Creighton had a similar season to West Virginia. The Bluejays started off strong, winning their first seven games, but then hit a midseason slump where they lost nine games in 16 starts. However, they rebounded to finish with a flourish, winning their eight games to sweep to the Missouri Valley Conference championship.
The Bluejays' perimeter-oriented offense is sparked by guards Nate Funk (Jr., 6-3, 195 lbs.) and Johnny Mathies (Jr., 6-0, 165 lbs.). Funk averages a team-high 17.6 points per game, while Mathies checks in at 11.6. Both are also deadly from three-point range, with Funk hitting a smoking 46.7% from beyond the arc, while Mathies drains them at a 42.9% clip. Funk is hitting 51.7% of his shots overall, an outstanding total for a guard. He's also the team's leading rebounder with five per game.
Third guard Tyler McKinney has logged the most minutes on the team, averaging 32.7 points per outing. He distributes the ball well for the Jays, recording 177 assists against just 74 turnovers on the season.
The frontcourt starters aren't big scorers, but provide just enough punch inside to keep teams from totally flooding the outside zones against the Jays. Dane Watts (Fr., 6-8, 225 lbs.) averages 7.0 points and 3.0 rebounds per outing, and is also capable of stepping out to hit a three on occasion. Fellow forward Anthony Tolliver (So., 6-8, 240 lbs.) is the muscle inside, averaging 4.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
The backups in the backcourt are also very capable. Kellen Miliner (Sr., 6-2, 175 lbs.) checks in with 9.5 points per game, good for third on the team, and is another in the line of excellent three-point snipers. Freshman Pierce Hibma (6-5, 200 lbs.) provides steady backup work as well while chipping in 3.0 points per outing.
Backup forward Jimmy Motz, who started 11 games this season, played well enough to be named to the MVC all-tournament team. The 6-7, 215-pound freshman averaged 5.9 points and 2.3 rebounds for the season, but is on a roll as the NCAA approaches. Jeffrey Day (Jr., 6-9, 230 lbs.) is the only center with any appreciable time. He averages 18 minutes per game, and contributes 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
West Virginia forward Mike Gansey vs. Creighton guard Nate Funk
Funk and Gansey are both jacks-of-all-trades for their respective teams, and while they might not go head-to-head for much of the game, the player that performs the best is likely to lead his team to victory.
|Thu Mar 17|
WVU 21-10, 8-8
CU 23-10, 11-7
WVU - 7
CU - 10
From the top of West Virginia's 1-3-1, Gansey must be aware of Funk's shooting range. Although Gansey gets many of his steals by dropping down into the passing lanes when then ball goes to the wings or the corner on offense, he can't get so deep that he allows Funk and his mates open space to fire from the perimeter. Creighton hits a sizzling 41.5% of its shots from beyond the arc, so Gansey and the rest of his teammates on the perimeter must not allow them room to shoot with impunity.
On offense, Gansey's pell-mell drives to the basket and penchant for sneaking along the baseline for backdoor layups helped power WVU to the Big East Championship game, and that play has to continue if the Mountaineers hope to advance to Round Two on Saturday. While Creighton does shoot the ball well, they are not an outstanding defensive team. However, WVU can't depend on standing outside and trading threes with the Bluejays, who have shot down several opponents that have tried that strategy. Gansey can make WVU's offense more balanced by getting to the basket and forcing Creighton's guards to defend him down low.
With both players being strong rebounders (Gansey averages 5.3 per game to Funk's 5.0) their contributions on the boards could end up being even more important than their scoring. Both players have 50+ rebounds on the offensive end, and in a game that figures to be close, one or two extra stickbacks could make all the difference.
While everyone expects this game to be a three-point shootout, rebounding could end up being the key to the contest. Neither team is known for pounding the glass, of course, but that might not stop the battle of the boards from being the key to this contest.
WVU will have a bit of a height advantage, with near-seven-footers Kevin Pittsnogle and D'or Fischer in the middle, but the Bluejays will have the bulk advantage, with Anthony Tolliver, Dane Watts and Jeffrey Day outweighing every forward on the Mountaineer roster. However, it won't be size or height, but rather positioning, that will tell the tale in this battle.
With both teams expected to fire away from the perimeter (wonder what the over and under on three-pointers in this game is? 75?) there are obviously going to be some misses. Missed shots taken further away from the basket tend to bounce further from the rim, which makes rebounding more of a team effort. Guards from both teams could play a huge role in gathering in extra boards and keeping their opposite numbers away from the offensive glass.
Both teams are likely looking at this game as a chance to assert themselves on the boards as well. Both the Bluejays and Mountaineers were outrebounded by their opponents this season, and both probably believe this is their chance to come out on top in a stat where they didn't see a great deal of success in 2004-05. Both squads were just under ten offensive rebounds per game this year. If one team can get 15 or 16, they could well advance to the second round on Saturday.
While WVU put two players (Kevin Pittsnogle and Mike Gansey) on the conference all-tournament team, Creighton went one better. The Bluejays put three, including tournament MVP Johnny Mathies, on the MVC tournament team. Nate Funk and Jimmy Motz joined Mathies on that squad.
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Senior guard Tyler McKinney had a pair of cornea transplants in his right eye in the spring of 2004.
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West Virginia and Creighton only meeting came in 1932, when the Bluejays took a 27-26 decision in Morgantown.
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WVU and Creighton have very similar statistical numbers, but one glaring difference stands out. While West Virginia has committed only 454 fouls and had six players disqualified this year, Creighton has been whistled 582 times and seen 12 players sent to the bench.
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This contest will be the first Thursday game for Creighton this season.