Sunday, January 31, 2010

JTG 01/31/10 - Life After P

What do the Bluejays look like after the suspension of junior guard P'Allen Stinnett? Only slightly better than the Bluejays before said suspension.

Let's start with the good. In their first game after Stinnett's suspension, Creighton notched their first road conference win of the season over Bradley, 73-68. While it wasn't a work of art, and needed the Braves to have an uncharacteristically cold shooting night at home, a win is a win, especially on the road. The victory was made sweeter when Justin Carter made two free throws to seal the win. Sure, that doesn't sound too dramatic, but with Creighton's struggles at the charity stripe getting some clutch free throws on the road can do nothing but enhance the team's confidence.

So, great news. Creighton clears the decks of a player who seemed to be a significant negative influence on the team. They go on the road, to play a solid mid-table conference opponent, and find the guts to hold on and win. Is this it? Is this the turning point that can salvage the most disappointing and underachieving season in Dana Altman's CU career?

Drake 79, Creighton 74.

But that's not really the score that tells the story. Of far greater concern was Drake 22, Creighton 9. That was the score about four minutes into the game. And, although CU did manage to dig themselves out of the hole they dug to tie the score with nine minutes left to go, the energy they had to put into the comeback showed in their lack of finish at the end.

The end of the game, as well, was hauntingly familiar for Creighton fans. Missed free throws. Crucial turnovers. Defensive lapses. Haven't we read this story somewhere before.

So, Creighton is now 11-11 and 6-5 in Valley play. Where do we go from here?

First of all, it should at least be observed that Creighton was also playing without starting guard Darryl Ashford, who was at a funeral. Kenny Lawson, who has been at the heart of a lot of Creighton's all-too-infrequent wins, also got himself into foul trouble and ended up far less of a factor than he had been previously.

The Bluejays did put together an impressive comeback after digging themselves such a hole early in the first half. To get the game all the way back to a tie shows quite a bit of fire and resilience. But ultimately Creighton paid for their lack of ability to finish, which Altman spent quite a bit of time discussing in his post-game press conference.

Even though Stinnett had been relegated to a bench role as the season wore on, though, there is a period of adjustment that Creighton will have to go through. While Altman finally had enough of Stinnett's immaturity, Stinnett's athleticism and playmaking ability on the court is still unmatched amongst the current Bluejay roster. Not having that scoring threat to call on when trying to make a comeback on the road in conference play is a new experience, and Creighton wasn't up to the test Saturday night.

The Bluejays get Evansville at home on Wednesday, then travel to Missouri State on Saturday. The Purple Aces look to be a game Creighton should expect to win, particularly at the Qwest Center. Missouri State should still be a winnable game as well, particularly if the team can get more comfortable with the post-Stinnett rotation.

Let's take a quick look ahead at the remaining schedule, with at least a stab in the dark as to the result: Evansville (W), at Missouri State (W), Indiana State (W), Illinois State (L), at Northern Iowa (L), at Southern Illinois (W), Bradley (W).

If I'm right, that puts Creighton at 16-13, and 11-7 in Valley play. That should be good enough for at least a first round bye in the Valley tournament - which, as we've discussed since Thanksgiving, is where the Bluejays only legitimate hope for an NCAA berth realistically lies.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

JTG 01/25/10 - GTFO, P

Procrastination has its’ benefits. My plan was to get all caught up on Creighton’s travails over the last two weeks over the weekend, after the Missouri State game. A strong desire to get a little FIFA 10 in on my Xbox overcame me, however, and the article got put off until Monday night.

Well, thank you FIFA 10.

Monday afternoon, head coach Dana Altman confirmed that he indefinitely suspended junior guard P’Allen Stinnett. The reasons for the suspension were not announced, but the trouble had been brewing for some time. Stinnett had struggled with disciplinary issues throughout his Creighton career, and had lost his starting job.

In public, anyway, Stinnett’s behavior came to a head towards the end of the Missouri State game on Sunday. Stinnett received a technical foul, his second of the season and ninth (!) as a Bluejay, in the second half after arguing a foul call. Altman, a stickler for on-court discipline who is famous for telling his players that he’s the only one allowed to get a technical, could not have been pleased.

But, obviously, there’s more to the story than that. Earlier in the season, Stinnett got himself into trouble by taking a shot a Creighton’s fans on his Facebook page. He’s been in and out of Altman’s doghouse throughout his Creighton career for antics on and off the court and practice. And, most importantly, his play has been maddeningly inconsistent.

