March madness indeed. It’s been a month like no other so far for the Creighton basketball program, and the Jays haven’t even put their dancing shoes on yet.
In the span of two weeks, the Jays fought their way out of a hole to capture their first outright regular season Valley title since 2001. Then Creighton and their fans stormed through the field in St. Louis to bring home the Arch Madness trophy, with junior phenom Doug McDermott becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer along the way. Then to trump it all, news came down that Creighton has been invited and is expected to join the Big East Conference starting next season.
“I don’t think it’s been much of a distraction,” said senior guard Grant Gibbs about the speculation swirling around the program’s future.
“Now that the talk is heating up a lot it’s something that we’ve talked about a little more as team mates, but we’re playing for so much right now. We have been for the last month so it’s been more about this season and the way it’s gone. So I think we have stayed focused on the next game and the next challenge rather than what’s going to happen next year.”
The next challenge comes Friday when #7 seed Creighton (27-7) tangles with #10 seed Cincinnati (22-11) in Philadelphia. Should the Jays get by the Bearcats, a likely matchup with #2 seed Duke awaits in the next round. Cincinnati is known for a rough and tumble style of basketball heavy on defense, like most other Big East teams. The matchup should give the Bluejays a good preview of what they will be facing on a regular basis when they make their move to the big boy league, most likely starting next season.
After beating Wichita State on March 10th to capture the Valley tourney title for the second straight season, Creighton was able to relax leading up to selection Sunday, with a ticket to the Big Dance firmly in hand. The Jays climbed back into the #23 spot in the A.P. poll, but unlike last year, when Creighton put its’ hopes on a high seed, this years’ squad hasn’t concerned itself with where it might land in the brackets. After a late season swoon, the Jays are simply happy to be in position to make a March run.
“These guys have fought for each other all season,” said head coach Greg McDermott. “During a time in January and February when the chips were down it would have been easy to cave. It would have been easy to give in to the negativity that floats around on the social media…it takes a lot of maturity and a lot of character in your locker room to avoid that.”
“These guys have stuck together and stayed the course which has been our message, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. It’s been an unbelievable ride this season. We had a few goals and two of them we’ve fulfilled. We’ve got one more to go, and hopefully we can do our job in the NCAA Tournament.”
Creighton survived Alabama 58-57 in last season’s tournament before falling 87-73 to top-seeded North Carolina two days later. Getting back into the Dance and getting past that next hump, reaching the Sweet 16, has been a goal of this team since the final buzzer sounded against the Tar Heels to end last season.
“Having been there last year helps a lot,” said Doug McDermott. “It takes a little bit of the jitters away. None of us had played in the NCAA Tournament before last year so I think that experience definitely helps, and I think our preparation has been a lot better than it was last year.”
Fair or not, college basketball teams are judged by their postseason performance and far more hearts have been broken than dreams realized once the drama of March Madness unfolds. And the Jays are no exception. Success breeds expectations and as the Jays have racked up the wins and climbed the rankings, they have captured the hopes of a fan base hungry for the program to take it to the next level.
“The coaches have done a really good job with us all year keeping us focused on the next game and not taking any team lightly,” said Doug McDermott. “As a team we haven’t gotten too caught up in all the hype or gotten too down when things haven’t gone our way.”
For Creighton getting to the next level means winning at least a pair games and reaching the Sweet 16, a feat not accomplished by the program since 1941, of course there were only 16 teams to start the tournament back then, but it was still a pretty sweet year for the Jays.
Overall the program has advanced to the NCAA tournament 18 times now, collecting 10 victories along the way while accumulating its share of heartbreak. It’s a long and storied history filled with names familiar to longtime Jay fans. Creighton won 1st round games in 1962 and 1964 led by future NBA stalwart Paul Silas. Coach Eddie Sutton’s 1974 squad reached the 2nd round before falling to #14 Kansas 55-54.
Creighton led #4 DePaul by 20 points when the teams tangled during the 1978 tournament before eventually falling 80-78. Three seasons later St. Joseph’s made a pair of free throws with 3 seconds left to steal a 59-57 victory and rub even more salt in the wound.
The 1991 team, coached by Tony Barone and led by the dynamic duo of Chad Gallagher and Bob Harstad knocked off #15 New Mexico State in the first round and led #13 Seton Hall at halftime before the Pirates’ hot shooting did them in. Creighton fans became accustomed to coming out on the short end of close calls.
Coach Dana Altman’s run of 7 NCAA bids in 9 seasons began with a 62-58 win over Louisville in 1999. Fifth ranked Maryland ended Creighton’s season 2 days later, but the future was bright. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before Altman would lead the Jays on to bigger things.
Yet Altman would taste tournament glory just once more as Creighton had its “one shining moment” in 2002 when Terrell Taylor hit a three-pointer with .02 left in double overtime to knock off #15 Florida 83-82. The next season Kyle Korver led the Jays to a school record 29 wins and a top 10 ranking before sellout crowds in their final season playing at the Civic Auditorium. Central Michigan abruptly ended that dream, upsetting Creighton 79-72 in the first round.
West Virginia advanced all the way to the Elite 8 after blocking a Nate Funk jumper with seven seconds left and racing down the floor for the game-winning dunk in a 63-61 first round win over the Jays in 2005. The last time Creighton went to the dance with Altman came in 2007 when once again they came home with a broken heart after just one game, this time losing in overtime 77-71 to #15 Nevada.
Given that kind of track record, can anyone blame Creighton fans for feeling a little apprehensive as the post season looms?
For now this edition of Creighton basketball is at a high point, but the Jays still face a steep climb if they hope to realize their goal of a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. Enjoy the view while it lasts because as Creighton fans know, the higher you climb the more it hurts when you fall.
Fortunately for the Jays, their star player isn’t afraid of heights.
“We aren’t afraid of anybody…we’re ready to make some noise,” said Doug McDermott. “We’re really excited to get out there, and I can’t wait to get the game started.”
Creighton opens NCAA Tournament play against the Cincinnati Bearcats Friday, March 22 in Philadelphia. Tipoff is set for 1:45 central time, and will be televised nationally by CBS.