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Great Teams: 1990-91 (Part I)

This is the second 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 1990-91 squad. Parts II and III will run on Wednesday and Thursday.

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Creighton followed up their NCAA Tournament berth in 1988-89 by winning more games overall than the year before, going 21-12 in 1989-90. The consensus favorite to repeat as MVC champions, they got off to a good start, as they scored wins over Iowa State and Notre Dame, and won two games in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii. Their NCAA opponent from the previous year, Missouri, was impressed enough with the Jays to sign a contract for a home-and-home with them; as they had the year before in March, Creighton gave the #5 Tigers a heckuva battle, but ultimately lost 86-79 in Columbia.

Junior Bob Harstad had a historic season, averaging 22.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in winning the MVC Player of the Year award. Fellow junior Chad Gallagher averaged 17.7 points and 8.1 rebounds, and was the runner-up for MVC Player of the Year to his teammate. After being picked to win the league, they played five of their final seven games on the road — a rugged stretch that played a big role in them finishing in a three-way tie for second in the MVC with a 9-5 record. Even worse, the rotating MVC Tournament took place in Normal that year, and the Jays lost in the semifinals to the host Redbirds 69-64. With the MVC being a one-bid league that year, the loss meant the 21-win Jays were headed to the NIT, where they were sent to Chicago to play DePaul.

Though Joey Meyer’s Blue Demons pulled away late for the win, Head Coach Tony Barone had nothing but praise for his team. “This is the second time in the history of Creighton basketball that a team has won 20 games in back-to-back seasons. For a school like DePaul, that’s not a happening. For us, it’s a big deal.”

“This is a group of kids who came to us with a dream,” he continued. ”We’ve won one championship and been to postseason play two years in a row. I’m very proud of them.”

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20-20-20 Vision

 

Barone wanted to challenge his team in the non-conference in 1990-91, because he knew he had a special group entering their final season on the Hilltop. Analyzing their schedule in that year’s media guide — a book that in those days was chock full of Barone-isms — he noted, “They are all quality, big-time programs. We are really going to have to be prepared in our non-conference schedule to play with a high level of intensity that you usually might not play with in non-conference games.”

Eventual NCAA Tournament teams Iowa, Louisiana Tech, South Alabama, and Nebraska were on the schedule, as were perennial NCAA teams in “down” years Iowa State, Notre Dame, Missouri, Tulsa, and UTEP. It was a challenging slate by any stretch of the imagination, but one that if they could survive, would prepare them not only for the MVC but for the rigors of March.

Ever the promoter, Barone once again came up with a slogan to promote his team. In 1988-89, it had been “Great Balls of Fire.” The 1989-90 team, defending a MVC crown, was promoted under the tagline “Just Do It … Again.” And in 1990-91, it was “20 – 20 – 20 Vision”, a reference to their attempt to win 20 games for a third straight season. In their previous 74 years of basketball, that had never been accomplished.

“We’ve got to take control of our destiny,” Barone said in the media guide. “I thought last year, at times, we let other things affect our own destiny. During the season you must be able to handle all of the negatives, whether it be a referee’s call not going your way or having to play eight of our last 10 games on the road, which is what we did last year. All of those things are unimportant. What you have to do is fight through those things to get yourself into a position where you will be successful.”

Bob Harstad spent the summer working on his three-point shot while touring Europe with the NIT All-Stars, hoping to increase his arsenal of weapons. And when practice opened up on Monday, October 15, he and Gallagher led by example. “One of the keys for us is their approach to practice,” Barone told the World-Herald. “I wanted to see how it was going to be. It would be real easy for them as veterans to figure they already have their spots and not work as hard as they’re capable of working. They were two of the hardest workers we had today.”

Still, the Jays were not a two-man team — they’d tried that approach out of necessity in 1987-88 and found it was too easy for defenses to shut them down with only two real threats — and Barone hammered that point home to anyone willing to listen. “This team is not Bob Harstad’s team and Chad Gallagher’s team. They’re not going to carry the team to a championship. They’re the reason we’re going to be competitive again, but they can’t do it by themselves.”

