The State of the Valley

6 12 2011

8-7, not quite the Valley heyday, but a winning record against BCS-conference foes is a great step for a conference who expects an abundance of early-season success.

Once considered the hands-down top mid-major conference in the country, the MVC’s recent plight as a single-bid league in the NCAA tournament could finally end in 2011-2012.

Proving the conference’s worth has become the focus for MVC and league commissioner Doug Elgin (good interview in the Examiner from August)

“I think our people understand that they simply have to prove they are worthy of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, and they cannot accomplish that without playing strong non-conference schedules.  Our teams have to be better than teams from higher-profile leagues, and the best way to make that point it is to schedule strategically… early-season tournaments provide the best opportunity to play NCAA Tournament-caliber teams at neutral sites.”

Solid wins (WSU over UNLV, Evansville over Butler, etc) and a combined 46-23 non-conference clip (through Dec.4), may just push the Missouri Valley conference back toward mid-2000 prominence.

Creighton and Wichita State are carrying the torch, but look who is making an appearance in the top-five of CBS’s early season RPI Report (Sorry Panther fans, but I’m not sure it’s quite deserved).

Irrespective of your feelings on early-season ranks (please see BCS issues), there’s little question that the powers-that-be in the national media are starting to take notice.

Heck, Valley-friendly media like Joseph Book are already throwing out Doug McDermott’s name for All-American contention (Joseph Book’s MVC ranking at the Examiner).

And it’s hard to argue. Not only is Dougie McD in the top-5 in scoring, but his leadership and clutch play have Creighton in the national rankings.

Where the final record falls as conference season draws closer remains to be seen.

Most likely, Evansville will not be able to put-away fourth-ranked North Carolina on the road.


But I do expect UNI to take care of business at home against the lowly Hawkeye (5-3 against a very weak schedule).


Missouri State hosting an Oklahoma State team yet to garner a solid win deems this one a toss-up, slight edge going to MSU at home.

10-8. At worst. 9-9 (a vast improvement over last year’s 11-22 mark).

Give the commissioner and the league’s coaches some credit. This year’s MVC is playing at a higher level and certainly giving fans around the Midwest cause for excitement.

Now if only we can Jim Nantz on board…


Hilton’s New Mayor

28 04 2010

Just like Creighton a few days ago, Iowa State made sure they didn’t go long without a head coach. Athletic director Jamie Pollard quickly turned his rolodex to name number one – “The Mayor” Fred Hoiberg. For ISU, the timing couldn’t be better.

McDermott wore out his welcome with the ISU fan base. Maybe even with the players, as the mass exodus continued. Wesley Johnson left for a better team. Lucca Staiger peaced-out mid-season for a contract in Europe. Justin Hamilton and Dominique Buckley decided the previous season would be their last. And Craig Brackins decided it was NBA time. Though I like McDermott as a coach, this is a disturbing trend.

The Mayor at his introductory press conference. Photo courtesy Des Moines Register. To Sean Keeler (in background with the inquisitive look) - after the shout-out in your article, I figured it was the least I could do.

But that relationship is severed. Both can start anew. McDermott heading back to his comfort zone allows ISU to move onto bigger and better things. Or does it.

The Good: From a university standpoint The Mayor is a no-brainer. One of the most revered athletes in ISU history, he brings a credibility to the position that was seemingly lost with McDermott. He demands respect. Respect from the fans. Respect from the athletic department. And respect from the players. But most importantly respect from the fans (did I say that already?).

The Mayor will be afforded every opportunity to revive ISU basketball. A chance to bring back the “Hilton Magic”. The fans want him to succeed. The fans need him to succeed.

The Bad: Fred Hoiberg has never been a head coach. These experiments often work with mixed results. For every Larry Bird winning coach of the year, we see the struggles of Adrian Dantley,Vinny Del Negro, Bill Cartwright and wait, now I’m just listing off all the Bulls former head coaches (That’s not fair. For those of you reading this before the weekend, you’re not crazy, Vinny is still the Bulls coach.)

Side note – Trying to think of former players failing as coaches was a bad idea. Especially getting the WebMaster involved for his take. See how the conversation immediately shifted to the Bulls? If there is any team in history who’s tried more combinations of former players to lead their team, I can’t think of one. (Doug Collins and Phil Jackson worked out. Because we all know how hard it is to win with the league’s best player. Right, Mike Brown?) Fortunately, the WebMaster is well-versed on this history. Quite bitter about it too I may add. Thankfully, the Bulls were eliminated by the Cavs as I predicted. That buys me four months free of excessive yelling, cursing, and projectiles until Michigan football begins.

Sorry, back on topic… Coaching at a high-major college program is just not an easy thing to do. Dealing with 18-year old kids. Reviving a lost program in a top-heavy and talented Big 12 conference. Bringing players to a school that is not an easy place to recruit to.

