ST. LOUIS — It couldn't be any other way, could it?
Creighton. Wichita State. The top two programs in the Missouri Valley Conference. Age-old rivals. Billy. Woo. Blue. Gold.
Playing for the Valley tournament championship. Playing for their own version of history.
If this is Creighton's last basketball game as a member of the Valley, if the Bluejays are going to try to cut down one last net to hang on their rearview mirror, who better to leave in their dust than Wichita State?
If the Shockers are going to finally leave this town with a trophy, and slay the demons of St. Louis past, what better victims than their old friends from Omaha?
Can we get Gene Stephenson and Jim Hendry at center court for the tipoff?
How about Jamar Howard and Ben Walker?
Forget the future and the past. This is the perfect ending to a season in which Creighton and Wichita played tug of war with first place, traded body blows, held serve at home.
Creighton won the regular-season title last week on its Omaha court. But now the Shockers want a piece of the pie, a piece of the trophy won so often by the Jays that it could be named the Creighton Trophy.
This is Creighton's tournament, the Jays' Omaha away from Omaha. They've won this thing 11 times. One more for the road?
Not if the Shockers send them packing with one less box.
“This is what it's all about,” said WSU Athletic Director Eric Sexton, after the Shox dispatched Illinois State. “Developing great rivalries. Wichita State and Creighton is what NCAA Division I athletics is all about.”
Wouldn't this mean more with the possibility of Creighton leaving the Valley?
Sexton just smiled and made a motion over his mouth like he was turning a lock. No comment, thank you very much.
Shocker coach Gregg Marshall, who has no such lock, was less guarded when asked about the sentimentality of the moment.
“We've never won (the title) in St. Louis,” Marshall said. “We've got a little sentimentality on our side as well. We're going to try and cut down nets.
“They're going to try and cut down nets, then maybe make an exit. So I'd rather them be a little sad leaving than all jacked up leaving.
“It's going to make for great drama, great TV.”
Embrace the moment, Creighton. Embrace the Shockers. No, seriously.
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You won't find anything like this in the Big East. Not initially, and probably not anytime soon. To be sure, there appear to be some ready-made rivalries ahead, such as Marquette, maybe Butler or Xavier. It's hard to imagine Georgetown or Villanova or any other East Coast school taking Creighton seriously. Until the Jays can win a few times.
Rivalries this good are rare. They're built over time in the same neighborhood, over decades of playing for championships, big games, stupid crowd tricks, the snobs vs. the hicks, etc. CU and WSU have been perfect for each other. Omaha vs. Wichita.
And, at times, they've found themselves on the same side of boardroom politics in the Valley, the west side vs. Illinois and Indiana, big vs. small.
Today they're as different as the blue and gold in the stands. You wonder how many fans will be taking charges in the concourse.
They're almost polar opposites on the court, too, the irresistible force and the immovable object. Creighton's unreal offense and Wichita's brick wall of a defense.
Back on Jan. 19 in Wichita, defense ruled, holding CU's shooters to 41 percent. And yet it was a three-point margin, and wasn't decided until two Ethan Wragge 3-point attempts missed.
Last week, offense had its way. Mostly, Doug McDermott. The Jays couldn't miss, The Doug scored 41 over Carl Hall and Tekele Cotton, and Creighton put up 91 on one of the best defenses in the nation.
“They're a wonderful offensive team,” Marshall said. “We give up 51 (today), and last week we give up 91. That's how good they can be.”
The best part about today is how both teams enter the ring: on top of their game.
The Jays pounced on Indiana State, hitting 16 of their first 26 shots, and led 41-18 at the half. It was over. It was one of CU's best games of the year, a reminder of how they played in November and December. And now center Gregory Echenique is fired up. So is his sidekick, Will Artino.
The dimension of Echenique and Artino jumping into the teeth of the Shocker defense with that energy will be fun to watch. WSU has a way of making CU look soft. But there's nothing soft about the way Creighton's two big men are rolling now.
Of course, the starting point to this one, and every Jays game, is Doug and how to defend him. Hall will probably draw the assignment again, but it will be interesting to see if Marshall comes up with something new.
Meanwhile, Marshall was asked about stopping McDermott, but the reporter accidentally said Greg.
“If Greg McDermott scores, that will be good for us,” Marshall said. “There will be technical fouls.
“I know he (Greg) can dance. I watched that (Creighton video) with the bobblehead, whatever you call it. He (McDermott) and Mr. (Bruce) Rasmussen — I don't know the third gentleman (Father Timothy Lannon) — can really dance.
“I know (Greg McDermott) can dunk, too. I've heard he can dunk. I haven't seen it, the YouTube video. I hope he scores a couple, because he'll get run out of here. I think. They might let him go.
“His son, on the other hand, I hope he misses. You have to guard him well and hope he misses. He's as good a player as I've seen in this league in six years. He should get strong consideration for national player of the year. We did a pretty good job the four or five times we played him. He got loose last Saturday. We'll see which way it goes.”
Whichever way it goes, it's going to be fun, electric, the kind of game that's good advertising for the Valley. The kind of game this league is going to miss, if and when that happens.
Creighton coaches and players were long gone by the time the Shockers secured their spot in the championship bout. But a text I received from a Creighton fan afterward said it all:
“Bring it on Shockers, wouldn't want it any other way.”
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