Having shown its act can play in Peoria, Creighton relishes the opportunity of taking it to Broadway.
The move to the new Big East puts the Bluejays, along with Butler and Xavier, on a stage they've sought for years. No longer will those schools be constrained by the artificial label of mid-major.
Now they must prove the success they've enjoyed in games with big-boy competition can be maintained over the grind of a long conference season.
“If you're a competitor, which our guys are, you aspire to compete at the highest level,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “That's what has made the opportunities we've had to play in the past against BCS schools so enjoyable.
“Now, that is going to become the norm in our new league rather than a few out-of-conference games that we've been fortunate to play in the past.”
The Bluejays must be prepared to bring it night in and night out when matched against the likes of Georgetown and Marquette rather than Drake and Indiana State. Butler, which a couple of seasons ago considered Valparaiso and Wright State its peers, now will be bumping elbows regularly with Villanova and St. John's.
“The competition from top to bottom is going to be unique for all of us,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “It's going to be a heavy challenge.”
One that Mack, McDermott and Butler's Brad Stevens can't wait to embrace.
“I was totally for it, because this is what is going to be best for Butler for the next 50 years or more,” Stevens said. “This is a great opportunity for our school.
“In the short term, we have a heck of a challenge ahead of us. I think it's possible that we could have a few teams ranked in the top 25 to start next season. A couple might be in the top 10. There is going to be some really good basketball played in this league.”
Butler and Xavier were seen from the get-go as strong candidates to join the new Big East after seven schools — Georgetown, Marquette, St. John's, Villanova, Seton Hall, Providence and DePaul — announced last December they were breaking away from the old Big East to form a more basketball-centric conference.
Creighton was considered more of a long shot, partly because of geography. The Bluejays eventually were deemed a good fit, and the announcement on March 20 that Creighton would join the new league was championed as a great step forward for the university.
Associate Athletic Director Kevin Sarver, a Creighton graduate who has spent his entire professional life working for the athletic department, said the magnitude of the move to the Big East didn't hit him until the day of the announcement.
“I had a couple of our boosters come up to me that day with tears in their eyes,” Sarver said. “They were that happy for the university. That's when I realized how important this was for people.”
Since then, just about everyone involved with the athletic department has started working on the move to the new league. For McDermott's program, that transition comes with sweat.
“Strength is very critical as you watch Big East games,” McDermott said. “The bodies are a little bigger and stronger. We have to make that jump.”
In many cases, Creighton will battle bigger, stronger and more athletic players than it faced in the Missouri Valley. That will require an even greater commitment in the weight room, although Xavier's Mack believes the notion of just working harder might be a bit simplistic.
“I don't know how much of a different approach you can take,” he said. “Our guys already work very hard in the offseason to compete for a league championship and to put themselves into a position where we can be vying for a spot in the (NCAA) tournament.
“Certainly, we have to be ready for some different challenges, but our guys are already putting in a lot of effort.”
The weight room can provide a short-term answer, but Mack, McDermott and Stevens all say they must re-evaluate their recruiting practices to address long-term concerns about athleticism.
“I think the thing that stands out when you compare the leagues is that the guards in the Big East are generally bigger and more physical,” McDermott said. “As we recruit over the next couple of years, adding bigger, stronger and more athletic guards is a need we've already identified.
“We don't want to sacrifice the skill level, the work ethic and the character of the guys we're bringing in. That has to remain a constant, but we also have to try to attract some bigger, more physical guards.”
|CLICK TO EXPAND|
The players Stevens attracted to Butler in the Horizon League were good enough to produce back-to-back NCAA finals appearances.
He said he doesn't see any drastic changes in whom Butler is recruiting, but the how has to be altered. The school had already started that process with a $16 million fundraising campaign to renovate Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The venerable Hinkle, the site of the championship game in the movie “Hoosiers,” was built in 1928 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The renovation would update locker rooms, the weight room and academic support areas.
“We take great pride in Hinkle, but there are some things that have to be improved,” Stevens said. “Now, that would have been the case whether we were in the Horizon or the Atlantic 10. The ball was already rolling before we were even being considered for the Big East.”
The Bulldogs also do the bulk of their practicing at Hinkle. Stevens said the school has no plans to build a separate facility like the $10.5 million athletic training facility that Creighton is building.
“The time may come where we have to consider something like that,” Stevens said. “But I've always been a big believer that you practice where you play.”
Plans for Creighton's project were announced last fall, and the project would have been built had the Bluejays remained in the Valley.
As with Butler, Xavier's practice facility is also its competition site. The on-campus Cintas Center is not only home for the basketball staff but also includes an academic support area, training facilities and a dining hall for athletes.
“In athletics, you never want to stand still in anything you're doing,” Mack said. “You never want to present the feeling like you're recruiting to the 1990s. Now, I don't think that necessitates us building a separate practice facility just because a lot of schools are building them.
“What it does do is make sure that the arena and the locker room and the practice gym are kept up to date and always improved upon.”
Mack said the move to the Big East will require Xavier officials to re-examine the resources the school is devoting to men's basketball in order to be competitive in the new league. Creighton and Butler will probably do the same.
The move to the new Big East will provide each school with more financial resources: The league has a lucrative broadcasting rights contract with Fox. Although details have not been announced, it is believed each school will receive a minimum of $3 million annually from the contract.
The Big East also will supply schools with money earned by participation in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Creighton received about $300,000 to $400,000 annually from the Valley. The additional revenue should help the school pull closer to the seven schools transitioning from the old Big East.
Creighton reported its athletic budget at about $15 million in 2011, the latest year in which national figures are available. That was right at the average in the Valley.
By contrast, the seven old Big East schools' athletic budgets averaged $27.5 million. And even when excluding big dollars that a handful of schools spend on football, hockey and lacrosse, the average was $24 million.
Creighton's $4.4 million in basketball spending trailed all seven schools, though it was close to what Butler and Xavier spend.
One thing the new league will provide for Creighton, as well as Butler and Xavier, is something money can't buy. Playing games in Madison Square Garden and competing against teams that have won national championships will add a dash of prestige for the three schools.
It also raises the stakes on a nightly basis.
“It's easier to beat a team that is superior athletically or stronger in a one-game deal,” McDermott said. “It's much more difficult to survive an 18-game schedule if you're inferior in those areas.
“You might be able to hide it or mask it for one game, but it's hard to do over 18 games. That will be our biggest challenge.”
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/PivOWH