully proud of their reputation, the media guide for the 1973-74 season was filled with photos the players had taken themselves on their travels. Doubling as a recruiting brochure, several pages were devoted to explaining the Travelin’ Jays concept, not only to media but to incoming recruits as well.

“Traveling is so much a part of the Bluejay basketball program that a basketball prospect should reflect on what traveling means to him before he signs with the Jays…Creighton University is in Omaha, a fine city…but one located a considerable distance from other major basketball powers…. So future Creighton Bluejays must be more than tall, talented and dedicated to hard work. They have to know how to pack a suitcase.”

Their travels took on a more exotic flavor in the summer before the 1973-74 season, when they took a two-week jaunt to South America. The Jays played 12 games in 9 Brazilian cities — including Manaus, Belem, Sao Luis, Fortaleza, Salvadore, Sao Paulo, Santos, Jacaraci, Belo Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro. Their exhaustive tour of Brazil finished with the Jays going 9-3 against the top teams the country had to offer. “Our trip to Brazil was particularly worthwhile,” Sutton noted in the media guide. “In addition to widening our horizons, it brought our squad together on a personal basis.”

It also had another benefit. “Once you’ve played in Brazil or before any of those crowds south of the border, going into Milwaukee Arena doesn’t seem nearly so bad!” Anything the notoriously rowdy Marquette fans could throw at them would pale in comparison to what they experienced in South American arenas — a fact that would help the Jays in their biggest win of the year.

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“We Can’t Use the Excuse Anymore that We’re Just Kids”

 

When Sutton was named the coach in the spring of 1969, he immediately embarked on a two-month tour of the United States to recruit, talk to major college coaches to set up games, and do personal meet-and-greets with alumni groups all over the country. It was all part of Sutton’s plan to turn the Jays into not just Omaha’s team, but a national power. By the fall of 1973, he finally had the players to make that bold vision a reality.

The 1973-74 Jays featured three seniors in prominent roles. Ted Wuebben was a 6’6″ power forward from Dayton, Ohio, who averaged 10.5 points and 8.4 rebounds as a junior. Noted for his aggressive, hustling style, Wuebben brought toughness — both mental and physical — to the Jays. Ralph Bobik, a 6’7″ guard/forward from Lake Arrowhead, California, led the team in assists with 162, an average of 6.2 a game, which was an amazing three times more than his closest teammate. Bobik was the very definition of the term “matchup nightmare”, decades before recruiting wonks would begin describing players that way. And then there was Gene Harmon, the “Blonde Bomber” from Schuyler who was team MVP after both his sophomore and junior seasons, leading them in scoring both years.

A confident bunch, junior Charles Butler summed up their optimism in a preseason interview with the World-Herald. “Really, I think we should win 20 games…or more!” Butler was the Jays most athletic player; his quickness and uncanny instincts gave them an added element on both ends of the floor they didn’t get from other players. Senior sixth-man Bimbo Pietro added, “We can’t use the excuse anymore that we’re just kids,” referencing their plethora of veteran stars. Pietro — real name James Jr. — was given his nickname by his grandfather who used to call him “Little Bambino”, and he was a solid role player off the bench, provided key minutes at two positions and was described by Sutton as the hardest worker on the team.

They also featured the first seven-footer in school history, sophomore Mike Heck from Papillion, Nebraska. He’d come to Creighton as a lanky player, weighing under 200 pounds, but after a freshman campaign where he often got pushed around by shorter players, he’d gained significant bulk through a weight training program and as Sutton described it in the World-Herald, “a steady diet of 50 protein pills a day.” Heck would get better and better as the season went on, becoming a mainstay in the rotation by season’s end. Tragically, just one game into his junior season, he died in his sleep from an undiagnosed heart condition.

Despite all of the on-court excitement, it was an off-court development that made the biggest headlines: the return of cheerleaders and the Yell Squad after a three-year absence. Both spirit groups had disbanded in early 1971 because some members objected to the playing of the national anthem before games — remember, this was at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement — but by 1973, with the protests cooling off, the playing of the national anthem was no longer something worthy of not having cheerleaders over.

Eddie Sutton, for one, was thrilled. “A major home court advantage is the noise factor, created by the fans. So we’re looking forward to having the cheerleaders back with a lot of optimism,” he told the World-Herald in November of 1973.

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A Free-Wheeling, Press-Happy Style

 

On November 30, the Jays free-wheeling, press-happy style was on full display in the season opener at the Civic Auditorium (it was called City Auditorium in those days, but since most readers know the building as the Civic, we’ll call it that for the purposes of this piece). The 92-38 win over Regis, a school out of Denver, saw all 13 players on the Jays roster score, and allowed Sutton to play no one more than 22 minutes.

“I thought our defense the first six or seven minutes of the ball game was the best since I’ve been at Creighton,” Sutton told the media after the game, and it would be hard to argue with that: Creighton had a 22-0 lead ten minutes in, shutting out Regis for the first one-fourth of the game. Offensively, they were just as potent, as the Jays shot 56% for the game, tying a school record. Junior center Doug Brookins led the team with 14 points and 8 rebounds.