Not to mention the struggles of figuring out how to coach in general. What drills do you do? What style do you play? How do you configure practices? Game schedules? Routines? Road trips? Thats a lot of OJT. I’m not saying Hoiberg can’t do it, but he will be fighting an uphill battle.

The Ugly: The cabinet is bare. Current ISU players are not the caliber of a winning Big 12 program. Their roster consists of eight players. Two of whom can be confused as starters – Diante Garrett and Scott Christopherson. Both of whom are more role players. And neither of whom strike fear in the hearts of Big 12 opponents. (To be honest, I like Christopherson a lot. I think he’s a really good player. But he’s a support guy. He’s the guy who can score 12-15 points and do the dirty work while the defense focuses on Brackins and Gilstrap. To say I’m not quite as high on Garrett is an understatement.)

So what does this mean for The Mayor? Well, he’s starting from scratch. A blank canvas. The opportunity is there. The pieces are not.

For The Mayor to succeed at ISU his focus has to be on recruiting. As a former NBA player, he garners a certain level of respect from potential recruits. Something college coaches fight years to obtain. This allows him access to more living rooms than the average ISU hire. Access gives him a chance.

Nearly every high schooler has NBA dreams. The Mayor’s message is provocative. “I know the NBA as a player. I know the NBA from the front office. I can be the coach to help get you there. But you are going to help me turn around this program.” I don’t know about you, but if he came in my house, looked me right in the eye and delivered that statement, I’d be excited. You’re telling me you wouldn’t want to play for a guy like this?

I’m not saying The Mayor should go after sure-fire NBA players right away. I’m not sure they would even consider ISU. But Big 12 teams should have at the very least fringe NBA guys. NBA-type talent that needs to be coached. Guys who want to stay in school for four years. Make themselves better athletes. Make themselves better people. Give themselves a shot at the next level. And make ISU basketball relevant in the process.

The Mayor will have to will his attitude into the ISU basketball culture. Make his players understand what it means to be a winner. What it means to work hard. What it takes to mentally prepare yourself to win basketball games.

This is where the X’s and O’s coach failed. McDermott could never get his teams to find this passion. He never showed you the magic. For the first couple years, Hoiberg’s teams will be underdogs. But I bet you’ll see a fight like you saw from The Mayor.

Regardless of how the experiment goes, Jamie Pollard should be safe. ISU fans can never argue with the hire. Maybe he doesn’t have coaching experience, but he knows “Hilton magic”. For ISU to return to Big 12 basketball prominence, bringing back the magic is going to play a major role.

ISU’s welcome back video

Thats how you hang a banner

27 04 2010

Its amazing how the writing process can spur so many new ideas. Beginning as just a quick write-up on Dana Altman leaving for Oregon, I discovered the enigma that is Kyrylo Fesenko. Today, we go in a different direction.

Former Creighton basketball player Nick Bahe is a funny man. After graduating in 2008, he’s parlayed his athletic prowess into a successful Omaha sports talk show. Bahe’s even doing radio broadcasts for Creighton basketball games. Pranks, jokes, impersonations. They are all in Nick’s repertoire.

Well, in 2007, post-Altman return and pre-Nick Bahe radio show, Kyle Korver travelled to Omaha for his Kyle Korver Foundation golf tournament. With hundreds of Creighton fans present, check out the players roasting Altman for his brief departure to Arkansas.

More importantly, listen to Nick Bahe at the same event for his take on the coach and his “Altman-isms”.

Last but not least, be sure to watch Nick and former teammate Nate Funk in this video from their college days. Bill Self, Coach K, and Altman. No one is off-limits.

Not another pig suey

26 04 2010

Recent news:

  • The Detroit Lions drafted Ndamukong Suh and appear to be on the right track for the first time in years. Yes, I am a Lions fan despite their perennial losing. And yes, I know people in Iowa don’t care about the Lions. But until you get a team of your own, I’m going to act like you do.
  • The Detroit Red Wings are approaching a game-seven battle with the Phoenix Coyotes (again, the lack of team for Iowa). The Wings haven’t had their greatest season, limping through countless injuries to barely sneak into the playoffs. Fortunately, I have confidence in this star-studded roster. Lets get to round-two Wingers.
  • Oklahoma City won their second-consecutive home game to even the Lakers series at 2-2. I’ve liked this team from the beginning, but really Kobe? Twelve points in a 20-point game 4 loss. Thats very un-Kobe-like.
  • The short-handed Utah Jazz have looked far superior to a talented Denver Nuggets team. Even with Kyrylo Fesenko (from Dnipropetrovsk, and no I didn’t spell that wrong) as their starting center. (More on him coming soon)

However, the big news comes straight from Omaha, Nebraska. Longtime coach and MVC godfather Dana Altman is headed to Oregon to become the Ducks’ head basketball coach. This time, it’s for real.

