Beyond The Funk
Things started out as planned for the Creighton Bluejays this year. The perennial postseason qualifiers returned four starters from yet another 20+ win, NCAA tournament team, and two medical redshirt players were cleared to join them. They cruised to a 20 point win over a solid George Mason team, and Missouri Valley Conference POY contender Nate Funk carried them to a win over Dayton of the Atlantic 10 with a heroic 38 point performance.
Creighton seemed to be in good position to live up to its preseason billings of conference title contender and Big Dance participant, but they soon hit their first road bump in a trip to DePaul. Not only did they suffer their first loss, but Funk reaggravated an old shoulder injury and was forced to the sidelines for an unkown period of time.
Replacing a starter can be tough, but replacing an all-conference player scoring 17-18 ppg is not something you wish on any team (unless they hail from Durham, obviously). Creighton filled the hole with Nick Porter - he moved into the starting lineup, and his minutes jumped from 17.7 mpg with Funk to 28.3 without. The initial results weren't pretty - a late lead slipped away and became a loss to a lowly Tennessee-Chattanooga team. Then something unexpected happened - the Bluejays started to win, and in impressive fashion. They reeled off four straight wins without their star, including blowouts against a Big XII team (Nebraska) and a MVC frontrunner (Missouri State), and a nail-biter against a legitimate top 25 squad (Xavier).
Funk returned to action after resting his shoulder for a month, but Creighton lost their magic. The next two games were conference road losses to bottom-dwellers Illinois State and Bradley. When Funk opted for season-ending surgery soon afterward, Creighton began another winning streak, which continued with last night's road victory against MVC favorite Northern Iowa. All told, the Bluejays are 3-3 with Funk starting, and 7-1 with him on the sidelines. That's hardly the scenario most forecasted when he first sat out. So what gives?
Since the opponents that Creighton faced with and without Funk were of roughly the same strength, I'd say the situation merits an evaluation of those two segments of their season. The following table lists each team's Pomeroy Rating, as of 1/12/06.
|Opponent||With ||W/o |
That simply tells me that the teams Creighton played with and without Funk are similar enough that we can draw decent conclusions from their performance against both data sets. The teams Creighton played with Funk were a little weaker, on average.
Now let's compare how the team's offense and defense fared with and without its top player.
|With, 6 games||100.8||47.8||20.8||35.2||41.2|
|W/out, 8 games||103.8||50.2||20.4||32.7||45.0|
As you can see, Creighton actually scored a few extra points per 100 possessions (PPP) in the games Funk didn't play, mainly due to better shooting (eFG%) and slightly more frequent free throw attempts (fta / fga). The numbers are similar enough that I wouldn't place much significance in the difference. [If these numbers look foreign, you might want to start with my stats primer.]
With a full season of Nate Funk, I would've expected a great offense from Creighton (similar to their top-20 finish last year), but even without him, they still have some good options. Johnny Mathies has shown big scoring potential, with individual games of 24, 29, and 32 points, starting big man Anthony Tolliver is scoring 12.5 ppg on 56% shooting, and Jimmy Motz is back to knocking down threes with regularity after missing six games with an injury.
|With, 6 games||96.6||49.8||26.7||35.4||36.0|
|W/out, 8 games||85.5||42.9||26.9||35.6||26.3|
Now we start to see some major differences. Creighton's defense was far stingier in the games that Funk missed - they allowed 11 fewer PPP. The free throw attempts allowed are a little skewed, since DePaul shot many of their 39 free throws during Creighton's comeback attempt, but that's an ancillary matter. What's most noticable is the .429 eFG% defense without Funk, against a schedule that included talented offenses like Xavier (17th in offensive efficiency, nationally), Missouri State (29th), and Northern Iowa (35th), and Drake (12th), all as of 1-12-06. For further comparison, Creighton's opponents had a .495 eFG% last year, when Funk played all but one game.
One defensive stat stands out above the rest - when Funk started, opponents made almost 39% of their threes. When he was out, Creighton held teams below 31% three-point shooting. Six and eight games are small subsets to draw conclusions from, but this is one area to keep an eye on. If Porter's shut down job on UNI's Ben Jacobson - the MVC preseason POY - is any indication, the tough perimeter defense is likely to stay. Jacobson was 3-11 with 8 points in 40 minutes of playing time.
The loss of Nate Funk changes the makeup of Creighton's team this year, but it shouldn't change their end goal. The win over UNI puts them at 4-2 and in a four-way tie for second place in the MVC. If the improved defense continues to show up, Creighton can still compete in the country's best mid-major conference.