Sure, he’s talented. He’s probably the most dangerous scorer Creighton has – or, I guess, had – on the roster. But he’s also the guy you expect to make the clutch turnover at the end of a close game. He’s the guy who pouts after Booker Woodfox hits one of the biggest shots of the year because he didn’t get the ball. He’s the guy who poses for the camera after a dunk at the end of the Missouri State game – when Creighton was losing and a little defense might have been in order.

It’s hard not to draw comparison to Terrell Taylor, a supremely talented but self-centered talent Creighton had a few years ago. Much like Stinnett, Taylor clashed with the team-first ethic preached by Altman and flamed out of the program early.

Bluejay fans who like to talk about “old school” and “overachievers” welcomed Stinnett’s suspension, thinking the team will improve now that Stinnett’s distraction has been removed. In the long run, there may be some truth to that, but no Bluejay fan should kid themselves as to the short-term effect of Stinnett’s departure.

Stinnett was Creighton’s second-leading scorer, was second in assists, and led the team in steals (of course, he also led the team in turnovers). He was an offensive threat that opposing teams had to plan for. Altman has said that freshman Josh Jones will likely see the most minutes as a result of Stinnett’s departure, but that all of the wing players on CU’s roster would have to pick up the slack left behind. That’s a lot to ask a freshman, and for a team that has been walking such a razor’s edge in terms of wins and losses, it’s tough to see how Stinnett’s departure doesn’t add to Creighton’s struggles in the short term.

Oh, by the way, there’s been some games played since last we met. In the interim, Creighton has fallen into a somewhat-disturbing pattern. They’ve played tough, hard-nosed games at home, winning exciting games against Drake (73-69), Southern Illinois (71-69), Wichita State (57-56), and Missouri State (76-72). Unfortunately, they’ve also been dreadfully flat on the road, losing to Wichita State (58-70) and Illinois State (62-71), in games that weren’t as close as the scores would indicate.

There are definite signs of hope, particularly that Creighton hit their last 19 free throws to close out the win over Missouri State. But, as of yet, Creighton has not shown an ability to take their show on the road, getting their only conference road win against Evansville.

Now there’s a new factor in the equation, however. What will Stinnett’s departure do to the mentality of this team? Will the removal of a distraction help the rest of the team come together and salt away the road wins that have escaped them? Or will the loss of a powerful offensive threat be the final millstone that sinks the Bluejays season?

We’re about to find out. Creighton sits at 10-10 overall, and 5-4 in the Valley. They’re stuck in a four-team logjam for third place in the conference. This week they have two road games, against Bradley and Drake. We’ve said since November that this team was playing for the conference championship in St. Louis, but now the Bluejays only have nine games to figure out their identity post-Stinnett.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

LTG 01/24/10 - Corporations are people, too!

Last week, the Supreme Court decided that Congress could not block or limit corporations from making political donations. With the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court has abandoned decades of rules about how we run elections, and dramatically shifted how the First Amendment applies to corporations.

The short-term result of the decision will be a Wild West of corporate donations for the November elections. Corporations will be free to promise whatever sum they wish to the politicians who will take positions to help that corporation on the huge issues before them, such as health care reform, bank regulation, and climate change regulation. They will be able to offer the converse, as well – to offer those huge sums to any challenger to a politician who takes a position contrary to that corporation’s interests.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by the group of judges we can now call the Conservative Four – Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and my pal Tony Scalia. (Hey, if the right-wing can talk about scary “rogue judges” roaming the countryside legislating from the bench, I can create a supervillain group of judges. Just, please, don’t let Tony near a spandex costume.) Kennedy’s opinion was draped in the First Amendment, uttering dire warnings about the power of the government to imprison citizens for expressing their thoughts.

Gentle readers, no one is a more passionate defender of the First Amendment than your Law-Talking Guy. So take it from me when I tell you that Kennedy’s interpretation of the First Amendment is hogwash.

The First Amendment is designed to make sure that people have a right to speak freely. But in Kennedy’s opinion, a corporation should be treated exactly the same as a person, and given those exact same rights. In law, a corporation is treated like a person, meaning a corporation can sign a contract, bring a lawsuit, or be sued like a person. It’s called a “legal fiction,” and is helpful in allowing a corporation to do business.

But Kennedy takes that legal fiction and insists on granting it the full panoply of First Amendment rights that a real person would have. Never mind the fact that all of the people that make up that corporation already have their First Amendment rights. It’s unclear if the Conservative Four would extend this corporate personhood to granting them the Constitutional right to vote or sit on juries, but that may be coming as well.

The results of the decision are bad enough. But what is even more offensive is the rank hypocrisy demonstrated by the Conservative Four. Sherman, set the WayBack Machine for 2005. John Roberts sat before Congress as President George W. Bush’s appointee to replace William Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Roberts decried the concept of “judicial activism,” saying that judges should merely be umpires calling balls and strikes and not inserting themselves into decisions about policy.

“If it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more,” Roberts wrote and was hailed by conservative pundits as a model judge who would not be a “rogue judge” who would “legislate from the bench.”

Now, let’s go back to the present. In Citizens United, the issue before the Court was whether election rules prohibited the distribution of a movie that was clearly designed to be a political attack on a candidate. Almost every Court observer expected a limited ruling, designed to give some nuance as to how the laws Congress passed would be treated in this specific situation.

Nuance, schmuance. The Conservative Four got Kennedy on board and used Citizens United to completely blow up Congressional rules governing campaign finance, imperil campaign finance laws in almost half the states in the union, and dramatically expand the “legal fiction” of personhood given to corporations. This wasn’t judges being umpires. It was judges ‘roiding up like Mark McGwire and pounding decades of precedent into the right field bleachers.

Doesn’t a change in law that dramatic sound like judicial activism? Isn’t throwing out an act of Congress legislating from the bench and overturning the will of the people? If nothing else, what we learn from this decision is that the conservative “judicial activist” complaint is even more than hypocrisy. It is an bald-faced lie. Conservatives are totally cool with what they call judicial activism – so long as the activism gets them a result they like.

It is likely that soon President Barack Obama will have another Supreme Court vacancy to fill. If that’s the case, you can bet that conservative groups – fueled by now-unrestricted corporate giving thanks to the Conservative Four – will be running attack ads on the hour darkly warning you about how Obama’s nominee is a “judicial activist” who will “overturn the will of the people” and “legislate from the bench.”

Just remember when you hear it the judicial activism from the Conservative Four that made it all possible.

Monday, January 04, 2010

LTG 01/04/10 - Cap'n Pirate walks the plank

Am I cheap enough to break out a “forced to walk the plank” reference for a lead? You bet I am.

Last week, Texas Tech fired head football coach Mike Leach. Leach, an attorney, is an unconventional and at times controversial figure who earned the “Captain Pirate” nickname for his “Air Raid” style of offense. He’s even been featured on a magazine cover wearing an eye patch.

But it wasn’t the theatrics that got him into trouble. Instead, Leach was accused of forcing one of his players to stand in a darkened closet for hours at a time without being able to sit down after he was injured. Leach claimed that he was simply following his trainer’s advice after the player suffered a concussion.

The player claims that Leach was punishing him for disagreements they had in the past. And when the player is Adam James, son of ESPN’s college football analyst Craig James, you understand why the story gets momentum quickly.

But there’s more to the story than just the celebrity’s kid. As the story unfolded, the Texas Tech administration claimed they went to Leach in an attempt to investigate the matter further. According to the administration, Leach refused to cooperate in the investigation, resulting in Leach’s firing.

Now, you’ll notice that I said “according to” a number of times in the previous paragraph. Remember, Cap’n Pirate is an attorney as well as a football coach, and it appears he’s going to have quite a bit of time on his hands in the next few months. Rest assured there will be a number of lawsuits coming out of this escapade, and I would prefer to avoid being named in one.

But, back to the story. The Law-Talking Guy angle deals with how Texas Tech fired Leach. The school is claiming that Leach’s insubordination in refusing to comply with the investigation meant that the school could fire Leach “for cause.” The phrase “for cause” is lawyer for “and we don’t have to pay him any more money.”

Leach and Texas Tech had a contract, a binding agreement between the parties. Leach agreed to coach the Texas Tech football team for a number of years, and the university agreed to pay him. That contract would mean that if Texas Tech got tired of Cap’n Pirate’s act and wanted him to walk the plank early, the university would still have to shell out all the doubloons they promised him in the contract.

But, if they can prove that Leach broke some of the contract’s rules (the lawyer’s term would be “materially breached” the contract), then it’s likely there is a provision in the contract meaning the university can end the agreement without having to fork over one more penny to Leach.

So, there’s quite a bit of money involved in the university’s decision to claim Leach’s firing was “for cause.” And a lot of money, combined with an angry and vindictive Cap’n Pirate, means that the courts in Lubbock should be busy for quite a while.

While it’s not part of the allegations that gave rise to the immediate issue, it’s important to know a little history of the situation to understand how we got here. Last year, thanks to wide receiver Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech had a phenomenal season. They went 11-1, and were only a conference tiebreaker rule away from playing for a national championship.

Naturally, Leach got a lot of notoriety from his team’s success, and openly flirted with a number of other schools in an attempt to parlay his success into more money. Ultimately, he was successful, getting a long-term extension and a pay hike before this season started.

But the contract negotiations were pretty bare-knuckled, and left a lot of Texas Tech’s top brass feeling pretty used by their flamboyant football coach. Those kinds of feelings in the hearts of the west Texas powerful linger, and it’s likely that they were looking for a way to repay Cap’n Pirate for his antics. And so, when James’ allegations came forth, and Leach allegedly told the administration to pound sand when they tried to investigate, the administration had the perfect opportunity to bring out the knives and save the university some money in the process.

As a Nebraska fan, I can’t say I’m sorry to see Leach go. Under Cap’n Pirate, Texas Tech was 4-0 against NU, including an ugly 70-10 drubbing in Bill Callahan’s first year. Leach’s departure may very well make Nebraska’s life in the Big XII a little easier.

What it will definitely do is make for entertaining theater as Leach fires his legal broadsides into James and Texas Tech.

JTG 01/04/10 - Purple Ace turning point?

Currently: 6-8 overall, 1-2 in Missouri Valley competiton.

Is this it? Is this the win that gets Creighton out of this disastrous rut? Is a defeat of the Purple Aces the turning point?

Let’s review the action since last we met, first. After suffering one of the most disastrous non-conference schedules in Dana Altman’s tenure, Creighton had the daunting task of opening conference play against Northern Iowa, the consensus selection to win the league.

However, CU got the Panthers at home, and an upset over the favorites had the potential to jumpstart Creighton’s second season. Things didn’t start out so well, with the Bluejays falling behind 13-2. However, Creighton fought its’ way back and took the lead with under 12 minutes to play.

The Bluejays then found themselves in a familiar position. They had the lead in the second half, with a chance to close out a quality opponent and get a desperately needed victory. In the non-conference season, this is where Creighton had been marred with poor defensive play, terrible free throw shooting, and an inability to get a quality shot in the final minute of the game. What happened against UNI?

Creighton had poor defensive play, terrible free throw shooting, and was unable to get a quality shot in the final minute of the game.

It is a little eerie how all of Creighton’s losses tend to follow the same script. I’ve wondered (and rest assured, have not been alone in wondering) whether the Bluejays would internalize those losses and have them become self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s difficult to say how much of Creighton’s fade against UNI was the Panthers’ toughness and athletic ability and how much was Creighton’s mental issues.

Unfortunately, we got a chance to have a similar experiment in the following game, at Indiana State. Any time Creighton plays against the Sycamores, coached by former Creighton assistant coach Kevin McKenna, the Bluejays struggle. In this case, the struggle went all the way to dropping their second Valley conference game.

At least in this game, the Bluejays didn’t give a lead up in the second half. They did get the score tied, but Indiana State never trailed Creighton. Free throw problems again plagued Creighton, shooting only 13-20 against Indiana State. What might be more disturbing, however, is Creighton’s 3-19 performance in three-point shots. Yes, this year’s Bluejay squad is far less reliant on outside shooting than teams in years past. However, 3-19 is still 3-19, and combining that with poor free throw shooting makes it very difficult to win conference games.

The Bluejays, however, were able to right the ship in Evansville, getting their first conference win and their first road win of the season against the Purple Aces. At this point, the fact that Evansville was 6-6 going into the game without a conference win is almost irrelevant. Creighton needed the feeling of a road win, any road win, and they got a tough one against Evansville.

Yes, a tough one. Creighton gave away a double-digit second half lead to fall behind 58-56 with under eight minutes left. At that point, you have to think that every Creighton player had flashbacks of Michigan. And George Mason. And New Mexico. And Northern Iowa. And … well, you get the picture.

But Creighton finally flipped the script in their favor. The Bluejays got the lead back and played stifling defense to end the game, holding Evansville to just one basket in the last 3:15 of the game. Finally – finally – Creighton was able to get some positive reinforcement from the hard work they put into a game.

So, is that enough? Is a win over 6-6 Evansville a turning point?

If nothing else, it stops the rot and gives the Bluejays at least a little confidence that they can close out a team. Although it says a lot about how the season has unraveled that a win over Evansville seems like water in the desert, the fact is that the Bluejays have been pretty parched lately.

There have been plenty of individual standouts, most notably Kenny Lawson, who have begun to offer consistent contributions. That’s the biggest positive, apart from the win, to take out of the week’s results. As we’ve discussed since Orlando, Creighton’s NCAA aspirations hinge on their performance in the Missouri Valley conference tournament in March. So, once again, even the conference schedule is a bit of a pre-season in terms of tournament hopes.

If that’s the case, the win over Evansville is an important step forward. It’s a small step, to be sure, but a necessary one if Creighton hopes to keep their NCAA dreams alive. The Bluejays face a home contest against Drake and a road game against Wichita State in the upcoming week. A sweep of those games and the Bluejays have some nice momentum going forward.