To that end, the supporting cast was almost entirely different from the 1988-89 NCAA Tournament team. Senior forward Darin Plautz had been the second-best three point shooter in the MVC by percentage the previous year, making 43% of his shots from long range. Junior Chris Rodgers had been a highly-touted recruit out of high school, but had been plagued by injuries his entire career. Finally healthy, the powerfully built Rodgers was looked at as a primary backup to Harstad and a guy who would play big minutes. Todd Eisner returned for his senior season; after playing a key supporting role on the 1988-89 squad, he’d blown out his knee just ten games into the 1989-90 season in Hawaii during the Rainbow Classic, necessitating his second ACL surgery in three years. Jays fans were familiar with his three-point shooting ability and knack for finding the open man in passing lanes, and were eager to see him back in action.

Senior Bill O’Dowd had filled in for Gallagher in 1988-89 when he missed four mid-season games due to injury, and in 1990-91 was poised to get big minutes as Gallagher’s primary backup. O’Dowd’s junior year was derailed by an emergency appendectomy on the first day of practice that cost him his strength and stamina; it was mid-season before he’d regained enough to be effective.

Duan Cole, a junior who had missed the 1988-89 season after tearing his ACL in pre-season practice, got steadily better and better as the 1989-90 season went on. His overall numbers were 8.5 points and 4.1 assists a game, but those increased to 12.1 points and 5.1 assists in MVC games. Barone and staff hoped Cole could provide for this team what James Farr had provided the 1988-89 team — assume the role of Team Spark Plug, and give them solid point guard play sprinkled in with a flair for the dramatic at the end of games.

“I think we have, in Bob and Chad, two extremely talented and productive players,” Barone said in the media guide. “They’ve got to continue to produce, there’s no question about that. But we have to get a supporting cast that is going to be production oriented. We think we have the numbers, in terms of depth, and I think Todd (Eisner) will be a factor, not necessarily as much in minutes played but quality minutes.

“We’re going to have to have production from Latrell Wrightsell, Chris Rodgers, Billy O’Dowd and Todd Geyer. They are going to have to step up. We recruited those guys because we thought they were good enough to play for us, and now it’s coming to a point where they have to prove us right or wrong.”

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“We’ve Got All the Tools to be a Top 20 Team”

 

Enthusiasm for the team was high around Omaha. Their all-time record for season tickets sold was 5,238, a record set in the 1982-83 season, when the excitement over the arrival of top recruit Benoit Benjamin led to a run on tickets. The school’s goal for the 1990-91 season was to hit 4,000.

A more modest number came out on October 18 for “Photo Night”, where the Jays players gathered in the Creighton Gym (the building now known as the Vinardi Center) to sign posters and pose for photos with fans. Talking with the World-Herald, the players were not shy about expressing their goals for the upcoming season.

“I would love to win the NCAA tournament,” Chad Gallagher said with no hint of irony in his voice. “That’s one of my goals. This being our last year, for the seniors, we’re going to approach every game as if it’s our last game. There’s really no limit to how far we can go.”

Duan Cole shared his sentiments. “We can be as good as we want to be. We’ve got all the tools to be a Top 20 team. With the experience we have coming back, it’s possible.”

Bob Harstad was more guarded with his comments, noting “I think this team has the potential, but a lot of teams have the potential. As a team, you have to come together and have the right chemistry. We have all the potential but whether we put it together is another story. (Being ranked) is one of our goals. It’s a prestige goal. But it’s really not our focus. What we want to do is win the Valley and get to the NCAA tournament.”

Two weeks later, the Jays prepared for their first of two public scrimmages, and Barone assessed their progress. “Our effort from a defensive standpoint has been really, really good. We’ve started to identify the things we need to do to be successful defensively. The biggest thing we’ve identified is the intensity level needed in terms of pressuring the ball. It was a big area of concern last year. We’ve improved quite a bit.”

