Diary of a Fantasy Season: Where's Christmas today?
This first Big East tour has been a series of pinch-yourself moments. Every Big East game is like Christmas morning. Georgetown. Villanova. Marquette. The gift that keeps on giving.
Tonight, it's Madison Square Garden. Next week, Hinkle Fieldhouse. From the Mecca to Hoosiers. That's the life of a rock star.
A year ago today, the Jays played Illinois State. Then jumped in the bus for the four-hour trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Those Missouri Valley days seem so long ago, don't they? Another lifetime.
And yet, even in the middle of this whirlwind, Creighton can't quite shake an old acquaintance.
How did Wichita State do last night?
“I was at the (Creighton) women's game and I was following their (Wichita State-Indiana State) game on ESPN on my iPad,” said Creighton guard Jahenns Manigat. “It still interests me because we were still part of that (league) literally a year ago today. Those guys are playing really well.”
Undefeated, in fact.
“I check the box scores,” said CU senior Ethan Wragge. “I keep aware if they're on (TV). They're all over 'SportsCenter,' too. It's hard not to know what's going on.”
You know, the TV just happened to be on to their game.
“I've watched a lot of their games,” said senior Grant Gibbs. “They've been our rivals and what not. Last year there was a lot of mutual respect between the players. They're doing well and deserve all the accolades, and we're having a good year as well.”
Wichita State and Creighton are two of the biggest stories of the college hoops season. WSU (25-0) is trying to go through the season undefeated and land a No. 1 seed. Creighton is 19-3 and trying to win the Big East and a No. 2 or 3 seed.
But the bigger story is that these two aren't together anymore. They're rolling along in parallel universes. They can't play unless it's in — drum roll, please — that little basketball tournament in March.
If the Shox and Jays are seeded as high as we expect, that's a game that could be for the Final Four.
“It would be cool,” Gibbs said. “You're silly for trying to wish for something like that in the NCAA tournament. You never know, sometimes the NCAA searches for back stories like that. It would be an interesting one.”
I put in a call to Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall last week to get the Shocker perspective. Are they sneaking a peek at Creighton's season? It was a tough week. Two road games to Indiana State and Northern Iowa. Weather issues. We didn't connect.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say you better believe the Shockers are paying attention to Creighton's first Big East season.
When you've competed as long and hard as these old rivals, you can't help it. Of course, they're watching each other. Wondering. Who would win if they played?
You can make the case that Wichita State is better than last year's Final Four team. The Shockers have blown through their competition. They don't have power forward Carl Hall or guard Malcolm Armstead, but point guard Fred VanVleet has raised his game, and the Shox use a trio of centers.
You can make the case that the big men would give Creighton all kinds of trouble, and a defense that holds opposing 3-point shooters to 30 percent.
You can certainly make the case that Creighton is better this year. Not to diminish former center Gregory Echenique, but CU by and large has been a better rebounding and defensive team. The length and size of the Big East teams has made that a necessity, but give the Jays credit for shoring that up.
I say the graybeards make Creighton better. The four seniors have enabled coach Greg McDermott to take the up-tempo offense up a notch. Their efficiency and confidence are uncanny. Wragge has upped the ante — he wasn't like this last year. Austin Chatman is a better leader. Devin Brooks provides an athletic curveball off the bench.
There's a notion out there that Creighton might win the Big East but wouldn't have won the Valley. Remember that Creighton split with Wichita State last year in the regular season, then won a thriller for the league tourney title.
Why wouldn't that happen again?
Well, here's one reason: If the Jays were still in the Valley, there's a good chance Doug McDermott would be playing in the NBA right now. Doug said the Big East was a big enticement for him to return.
“We definitely are better, to this point,” Gibbs said. “We've definitely adapted in Gregory's absence. By the way, they have, too, losing Carl Hall and Armstead.
“People thought they wouldn't be as good without them, and same with us and Gregory. We've both kind of adapted.”
This is a game that college basketball misses this year. Certainly, Wichita State could use a Creighton game this year. The Shockers' best win is St. Louis. It's a good win. But will it be enough to get them a No. 1 seed, even if the Shockers go undefeated?
Beating Creighton — and Doug McDermott — would give the Shockers' résumé some definition. As it stands, their credibility as runaway Valley champs is going to get questioned. But guess who says it shouldn't?
“They deserve a lot of credit for what they've done, because it's crazy difficult,” Gibbs said. “Seth Davis (Sports Illustrated and CBS writer) sent out a tweet that said they probably wouldn't be undefeated in a major conference, but nobody else would be undefeated in the Valley like they are. I thought that was well put, considering how strange the Valley can be at times, and how hard it is to go through it.”
The Big East provides its own challenges, but familiarity and complacency aren't among them. For all the length and size of Villanova, St. John's and DePaul, the graybeard Jays have had an advantage that nobody in the league really knows them. CU, to an extent, has been able to play with an edge, or a chip, as the mid-major trying to prove itself.
But the second stanza might be just a little different. The Big East is onto this team that looks like a bunch of 24-year-old YMCA hustlers. The road now goes through St. John's, Butler, Georgetown, Marquette and Xavier.
That prospect makes Creighton giggle as much as it does shiver. No offense, old friends.
“I'm still involved in the Valley,” Wragge said. “I still follow it. I still know some of the guys who play there.
“The Big East is more athletic, longer and taller. In the Valley, it's a coach's game. They have the X's and O's down. The Valley coaches were friends, recruited the same schools, knew all the players.”
Tonight, the Creighton team will pull up to the Garden like a tourist bus.
“You hear so much about it growing up,” Wragge said. “We can't wait.”
Wonder if the Shockers will watch.