Shocker students can be a deafening sixth man

Creighton coach Greg McDermott said the atmosphere at Wichita State's Koch Arena is as much fun as it is challenging.

WICHITA, Kan. — A tidal wave of noise that makes the simplest communication almost impossible.

That's what former Bluejay Kenny Lawson remembers about playing at Wichita State's Koch Arena. Nate Funk agrees.

“There is nowhere for the sound to escape,” Funk said. “It gets loud.”

Funk paused, then added, “Unless you're beating them.”

The challenge facing this season's Creighton basketball team when it visits Koch on Saturday to play the Shockers is to try to take one of college basketball's most fervent followings out of the game and strip the Shockers of one of the best home-court advantages.

Last month, an ESPN panel of college basketball experts rated Koch as the 10th toughest place to play. Several other national observers have called the game-day atmosphere at Koch one of the best around.

Bruce Rasmussen wouldn't argue. The Creighton athletic director loves what the Bluejays have developed at the CenturyLink Center in becoming one of the college game's top draws. Creighton ranked sixth in Division I attendance last season, and is on pace this season to set school records for attendance.

But it wouldn't be stretching things to say that the CenturyLink, even at its most raucous, would have difficulty matching the game-day craziness of Koch.

“The atmosphere there is the best in our league and as good as anywhere around,” Rasmussen said. “I've come out of there a lot of times and my ears have been ringing.”

The building's structure lends itself to a head-throbbing experience. The arena, built in 1947 and renovated a decade ago, is circular. The ceiling is relatively low. The rows of seats, especially in the upper reaches, are steeply banked.

Add 10,056 fans to the mix, and the place can turn into a madhouse.

“It's a nice-sized arena, and when it fills up, it gets really loud,” said Lawson, who got one win in his four trips to Koch. “It gets really hard to communicate when you're on the court, and it makes for a great home-court advantage for them.

“And their players get amped up to play there. When the crowd really gets into it, it can feel like no matter what you do, you can't stop them from hitting shots.”

Visiting players know they're in a different environment from the time they first enter the arena for pregame warmups. Wichita State's students sit in the sections that are closest to the tunnel that brings opposing players onto the court.

“I used to love that the entrance to the court was smack in the middle of the student section,” Funk said. “Their students are there well before game time screaming profanities at you as you walk out for warmups.”

The students arrive early, and normally an appearance by each visiting player is greeted with a loud chorus of boos.

“I heard a lot of things yelled at me there that wouldn't be appropriate to put into a newspaper,” Lawson said. “Their students come prepared. They know what to yell, whether it's about basketball or about you personally.

“They have a good student section. They get on you, but I know a lot of guys like playing in that kind of atmosphere.”

On Saturday, Creighton All-American Doug McDermott will be the target of many of the WSU student comments. Because he plays for his father, McDermott long ago became accustomed to hearing the “Daddy's Boy” chants.

McDermott was asked if the Shocker students are more clever in the way they try to taunt him.

“I wouldn't necessarily say they're more clever but they are closer,” McDermott said. “They're on you right when you come out for warmups, an hour and a half before the game. And you have to go past them to get to the locker room.

“It's crazy, and we know they'll be there on Saturday.”

Creighton is one of the few regular visitors that has come close to breaking even at Koch. The Bluejays are 18-21 there, but many of those wins came in the late 1980s and into the 1990s when the Shockers had slipped a couple of notches. Creighton is 3-6 since the building was renovated, which coincides with Wichita State's return to being one of the Valley's top teams.

Overall, Wichita State has won 641 of the 849 games at Koch Arena, including the last 10 and 25 of the past 26. Creighton is the only team to leave Wichita with a victory since the start of the 2011-12 season.

The Bluejays pulled out a 68-61 victory, holding the Shockers to 22 second-half points to erase an eight-point halftime deficit. The win is one of 14 Creighton has posted in 17 true road games the past 1½ seasons.

“When you go on the road, you have to be focused and locked in,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. “You can't let anything distract you. That's from your pregame preparation to the time you take the floor until when the ball goes up.

“When you're on somebody else's home floor, there are going to be runs. It's hard to keep the home team in check for 40 minutes. You have to be able to sustain what you're doing during those runs and not get away from who you are because of the way the crowd reacts.”

McDermott is 3-4 in Wichita, including 1-1 as Creighton's coach. Taking a team into Koch Arena, he said, is as much fun as it is challenging.

“These are the top of environments that players play for and for what coaches coach for,” he said. “This is what college basketball is all about.”

Funk, who scored 35 points in a 2005 win at Wichita, called Koch his favorite road venue in the league.

Attending a game there, he said, should be on the bucket list of any true college basketball fan.

“If there's any road game a Creighton fan ever has a chance to make, I'd tell them make the drive to Wichita,” Funk said. “It's the best road atmosphere you'll ever see in the Valley.”

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