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February 20, 2009, 01:22 PM ET
Creighton Surges with Altman’s Funky Rotation

by John Gasaway

Just 27 days ago, Creighton lost at home by 12 to Drake, dropping the Bluejays to 5-4 in the Missouri Valley. When you can’t win a home game against the sixth-best team in your ten-team conference, you’re not likely to make much noise during the remainder of the season.

Alas, the unlikely has occurred. Dana Altman’s team has won seven in a row while outscoring opponents by 0.19 points per trip. That margin compares quite favorably with what teams like Pitt (0.17), Oklahoma (0.16), and North Carolina (0.15) have done within their respective leagues this year. That’s not a direct comparison, of course: different conferences, different durations, etc. Still, the Bluejays have indeed been on fire.

The post-Drake transformation has been visible on both sides of the ball (Justin Carter and Kenny Lawson are helping their team get more defensive boards), but it’s been particularly evident on offense, where Creighton’s been absolutely merciless in riddling opponents with made shots from all over the court. When you make 55 percent of your twos and 41 percent of your threes, as the Jays have during this streak, you’re going to win some games. 

Not surprisingly, Creighton’s big two of P’Allen Stinnett and Booker Woodfox are recording their fair share of makes during this tear. Stinnett’s three-point shooting looks decidedly middling on paper (34 percent this year, 32 last year), but look closer. Since December 30 he’s been hitting 40 percent of his treys. And Woodfox only happens to be one of the most effective, if little noted, sources of offense in the nation: a pure shooter (89 percent at the line, 49 percent on his threes) who can operate inside the arc yet never turns the ball over.

Woodfox actually put up stellar numbers last year as a reserve averaging 17 minutes a game, and in the book I was notably incredulous: “He is Altman’s most effective player on offense and I trust this year he’ll not only start but, more important, get more than 17 minutes a game.” (Dude, lighten up.) Well, Altman quite obviously bought the book, read that passage, slapped his forehead, and exclaimed, “This Gasaway guy is brilliant!” I know it played out that way because Woodfox is now a starter. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Funny thing is, Woodfox is still averaging less than 25 minutes and is yet to play more than 30 minutes in a game this season. Same thing with Stinnett, mostly. Altman apparently forgot about him once and accidentally left him in for 39 minutes (during an overtime win against Southern Illinois), but for the year Stinnett’s averaging just 26 minutes per contest.

This rotation would lead you to think Altman’s team does the 40-minutes-of-hell thing. The Bluejays are indeed the fastest-paced team (66 possessions per 40 minutes in-conference) in a slow-paced league (63 trips per 40 on average), but they’re certainly no Missouri, nor do they exert themselves unduly to create opponent turnovers. No, it’s just a deep-into-the-bench rotation brought to a “normal” style. Such is not unprecedented, of course. Tom Izzo, for one, used a similar distribution of minutes at Michigan State with his Final Four team in 2005. 

And, who knows, maybe this has kept the Bluejays as fresh as daisies in late February while opposing starting fives are beginning to droop. (Of course that doesn’t explain why Creighton was so mediocre through much of January.) But it will be really interesting to see what happens when Altman’s team starts to play season-dispositive minutes next month–definitely in the MVC tournament and quite possibly in the NCAA tourney. In theory, unless you’re bringing Kobe himself off the bench, you let your Woodfox play.   

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