In 2007 we heard a similar story. The classic Pig Suey incident, when Dana left to become Arkansas’s head coach, only to return to Creighton within a day after seeing the state of SEC basketball. Altman sprinted back to Creighton with his tail in between his legs. He vowed to remain at the University for the rest of his career. Fortunately for him, Creighton opened him back with open arms.

Three seasons later, Altman’s streak of 11 straight 20-win seasons was snapped. His BlueJay team looked over-matched, maybe even outcoached for the first time in years. Long gone are the days of Rodney Buford, Ryan Sears, Kyle Korver, and Anthony Tolliver. Instead, players like P’Allen Stinnett dominate the headlines with off-the-court issues. Dana Altman looked at the future of the Creighton program and decided it was time for a change (again).

Ultimately, the Valley has changed. Power has shifted. For almost an entire decade, Creighton and Southern Illinois were top-dogs. Often ranked in the top-25, both teams were perennial post-season contenders. Now, UNI dominates headlines. Illinois State moved from bottom-feeder to contended. And even Drake had one good year (come on, you knew I was throwing that in somewhere).

I can’t blame Altman for leaving. He’s done everything he could for Creighton. Sixteen seasons after arriving in a place without basketball heritage, Altman turned them into a team no one in Division-1 wanted to play. One season under 20-wins and the fans are grumbling. How is that fair?

Look at it this way – as a college coach, you are the focal point of the team. True. Accepted. So you are going to receive a disproportionate amount of credit either way. Ditto. But, fans expect loyalty to the school. They also expect perfection.

When Keno Davis left Drake a few years ago, some fans were upset. How? Would you really turn down someone quadrupling your salary? I wouldn’t say no. Especially if, like Dana’s case, people are always expecting more. He raised the fans level of expectations. One season with less than 20-wins and Creighton fans are grumbling about his ability to coach.

Believe me, I am not blaming the fans. Its just the nature of the business. Fans want their school to win. Coaches need to do whats best for themselves and their families. As much as we like to think college basketball is wholesome, it really is a cut-throat business.

Basically, I’m just trying to say congrats Dana. I wish you the best.

Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see how the BlueJays proceed. Greg McDermott looks to be a perfect fit. After planting the seeds to get UNI to their current level, McDermott’s struggles at Iowa State have been well documented. The Valley and the Big 12 represent different beasts. At Iowa State McDermott has to recruit a different type of player. And these players haven’t exactly fit to his system. Moving from the hot-seat at Iowa State to a storied Valley program in a conference he’s very familiar with seems like a good move. (Oh, and it helps that Creighton can offer more money than Iowa State. Remember, its a business.)

Succeeding in the Valley requires hard-work, tireless recruiting, and having an eye for the diamond in the rough. Coaches have to know how to recruit to this level. MVC teams are too good for average players. But outside of the power-six conference teams, it is extremely difficult to get top-100 caliber athletes. Finding the best of the rest is imperative for Valley success.

To win against the big boys, Valley teams have to play together. And coaches have to find the right mix of players. Kansas is going to be more athletic. But what does UNI do? They stick to their strengths: play great team defense, get Kansas out of their rhythm, and make timing baskets. What they lacked in athleticism, they made up for with size and hustle in the frontcourt, strength and shooting ability in the backcourt. Of course, an Ali Farokhmanesh doesn’t hurt.

It also helps to have mature teams. The last three MVC champs have been junior/senior laden groups. The 2007-2008 Drake Bulldogs had a fifth-year senior, two four-year seniors, and two four-year juniors in their rotation. UNI from 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 boasted a similar mix.

As more prime-time players become one-and-dones, the advantage often resides in experience. Valley coaches don’t recruit these players. They can’t. But they have a knack for picking the next best thing. No way Ali Farokhmanesh goes to Kansas or Kentucky. But with the right teammates, in the right system, the kid can shine.

This is what Greg McDermott struggled with at ISU. And this is why Greg McDermott is a great fit for Creighton. The Valley is a special place. But each school needs to have the right kind of coach.

Ultimately Altman leaving will be good for everyone. He needed a change. Creighton needs a change. And McDermott and Iowa State could definitely use a positive way to get out of that situation. This could be a win-win-win for all three programs. Stay posted.

