Three weeks ago, Creighton looked more like a team destined for a three-letter postseason tournament than the four-letter one everyone covets.
Funny what a five-game winning streak can do to change one’s outlook.
“Who’s ready to go to Philadelphia?” senior guard Grant Gibbs asked the 1,900 assembled at D.J. Sokol Arena late Sunday afternoon.
The Bluejays are, after learning of their fate early on the CBS NCAA tournament selection program that was shown on two giant screens at the arena. Creighton landed a No. 7 seed in the 68-team tournament and will play No. 10 Cincinnati on Friday in Philadelphia.
The Bluejays’ starting position is one spot higher than a year ago, when they were tagged with a No. 8 seed that had many coaches, players and fans grumbling as they left the selection show watch party.
Creighton won its second-round game last March against Alabama but had its season ended by a top-seeded North Carolina team that was playing in its backyard in Greensboro, N.C.
This year, a victory against Cincinnati would advance the Bluejays into a possible third-round matchup with another Atlantic Coast Conference team. The thought of possibly facing second-seeded Duke in Philadelphia hardly had the Bluejays seeing red.
“This is a good draw for us,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said. “We’re not scared of anyone. We’re ready to play whoever.”
The Bluejays head into the tournament having built up steam in the five games that followed a Feb. 23 BracketBusters loss at St. Mary’s. That defeat was the sixth in 11 games for Creighton, and the Bluejays knew if they couldn’t get things corrected they might be trading NCAA dreams for a spot in the NIT.
Creighton bounced back to close the regular season with victories against Bradley and Wichita State to earn its first outright Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship since 2001.
The Bluejays followed that by winning three straight games at the conference tournament in St. Louis to sew up an automatic berth in the NCAA field.
“We never stopped believing in ourselves,” Creighton center Gregory Echenique said. “People on the outside were doubting us. I know some people were surprised when we won the (tournament) championship and the regular season.
“We knew that we could do it, and we just had to keep believing in ourselves. We have a great team, and we want to go surprise some people in the tournament.”
The Bluejays’ opening game Friday will be against a Cincinnati team that won its first 12 games of the season but enters the NCAA tournament saddled with seven losses in 11 games.
That’s left the Bearcats of the Big East at 22-11. That, plus a No. 47 RPI compiled in playing a strength of schedule rated 21st in the nation, was good enough to land a 27th bid to the tournament.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott and his staff left the watch party to begin putting together a game plan for Friday.
“You’re going to get a good team in the NCAA tournament, and Cincinnati fits that category,” Greg McDermott said. “They play in one of the best leagues in the country and had some great wins. They’re a tremendous defensive team.
“I don’t know a lot about them but I will in a few hours. They’re in the same boat. They’re learning about us tonight just like we’re learning about them.”
McDermott’s players have seen enough of the Bearcats on television to at least have some idea what they’re up against in Philadelphia.
“They’re a tough team, a physical team,” Gibbs said. “But I think we got a pretty decent draw. Overall, we’re pretty excited about it.”
That excitement didn’t quite bubble as much as a year ago, when despite being unhappy with its draw, Creighton was jacked-up about getting back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
This year’s team carried more of a been-there, done-that look when it entered the arena to the cheers before the selection program. Players took their seats at the front of the venue to watch, and they went through the obligatory celebrations that come with seeing your name pop up on the screen.
They didn’t have to wait as long as they did last time, when their pairing was one of the last ones announced. This year’s announcement came before the first commercial break.
“You never know when your name is going to be called but it’s good when it comes early,” Echenique said. “It’s a relief knowing who we’re going to be playing and who we have to prepare for. We have a target to get ready for.”
Echenique and his teammates hope the experience they gained from playing in last season’s tournament will serve them well in the coming days.
“We’re ready to make some noise this year,” Gibbs said.
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• Video: Creighton coach Greg McDermott previews the NCAA tournament:
• Video: Creighton's Grant Gibbs previews the NCAA tournament:
• Video: Creighton's Doug McDermott previews the NCAA tournament:
• Video: Creighton's Gregory Echenique previews the NCAA tournament: