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Great Teams: 1973-74, Part II

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 Part II on the 1973-74 squad; if you missed the first chapter, catch up on Part I.

***

Veggie Tales

 

The loss to St. Francis of PA had left coach Eddie Sutton distraught. Following their next game against BYU, he was in a much better mood. The high-velocity 99-86 win moved the Jays to 4-2 on the season, and was a measure of revenge for a loss to BYU two years prior.

“We played super,” Ralph Bobik told reporters at courtside following the game. “We were ready to play. But we should be able to get ‘up’ like this every game.” The senior had a huge game, with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 16 assists, one shy of his career high which was also the school record at the time. “Oh, it’s tremendous,” he continued. “I think I tried a little extra tonight.”

He wasn’t the only one. Ted Wuebben had 20 points and, as the Omaha World-Herald wrote, “bossed the defensive board with his vicious rebounding” in securing nine boards. Doug Brookins tied his career high with 23 points on 10-22 shooting and added seven rebounds, and Gene Harmon had 14 points despite playing limited minutes after being shaken up in a first half collision.

With Creighton leading 50-42 at the break, BYU went on a run to open the second half and the Civic Auditorium of 2,586 didn’t much care for it. Several fans threw tomatoes onto the court, and their displeasure forced an interruption in play. Just two minutes after the resumption of play, a questionable foul call on Brookins brought more tomatoes flying onto the court, and another stoppage in play, as Coach Sutton pleaded with them to stop.

Vegetables aside, the game turned with 10:16 to play, with the Jays clinging to a 67-61 lead. Richie Smith made two straight baskets, the second of which was a 20-footer, to make it 71-63. Brookins took a court-length pass and drove down for a layup, then immediately stole the inbounds pass at midcourt and drove to the bucket again for another layup. After two more baskets a piece from Brookins and Harmon, the score was 84-71, and out of reach for BYU.

The 1973-74 Men's Basketball team. Photo courtesy Creighton University Sports Information.

 

***

A Slow Start Finally Hurts the Jays

 

Gene Harmon exploded for 16 points in an 11-minute stretch of the second half in the Jays next game, a 63-49 road win at Augustana in South Dakota. With the Jays down 35-31 and 18:31 to play, Harmon began his rampage with a jump shot to cut the deficit. He’d score 14 of the team’s next 24 points, all without missing a single shot, as the Jays turned that 35-31 deficit into a 57-44 lead. His only misfire during the amazing run was a lone free throw, but he rebounded it himself and made a layup.

Their defense also stepped up, a fact Eddie Sutton appreciated after the game. “That defensive effort, which set up numerous fast breaks, changed the momentum in the second half. We became aggressive as a result, and our offense began clicking.”

Three nights later in Boulder, the Jays once again fell behind early, once again came back in a furious second half rally, then blew the lead late in a 73-68 loss. Trailing 39-34 at the break, Gene Harmon once again went on a torrid shooting streak, scoring 10 points in a five-minute stretch to help the Jays pull ahead 55-49 with 10:50 to play. Colorado tied it at 57 on a bucket by Ron Wrigley, and the lead then changed hands five times before the Buffs went ahead for good, 67-66, on a layup from all-Big Eight forward Scott Wedman, who finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds.

***

The “Z-Game”

 

Against old nemesis Drake, the Jays were forced to play without forward Doug Brookins who had strained his shoulder in practice the day before the game. Coupled with Drake’s potent inside game, coach Eddie Sutton had little choice but to employ a zone defense to help the inexperienced Mike Heck defend the post. “Drake has great quickness,” Sutton noted after the game. “We were able to stop them from penetrating with the zone.”

And Gene Harmon did the rest. The senior made 12-17 field goals for 26 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and left the Omaha crowd breathless with a blind, over-his-back jumper from 15 feet out that put the jays up 51-30 midway through the closing half. Ralph Bobik contributed eight assists, and not to be outdone by Harmon’s showboating, had a Harlem Globetrotter-type behind-the-back pass to Mike Heck who made a ten-foot jumper as the crowd — and the bench — went nuts.

The victories, and the Jays inspired play, were turning the staunch man-to-man defense coach into a believer in the zone. A 79-61 win over San Diego State seemed to cement the zone as the Jays defensive strategy of choice, as the players once again thrived under it. The defense was becoming so popular, it even had a name — the “Z-Game”.

Ted Wuebben, a defensive virtuoso in the past, was even better as part of the Z-Game. Responsible for one of the wings, he saw his rebounding opportunities increase, and he took advantage. After grabbing 8 rebounds against Drake, he had 12 rebounds against the Aztecs. Mike Heck was thriving, too; the 7-footer was under less pressure than he had been in the man-to-man scheme, allowing him to be on the court more and with his offensive skills, that was a key development. Heck scored 15 points on 7-10 shooting against ASU, and had scored 14 points on 7-13 shooting against Drake.

The obvious drawback to the Z-Game was that it slowed the pace of the game, turning the previously high-octane Jays into a team that played games in the 70s instead of the 90s. But when you’re winning by double-digits, pace of play is a secondary concern to the big picture. Slower play didn’t hurt offensive wiz Gene Harmon at all, though; he scored 23 against the Aztecs, the fourth straight game of 22 or more points for Harmon.

Taking the Z-Game on the road, Creighton upended Butler in Indianapolis for their eighth win of the year, 75-58. Gene Harmon once again had a huge night offensively, scoring 34 points — 25 of them in the second half — and had 12 in a decisive five-and-a-half minute stretch as the Jays pulled away to take a 53-40 lead with just over nine minutes to play. He passed the 1,000 point mark for his career during that stretch, and then blew right past it, ending the game with 1,016. Commenting on his accomplishment after the game, Harmon noted, “It’s a real honor that happened because the ball fell, and I had teammates who were helping me.”

Wuebben continued thriving in the Z-Game, scoring 14 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Doug Brookins, back from the shoulder injury that had necessitated the switch to the 2-3 zone in the first place, also had a great game with 10 points and 11 boards. Despite Brookins return, Coach Sutton hesitated to fix something that wasn’t broken, and stuck with the 2-3 zone. It wasn’t the style he preferred, but when you’re winning and winning big, why argue?

Next up was Southern Illinois, a team that had tripped up the Bluejays three times in the past four years. But the Salukis had not seen the vicious 2-3 Z-Game yet, and as it had with every opponent to face it to that point, it frustrated them. “This was a big one for the seniors in particular,” senior Ralph Bobik recounted after the 75-60 win. “We lost here in overtime as sophomores and by four last year, and we needed this one a lot.”

SIU’s vaunted press was no match. “It was much like our win over Houston last year,” Bobik explained. “They pressed us then, and like tonight, we got the ball in and down the floor before they could establish a normal defense.”

***

#20 Dayton Goes Down

 

Returning home on January 12, the Jays hosted #20 Dayton, a team riding a six-game winning streak. Creighton was riding a four-game winning streak of their own, and according to Bobik, “we thought we had a better team.”

The 69-62 Creighton victory backed up those words, and Bobik had a big role in securing the upset win. So did Ted Wuebben, a Dayton native who grew up six blocks from the Dayton campus and whose parents still lived there. The Saturday night game was televised, and a group of Creighton students made a giant banner to parade for the cameras — a sign that read “Ted Wuebben says Hi to all the boys at Rudy’s in Dayton”, with Rudy’s being a neighborhood pub blocks from his parent’s house.

Wuebben scored just two points on 1-5 shooting, but grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. “I think he was trying too hard,” Sutton noted after the game, and who could blame him? He was going up against his hometown team, after all. “I didn’t play that well,” Wuebben admitted. “But gee, we beat a team that was rated.” His parents were watching on TV back in Dayton, and called the courtside phone at the scorer’s table to offer their congratulations following the game.

In building a 40-30 halftime edge, Gene Harmon scored 16 points, Bobik and Brookins had 10 each, and Heck and Wuebben snared five rebounds apiece. The quicker Flyers were stymied by the 2-3 zone, which took away most of leading scorer Donald Smith’s scoring chances. A notorious flopper who led the nation in free throw attempts and accuracy the year before, Smith had no free throw attempts in the game and just 12 points.

Under the Z-Game, Creighton was undefeated in five attempts, and was 10-3 on the season.

***

A Buzzer-Beater Against the Shockers

 

Creighton had great difficulty getting to Wichita for their next game, as a thick fog enveloped the city and kept their plane from landing. They got there, eventually, and were glad they did: the game was an all-time classic, and one that never gets talked about in the pantheon of great games between the Shockers and Bluejays after they became MVC foes.

The 65-63 Creighton win featured 20 ties and 21 lead changes. The Jays’ Richie Smith scored the first bucket of the game, and WSU tied it on their first possession; 13 more ties followed in a nip-and-tuck first half that saw Creighton shoot 57% from the floor … and trail at the break, 35-34, because Wichita shot even better.

After halftime, Gene Harmon and Mike Heck led a Bluejay surge, and the Jays took their largest lead, 53-48, with under ten to play. Heck, in particular, was tough for the Shockers to stop. “It’s tough to defend against a seven-footer,” Wichita coach Harry Miller explained later, “when you’re playing a 6-foot-7-incher with a sprained ankle in the middle.” Heck had 14 points and 5 rebounds, while Harmon was his usual self, scoring 21 points on 10-17 shooting.

The 20th lead change of the game came with just over three minutes to play, when Wichita’s Rich Morsden hit a basket to put them up 62-61. After he added a free throw, Harmon tied the game for the 20th and final time with a putback off a missed shot, and following a rebound of a missed Wichita State shot, the Jays set up for the winning shot.

They milked over a minute-and-a-half off the clock — remember, there was no shot clock in 1973-74 — running a delay offense knowing Wichita would not foul in a tie game. And then with four seconds left, Ted Wuebben broke free and launched a shot from the left of the key.

Sutton explained the strategy later. “We have a set play in that situation, but Teddy isn’t who it’s designed to free. Gene Harmon is the man we’d like to take that shot, but he just didn’t get open. So, the man who has it shoots it when that happens, and Teddy had it.”

Shocker coach Harry Miller explained further. “(Wuebben) was working hard to get free and you could see he wanted the shot. We had them in a zone because we thought they would shoot earlier, Wuebben smelled the shot and got free, that’s all.”

A 77-64 road loss to Arizona State, another Top 20 team, snapped the Jays winning streak at six games. They wasted another stellar effort from Gene Harmon, who scored 24 points in the losing effort to “by far, the best team we’ve played this year,” according to Sutton.

***

Young Players Key Two Wins

 

Returning home for a one-game homestand before going back out on the road, the Jays took on another future MVC foe in Bradley. The 77-53 win saw the Jays switch back to their man-to-man defense as they tried to stop the machine-gun-quick attack of the Braves, who had averaged 85 points a game coming in.

Creighton took a 42-28 lead to the locker rooms at the break, and were holding a 52-40 advantage eight minutes into the final half when momentum began to shift. Seven-footer Mike Heck emerged to stem the tide. First, he hit a 15-foot jumper from the left baseline, and then he nailed a jump shot from the top of the key. On the next defensive possession, he snared a rebound under the basket and fed the fast break for an easy basket by Harmon. In less than two minutes, it was 58-40, momentum was back on Creighton’s side, and the game was in hand.

“I tell you, the guy who ignited the spark was Mike Heck,” Sutton gushed after the contest. “It was one of his best performances. I think he’s really becoming more aggressive.”

Two nights later, the Jays came out flat at Saint Louis, as both Harmon and Richie Smith played through flu-like symptoms. Both were completely ineffective, and played limited minutes. The usually senior-led Jays were forced to turn to their young players for help; juniors Charles Butler and Tom Anderson, along with sophomore Mike Heck, answered the call.

Anderson came off the bench to score six points in the first half, Heck added ten second half points, and Butler made the key plays down the stretch. It was particularly sweet for Butler, a player expected to be a regular but who had missed 12 games due to a thigh injury. No one was happier for him than Harmon, who told reporters after the game, “Just tell them in Omaha that C.B. is back! He did it when we really needed it.”

With the game tied 22-22 coming out of halftime, Heck scored nine points as part of a run that put Creighton up 37-29 with 11:04 remaining. SLU’s Learthar Scott scored three consecutive buckets to bring the Billikins within one possession, and after a three-point play put the host team ahead 40-39, Eddie Sutton called for timeout. He substituted in Richie Smith, who had played only a handful of minutes due to the flu, and he had enough in the tank to completely shut down SLU’s hot-shooting Scott. “Richie came in just when Learthar Scott started to shoot us down,” Sutton recalled, “and he shut him off.”

The Jays needed someone to step up with their stars ailing, and Charles Butler — an unlikely guy to do it, in his first game back after missing 12 games with injury — got the hot hand. First, he scored on a drive to the basket, then he made a jumper from the left wing, and on the next possession, he flipped a pass to a wide-open Doug Brookins for a 15-footer. Suddenly, Creighton was back up 50-44, and they would never be threatened again, winning 60-54.

