MVC: Gotta Have That Funk

By - October 30, 2006

While Wichita State, Bradley, Illinois State and Southern Illinois have each taken turns as national media darlings for the Missouri Valley Conference, the true standard-bearer of the league over the past decade has been Creighton.

Under the steady leadership of Dana Altman, the Blue Jays have emerged as the top program in Nebraska -- besting even the state school’s Cornhuskers and their Big 12 pedigree. Playing before sellout crowds on an almost-nightly basis at the state-of-the-art Qwest Center Omaha, Creighton established school and conference records last season for average home attendance, ranking 20th among the national leaders with 13,901 fans per game.

Altman has won at least 20 games each season over the last eight years, a Missouri Valley Conference record. Creighton is one of 11 programs in college hoops -- and one of just two non-BCS schools (along with Kent State) -- that can make that claim.

But for all their success, the Blue Jays have yet to make that signature run deep into the NCAA tournament under Altman. Could this be the year?

Four starters are back from last year’s 20-win club including Nate Funk, the MVC Preseason Player of the Year. Funk, a 6-foot-3 guard who was a preseason All-America selection prior to last season, was granted a medical red-shirt last year after suffering a shoulder injury while diving for a loose ball in a November game against DePaul. Funk had season-ending surgery on Jan. 5 to repair a torn labrum but, since he appeared in less than one-fifth of his team’s games, the sharpshooter was allowed to return for a second chance at his senior season.

“Everybody’s excited and optimistic this time of year and so are we,” Creighton coach Dana Altman said. “We’ve got a lot of players back. With Nathan healthy, it gives us a big lift.”

While Funk admitted how difficult it was to sit on the sidelines and watch his teammates go to battle each night throughout last season, the Iowa native called that frustration a motivating factor to come back stronger for his second senior year.

“It was a really long year for me, a really long offseason,” Funk said, turning his attention to an upcoming year that has the Blue Jays projected to do some special things. “We’ve got a lot of recognition throughout the fall. We were picked high in several polls but we don’t take that into account. It just places a bigger target on our backs.”

Other returning starters include combo guard Nick Porter, steady power forward Dane Watts and 6-foot-9 center Anthony Tolliver, who more than tripled his point production in his second year as a starter and assumed a king’s share of the offensive load upon Funk’s injury. How the new-and-improved Tolliver meshes with Funk should prove one of the season’s intriguing storylines early on.

“When you have somebody of his caliber, it just makes everything a lot easier,” Tolliver said. “Last year, I faced a lot of double teams. This year, with him coming back, it’s going to be harder for teams to double team a lot. It’s going to make each of our jobs a little easier.”

The biggest question concerning the Blue Jays surrounds the point guard position, where sophomore incumbent Josh Dotzler looks to return from surgery to repair a posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

“We’re still waiting on Josh Dotzler to see if he can come back and help us and he would give us that stability at the point that we desperately need,” Altman said, noting that the Omaha native’s rehab process has been a long one.

But in all, Altman remains optimistic that this team could be a special one -- if only the Jays can stave off the injury bug that plagued them in 2005-06.

“We’ve got a good mix of returners and some talented newcomers and I hope that they can give us some depth. It’s a long season,” Altman said. “Hopefully, this season we’ll avoid injuries and if we do, I think we have the nucleus to have a pretty good team.”

Posted by at 01:37 PM on October 30, 2006

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