If Gambling Were Legal…

25 03 2010

In March, this is what you talk about. Dominating sports pages, front pages, and even the Wall Street Journal, the NCAA tournament is impossible to ignore. Everyone, from everyday basketball fans and alums to presidents fills out a bracket. Everyone also offers their two cents, explaining who will win and why. Well, now that we’ve finally reached the Sweet Sixteen, I’ll take a crack at it. Here’s a short little breakdown of tonight’s games:

Butler vs Syracuse

Butler has had an amazing year. Starting the season in the top 10, going undefeated in conference, and winning every game they “should win”, it has been quite a ride. They have good balance and play really well together. That being said, the mid-major’s great ride will come to an end tonight.

To me, Syracuse is the best team in the tournament. They are athletic. They shoot. They share. They have size. And more than anything else, they play a unique defense and play it really well. Despite not having Arinze Onuaku to anchor the middle, the Orange still have the size and depth making them very difficult to beat.

For Butler to win, they need to shoot well. They have a lot of three point shooters, but it will be even more important tonight because the length of Syracuse’s zone will bother smaller Butler guards from scoring on the interior. Butler is too good, too experienced to be blown out, but Syracuse will dominate this game.

Final: Syracuse 74- Butler 61

Side note: Butler continues to dominate the Horizon conference. Don’t you think it would be good for them to join a more competitive league… say the Missouri Valley? Even though the odds of this actually occurring are slim to none, hear me out. Butler is a small private school with a strong academic background, very similar to Drake and Creighton. So the other Bulldogs fit from a size standpoint. What is the major sport of the Valley? Basketball. Butler fits. Location? The Valley already boasts Indiana State and Evansville in Indiana, traveling a little further north and west to Indianapolis would hardly be a deterrent.

Butler also provides a larger media market, with what would be come the largest city in the conference. For Butler, this would offer better opponents, better exposure, and a meaningful conference tournament. Rather than strolling through conference, the other Bulldogs would be challenged every night, a better deal for fans and the players. So that means the Valley would have to expand to 11 teams or boot a current school. Evansville anyone? The Purple Aces are the smallest school in the conference and continue to struggle against the level of competition. Would they not be better served in the Horizon if traded straight up for Butler? I vote yes. Plus, both schools reside in Indiana, meaning it wouldn’t be a stretch. Oh, and Butler was a Valley member from 1932-1934. Just saying…

Washington vs West Virginia

There’s a lot of intrigue in the matchup. West Virginia is a deep, talented team that can beat you a lot of different ways. But, U Dub is athletic and hot. The early conference season was not kind to the Huskies despite lofty preseason expectations. Hitting their stride at the perfect time and winning 14 of 16, they have a great chance to be rare double digit seed in the Elite Eight.

West Virginia needs to deliver one of their best performances of the year to fend off the upset-minded Huskies. Losing point guard Darryl Bryant probably hurts more than many think, but opens the door for Joe Mazzulla to prove himself on the game’s biggest stage. If the 6’2″ can repeat his performance from the Big East tournament championship against Georgetown (6 pts, 2 rebs, 7 assts, 0 turns) then look out. However, if he struggles early WVU could struggle to find their rhythm for a full 40 minutes.

I pick WVU to win because of size, interior scoring and talent, but look out Mountaineer fans, this will be a bumpy ride. This is gonna be a fun one.

Final: WVU 83 – UWash 81

Cornell vs Kentucky

I was shocked by Cornell’s 18-point shellacking of Wisconsin, but see this as the end for the Big Red. To win, Cornell needs to build a 5-point lead in the first five minutes. Period. This team can play from ahead with their deliberate style. But, if Kentucky gets up early and Cornell is forced into more of an open floor game, look out.

Kentucky is too athletic and too talented to lose to a team like Cornell. They are deep and surprisingly play well together. Despite what many say about John Calipari, he again has proved to be a master motivator at the college level. John Wall may be the most unstoppable player in this tournament. Look for him to push the tempo and make life miserable for Cornell.

Final 1 (Kentucky gets off to a fast start): Kentucky 80- Cornell 60
Final 2 (Cornell ahead by 5 after 5 min): Kentucky 70 – Cornell 59

Xavier vs Kansas State

Despite two tough wins in the tournament so far, Xavier is an enigma. The talent, athleticism, and size are all there. They’ve proven they can beat the best, but are also very inconsistent. Star play Jordan Crawford averages 20 per game, but is very capable of laying an egg. He’s a great player but can detract from his team’s success. He takes bad shots and takes Xavier out of their offense. If he’s hot, Xavier is as good as anyone, if he’s not it could be like playing at Dayton all over again.

Even though they somehow lost to Iowa State at home (seriously, thats a bad loss, sorry ISU fans), Kansas State has great balance and is built to win in the tourney. Frank Martin’s aggressive personality ensures his team will be up to the challenge. Look for the Wildcats to be physical with Crawford and frustrate him from start to finish. I like KSU.

Final: Xavier 75 – KSU 82