“It is great to win away from home when you don’t play real well,” Sutton said after the game, sighing and massaging his forehead. “We were flat most of the game and we still survived. We just cannot look past anyone. Winning on the road is tough enough in itself.” The win moved Creighton to 13-4, and set up a rematch with 11-2 Southern Illinois as the kickoff to a four-game homestand.

***

Four Game Homestand

 

SIU came to Omaha to cap a stretch of three games in five days, and when they left after a 67-64 Bluejay win, Eddie Sutton declared that it had been “a great week.” But to get there required an escape against a frisky Saluki team.

The Jays came out in their Z-Game, which had frustrated and baffled Southern Illinois in the first meeting, but given time to scheme for it the Salukis had the answer: sharp cuts from the edges and well-placed screens. In the first half, they often caught Creighton flat-footed in their zone, but the Jays shot well enough to overcome their defensive deficiencies. Unfortunately, their offense betrayed them as the half wound down, and the game turned sour. With just under eight minutes to go, Doug Brookins hit a jumper to put them up 24-18; they would not score again until Ted Wuebben hit a jump shot with 37 seconds left. The six point Jays lead had turned into a four-point SIU lead as the teams went into halftime.

The Z-Game shouldered the blame for the seven-minute dry spell. “Defensively, we weren’t alert,” Sutton recalled after the game. “I think a zone can sometimes do that to you. If you move the basketball and move your personnel, it’s just a matter of time until the opponents make a mistake.”

So they went back to their man-to-man defense, and almost instantaneously, played with more energy. It took some time for the man-to-man to wear down SIU, though, and with 7:49 left, the Salukis were still clinging to a 56-50 lead. That’s when Richie Smith, the defensive hero of the Saint Louis game, hit a bucket that was the start of a Creighton run. Ralph Bobik hit a jumper the next time down, and then Smith scored on a cut to the basket to tie it up. Gene Harmon put them ahead on the next possession with a jump shot, and from there, the Jays grabbed control for their 14th win.

Against St. Cloud State in the next game, Charles Butler finally played a full game with the zest he was normally known for before the painful thigh injury suffered early in the season. Playing at both guard and small forward, he picked off four passes and took turns shutting down both of the Huskies leading scorers. He had only six points, but that was intentional. “I quit shooting because my shots weren’t dropping. So I figured if I played defense, (my teammates) could get layups.”

He angrily shed off the bandage on his leg mid-way through the opening half, as it was affecting his lateral movement. “My leg was sweating and the bandage was slipping. I just couldn’t seem to concentrate because the pad kept slipping.” So as he ran up court on a defensive possession, he tore it off, threw it towards the bench, and went on playing. Perhaps distracted by his macho show, the opposing point guard fired a lazy pass to the wing that Butler intercepted and took to the other end for an uncontested layup.

On another possession, he jumped into a passing lane and picked off a pass intended for the post, and then fired it upcourt to a streaking Ted Wuebben for an easy bucket. So while Butler scored just six points, on a team with Brookins (19 points), Harmon (16 points) and Wuebben (11 points) his defense was more valuable. And without the thigh bandage hampering him, he gave the Jays a great defensive game and was key to the 82-54 blowout win.

Duquesne was next on the four-game homestand, a team headlined by Lionel “Big Train” Billingy, and the largest crowd of the season — nearly 6,000 — came out to the Civic to see the big man from Pittsburgh.

The Dukes were coming off a win over #9 Providence, and after Creighton knocked them off 67-61, Eddie Sutton called it “a prestigious win. Some people in the East might now say, ‘Hey, Creighton must have something out there.'” He then told the Omaha media that he planned on casting his vote in the UPI poll for his own squad, feeling they were deserving of a Top 20 ranking at 16-4 and owning victories over three ranked teams.

And after frustrating Big Train, holding him to eight points — well below his average of 19 — who was to argue?

Creighton moved to 17-4 with a 81-47 win over St. Thomas of Minnesota two nights later, closing out the homestand 4-0 and setting up an epic battle with #6 Marquette that would turn out to be the signature victory of Eddie Sutton’s tenure on the Hilltop.

Tomorrow: Creighton upsets #6 Marquette, earns a bid to the NCAA Tournament, and knocks off mighty Texas in the first round.

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