A strict man-to-man coach in those days, Eddie Sutton had toyed with the idea playing a zone against some of their quicker opponents. “We really feel like this year, there will be times we’ll have to switch to zone. We thought this was a good time to test it out.” Up by 50 points in the second half, they employed a 2-3 zone for the first time in his career at CU. While they wouldn’t break it out again until much later in the season, it would prove to be an important tactical weapon in two of their biggest wins.

In spite of a raging snowstorm that canceled the freshman game beforehand, the “varsity” game went on as scheduled, and the Jays improved to 2-0 after a 95-68 win over South Dakota State later that week. Charles Butler spent the game on the bench, hobbled by a charley horse and confined to crutches, and was replaced in the starting lineup by the seldom-used senior Richie Smith. He responded with a nice defensive effort, holding the Jackrabbits second-leading scorer, Ron Wiblemo, to just six points. Ted Wuebben, the Jays’ usual defensive virtuoso, had a dominant game with 13 rebounds while playing a key role in the Jays outrebounding their opponent 53-30. Afterward, coach Eddie Sutton was already looking ahead, with good reason.

“It’ll be a little tougher this weekend,” he noted.

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The Inaugural ‘Creighton Classic’

 

And indeed it would. Friday brought the inaugural Creighton Classic to the Civic Auditorium, a four-team event featuring Oklahoma, San Diego State and Air Force — a formidable foursome. In the first round of games, Oklahoma steamrolled the Aztecs 92-57, as their muscular Big Three of Alvan Adams, Ted Evans and Tom Holland, each 6’9″, dominated everything from 15 feet and in. The nightcap was a lower-scoring affair, with Creighton prevailing 55-42 in a game that saw the Jays’ vaunted defense hold Air Force to a season-low 16 points in the first half. Leading 24-16 at the break, on the opening possession of the second half Wuebben tipped in a rebound after tipping the ball to himself no less than three times, on both sides of the rim, to the delight of the crowd. “He battles that way every ball game,” Sutton gushed after the game.

Against Oklahoma, Creighton was up 12-8 early, and then went over seven minutes without scoring as the Sooners ran off a 17-0 run to go ahead 25-12. A free-throw by Wuebben with 7:48 ended the draught, but despite four more makes from the charity stripe, it would be another four minutes before the Jays scored a field goal — Doug Brookins made a 15-foot jumper to finally end an ELEVEN minute stretch without a made basket. The inexplicable run ended with the Sooners up 33-19. “They got tight,” Sutton commented later. “We didn’t move the ball well offensively, and we just kind of froze up.”

The Sooners held a 42-23 halftime lead, but Oklahoma head coach Joe Ramsey knew better. “There was no way they were going to continue to shoot 21.6% from the floor,” he told the media after the game. He was right: Creighton flipped the scoreboard 180 degrees from where it had been in the first half, outscoring the Sooners 47-31 after the break. Brookins started the run, scoring five baskets in the first 4:13 after the break. Their full-court press forced Oklahoma into turnover after turnover, and slowly but surely, they chipped away at the lead. Finally, with 1:24 to go in the game, the score was 70-66.

Brookins outfought the Sooners’ All-Big Eight big man Alvan Adams, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds on the night, for a rebound, and then “bent his huge body into a horseshoe shape while scooping the ball into the basket two-handed,” as the World-Herald’s Don Lee described it the next morning. Fouled on the play, Brookins made a free throw and just like that, it was a one-possession game at 70-68. The teams exchanged buckets on their next possessions, and then Brookins intercepted an inbounds pass to give Creighton a chance to tie. His subsequent pass, hurried and out of control, was unfortunately also intercepted, and Oklahoma held on for the wild 73-70 win.

Following the loss, the Jays took a week off for finals. The week away left them rusty, and in a home game versus St. Francis of Pennsylvania, they fell behind early (again) but this time, had no comeback in them as they lost 73-58. The Jays were behind 10-0 at the 14:54 mark when Brookins made a free throw to make it 10-1; three minutes later, they finally made their first basket when Ted Wuebben banked home a jumper with 11:08 left to cut the deficit to 14-3.

Down 35-20 at the break, things managed to get even worse. Gene Harmon, the Jays leading scorer whose career high of 35 came against the same team the year prior, was 0-for-6 from the floor, and scored two lonely points on a pair of free throws. As a team, they made just 26 of 81 shots, a percentage of 32.1%. Brookins suffered a concussion during a scrap for a loose ball, and missed most of the second half. And then, with 4:32 to go and trailing 68-46, they inexplicably played an entire possession with just four players before the officials realized the miscue. “It was just a nightmare,” Sutton told the media after the game. “I think this is probably the most disappointed I’ve been at a loss since I’ve been at Creighton.”

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Tomorrow in Part II, the Jays hit the road for games against Arizona State, Butler and sixth-ranked Marquette, and later, break into both the UPI and AP Top 25 polls.

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