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Think the expectations were high for this season's Creighton basketball team?
Wait until next year.
They're already talking about how a team that returns most of the key contributors from a 20-win squad gets All-America candidate Nate Funk back from injury and adds a highly regarded California big man. Maybe a run deep into the NCAA tournament is in store.
It's not the fans who are guilty of letting their imaginations run wild. It's the Bluejays who see great things on the horizon.
"I can't see why we can't do what Bradley, Wichita State and George Mason are doing right now," CU center Anthony Tolliver said. "And honestly, I think we can be better next year than any of those teams."
George Mason, a team Creighton beat by 20 points in November, plays today for a chance to go to the Final Four. Bradley and Wichita State made it to the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Creighton had to settle for a trip to the National Invitation Tournament and a 20-10 finish after it fell short of meeting expectations it carried into the season.
Injuries played a factor. The Bluejays lost Funk in November to a shoulder injury that required surgery. They overcame his loss to position themselves as a Missouri Valley Conference title contender until starting point guard Josh Dotzler injured his knee in mid-February and missed the final seven games.
"I expect to come back better than I was," said Funk, who expects to get clearance to play in May.
Funk and Tolliver, the 6-foot-9 junior who went from role player to leading man, will give Creighton a solid inside-outside look for 2006-07. The Bluejays will have to replace starting guard Johnny Mathies, the team's leading scorer with a 13.5 average, and reserves Jimmy Motz and Jeff Day.
They'll need more consistency from Nick Porter, Dane Watts, Pierce Hibma and Brice Nengsu. They'll need Dotzler to improve his shooting to complement his strong floor game. They'll need production out of Kansas transfer Nick Bahe and 6-9 recruit Kenny Lawson, a McDonald's All-America nominee who averaged 25 points a game as a high school senior.
And if they get all that?
"At the beginning of this year, we expected to be where Wichita and Bradley are right now," Tolliver said. "We beat those teams this year, and we didn't have the talent we're going to have next year. If we put it all together, I just can't see why we can't do more."
Of course, there are questions to be answered. Heading the list are:
Will coach Dana Altman be back?
That's become an annual question, and so far Creighton has managed to hang onto him in spite of attempts by Illinois, Georgia, Miami and Tennessee, among others, to lure him away. His name has been linked with the open job at Missouri, but that appeared a bad fit from the start.
At 47, Altman is at a point in his career where he doesn't want to have to clean up someone else's mess, and Quin Snyder left a big one in Columbia. The uncertain status of Tigers Athletic Director Mike Alden also probably kept Altman's interest level down.
If jobs would open at, say, Iowa or Oklahoma, things could get interesting.
Has the Valley's success raised the ante?
Getting four teams in the NCAA tournament and having two reach the Sweet 16 has increased the league's stature. And from all indications, the conference has a chance to be better next season with nearly 80 percent of the starters set to return.
Funk said the Bluejays will use the success of others as motivation. "The fact that the league got four teams in, and one of them wasn't Creighton, is going to make us work that much harder," he said.
Can Creighton's newcomers make an impact?
Much will be expected from Lawson, who averaged a double-double while playing for Vista High School in suburban San Diego. It will take him time to catch on to Altman's system, but with Tolliver in the middle, Lawson can develop at his own speed.
Bahe is expected to bolster Creighton's perimeter strength, and he's hungry to get on the court after seeing limited action in two seasons at KU and having to redshirt this season after transferring.
Who will step up?
It's probably too much to expect anyone to improve as much as Tolliver did last season, but if CU is to be a force in a bigger, badder Valley, they'll need a more consistent effort from veterans such as Watts, Porter and Hibma. Watts seemed to lose confidence after a February bout with mono. Getting him back on track is a priority. Porter can play but his inconsistency drove the coaches nuts.
The X-factor could be Nengsu, the most athletic player on the team who had difficulty mastering Creighton's system. That limited his playing time but watch out if the rangy 6-5 swingman figures things out.
What are the offseason priorities?
The Bluejays can expect plenty of ballhandling drills. "Because Josh handled the ball so much, it hid some of our deficiencies," Altman said. "That became evident when we lost him. To a man, we have to improve our ball handling."
The Bluejays also need to improve their strength and conditioning. Seeing the results Tolliver got out of his offseason work could help. "But you still have to do the work," Altman said.
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