In the first scrimmage on November 1, played at Creighton Prep as a fundraiser for Operation Others, the Blue Team rolled to a 100-64 win — though considering the way the rosters were stocked, that’s hardly surprising. In stark contrast to the way they’d balanced things the previous two years by putting Harstad and Gallagher on separate teams, in 1990 it was the “A” team against the “B” team.

Gallagher had 32 points on the strength of making 13 out of 14 free throws, and Harstad added 21 points, as did Darin Plautz for the winning Blue team. Bill O’Dowd led the White team with 24 points and 17 rebounds.

After a similar result in the second scrimmage, played on campus as part of Parents Weekend, the Jays got the news that the media had picked them as preseason favorites to win the MVC. In the coaches poll, six of the nine opposing coaches picked Creighton, while in the media poll, 27 of the 32 voters picked the Jays. Bob Harstad, the defending MVC Player of the Year, was voted Preseason Player of the Year with 22 of 32 possible votes.

If it wasn’t clear before, it was now patently obvious: there would be no sneaking up on anyone this year. The target was squarely on their backs.

***

Two Tough Exhibition Tests

 

After three weeks of practice and two public scrimmages, the Jays finally competed against someone other than themselves, as the first of two exhibition games was held at the Civic. Both exhibitions would be tougher tests than most outside observers would have expected.

The first, on November 6, was against Athletes In Action. A semi-pro team comprised of ex-D1 players a year or two out of school, AIA was led by Lorenzo Romar, an NBA veteran who now coaches the Washington Huskies. Romar left impressed with the Jays, saying they were better than either of AIA’s first two opponents, James Madison and Notre Dame.

“We said before the game that they would be the best team we’ve played, and they were,” Romar said after the game. “They have two very good basketball players down low and they understand to win that they have to get them the basketball.”

Indeed, the Jays inside players were an unstoppable force. Chad Gallagher had 30 points and 10 rebounds, while Bob Harstad had 23 points and 13 boards. But the Dynamic Duo had lots of help: senior forward Darin Plautz had 12 points and 9 rebounds, and junior point guard Duan Cole chipped in 16 points and 10 assists.

It was another player that Barone showered praise on afterward, however. “The difference between us winning and losing is Eisner. I’ve said that since day one and no one ever listens and no one ever believes me.” The senior, coming off his second knee reconstruction in three seasons, hit two three-pointers and provided his usual outstanding court awareness and passing, traits that were invaluable during the NCAA Tourney run two years prior.

After the 89-82 win, the Jays took nine days off to continue preparations for the regular season, and then welcomed Ukraine of the Soviet Union to Omaha for the second and final exhibition. Ten months later, the Ukraine would declare independence from the USSR, making this the final American barnstorming trip for the team under the Soviet flag. True to the reputation of Soviet athletic teams, the Ukrainians were very good, and they led for the first 25 minutes of the game as Sergei Ivtchatov matched Chad Gallagher point-for-point and rebound-for-rebound.

Then, with the game tied 63-63 midway through the second half, Darin Plautz hit two straight threes to start a 17-0 Creighton run that blew the game open. Gallagher appreciated the shooting display. “Darin and Matt Petty stepped up in the second half with the three-pointers. Bob and I are going to get double-and triple-teamed. When we kick it back out, they need to step up and hit that shot, and they did that tonight.”

Of course, Barone was more thrilled with the defensive play of those two. “People are going to look at the box score and see that Matt and Darin had key baskets,” he said after the game. “But if they looked intelligently they also saw that their buckets came after their defensive plays. They got motivated defensively and did a great job. Then they came back on offense where it’s a little more of an emotional situation, and they got their rhythm from their defense.”

With an 89-71 win, the Jays completed a perfect 2-0 run through the exhibition portion of their schedule. They now had 15 days to prepare for the season opener against UT-San Antonio in the first round of the Amana-Hawkeye Classic in Iowa City.

Tomorrow in Part II, Creighton travels to Iowa City to open the season, then comes home to take on the Missouri Tigers as they fight through a tough non-conference slate containing four NCAA Tournament teams and five others that had gone the year before.

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