Creighton and Xavier treated basketball fans in Cincinnati to a show in the final hours of 2002.
With future NBA players headlining each team, the Bluejays and Musketeers staged a shootout to remember. Kyle Korver made eight 3-pointers and scored 32 points to keep Creighton close, but Xavier pulled out a 75-73 victory when David West, a future two-time NBA All-Star, made a basket in the closing seconds.
“We've had some barn-burners over the years with Creighton, but that was a heck of a one to see,” Xavier Athletic Director Mike Bobinski said, harkening back to the New Year's Eve shootout nearly a decade ago. “People around here still talk about that one.”
But there is significance in that 2002 meeting beyond the on-court drama.
Back then, Creighton and Xavier were two of the top teams residing outside the six power conferences.
Since then, their paths have diverged. Like Creighton, the Musketeers played in the 2003 NCAA tournament. But since then, they made the Elite Eight in 2004 and '08 and the Sweet 16 in 2009, '10 and '12.
Creighton, on the other hand, has missed the tournament six of nine seasons. It went a decade between NCAA tournament wins before picking up one this season.
Creighton still enjoys a solid basketball reputation, but its stature has slipped below the top echelon of non-BCS schools over the past decade. To find out what it takes to once again breathe such rarefied air, The World-Herald reached out to officials from the top programs.
Their answers weren't so much about big arenas, big attendance, 20-win seasons or league titles. Their answers boiled down to three words:
Win in March.
“Creighton had a great year this year, but if things had gone sideways on them at the end and they hadn't made the tournament, I'm sure they probably wouldn't have considered it a great year,” Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth said. “That's how success is measured in college basketball these days.
“You have to be one of the 68. No one can tell you who won the NIT or the CBI because nobody pays attention.”
Roth's school has played in the past 14 NCAA tournaments, while Xavier has reached 11 of the past 12. Butler has six appearances since 2003, twice making it to the Sweet 16 and playing in the national championship game in 2010 and 2011. Combined, they set the gold standard. It's no secret where the bar is set, says Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen. “We know the spotlight is on the tournament,” he said. “We haven't won two consecutive games in the NCAA tournament. We know that brings a completely different level of credibility, of relevance.”
Reaching the Sweet 16 can be the engine for future success. With credibility comes the advantages of a broadened recruiting base. Doors that once were closed swing open, or are at least cracked a bit.
“You become a lot more recognizable,” said Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, whose program also has risen in prominence, playing in four of the past six tournaments, including a Final Four appearance in 2011. “You have their attention more. That's a byproduct of the success we've had.”
Teams that win repeatedly in March find themselves sought out for spots in prestigious early-season tournaments or for games on national television against high-profile opponents.
As a young Butler assistant, Brad Stevens was in charge of the Bulldogs' schedule.
“I got rejected 30 times a day,” said Stevens, who took over as head coach in 2007. “The problem is perception.”
Play for a national championship or two, and things quickly change. “You take advantage of it,” Stevens said. “We tried to ride that wave after our first Final Four as long as we could.”
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While Creighton isn't riding a Final Four wave, it has undeniable momentum.
The Bluejays return nine of the 10 players in their regular rotation, the most notable being consensus All-America forward Doug McDermott. The Bluejays figure to start next season ranked among the top 25 teams, while McDermott could be a preseason player of the year favorite.
It creates a window of opportunity for the Bluejays, one they have to be careful not to squander as they did a decade ago when they were coming off five straight trips to the NCAA tournament.
“We took a step this year,” Rasmussen said. “We hadn't won a first-round game in 10 years, and we did that. We played North Carolina, and while we didn't win, I don't think we were outclassed. We've narrowed the gap.”
Pulling even closer will require hard work by the players and coaches. Some good fortune wouldn't hurt, either.
“Our national identity didn't come about by accident,” Gonzaga's Roth said. “But I'm not going to sit here and tell you it was all preplanned. No way.
“Some people say we were lucky, and luck does have something to do with it. At the same time, I think we were prepared for the opportunity when we got it.”
Gonzaga started preparing for that opportunity when Roth took over as athletic director 15 years ago. That coincided with Dan Monson becoming the Bulldogs' head coach.
Together, they became the leaders of a program that had played in just one NCAA tournament.
“We knew we had to do something different,” Roth said.
It started with upgrading the schedule. Gonzaga has played 57 nonconference games against ranked opponents coast to coast since 1998. Many of the games came on the road or at neutral sites, although Roth said the Bulldogs now are capable of persuading high-profile teams to visit Spokane.
“At the beginning, the only way we were going to have a chance to play Kansas was to go into Phog Allen (Fieldhouse),” Roth said. “Same with Arizona and some of the other teams we played. We played those games with no hope for a return home game.
“We put those teams on the schedule, and it got our team ready to play when we got to the tournament.”
That's where the Bulldogs started expanding their brand. They reached the Elite Eight in 1999, then played in back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2000 and '01. They also made the round of 16 in 2006 and '09.
“The reason Gonzaga now has the image and the national identity it does is due to the success we had in the tournament,” Roth said. “If we don't go to the Elite Eight in 1999, do we make it to the Sweet 16 the next two years? If we don't do that, do we get the players we've been able to get over the years?”
Monson left after the '99 season to become the coach at Minnesota. Roth promoted assistant coach Mark Few, who has nurtured the program into one of the best outside the power conferences. That's made Few a hot commodity when bigger schools start searching for coaches each spring.
Like Roth, Xavier's Bobinski attributes the school's status to the Musketeers' success in postseason play.
“People know we're not one-hit wonders,” Bobinski said.
Legitimacy provides Xavier, Butler and Gonzaga with an expanded margin for error as they navigate through long and sometimes treacherous seasons. It also makes them attractive opponents for power conference teams in need of quality nonconference games.
“Once people started viewing a game with us being no-harm, no-foul, our scheduling got easier,” said Bobinski, who will serve as chairman of the Division I basketball committee next season. “I'm not saying it's easy, but it's easier once we cracked that nut a little bit.”
Working against Creighton is the support it receives at home. The Bluejays finished sixth in attendance average last season (16,665), making some coaches leery of bringing their teams to CenturyLink Center.
“You and I both know how good Creighton is,” Butler's Stevens said. “Hopefully, Creighton can build off some of the success they've had this season. That sounds crazy, because some people will avoid them because of that success.
“But there will be some people that know how good they are going to be and might be willing to accept the challenge.”
Butler, Xavier and Gonzaga have perception on their side. And perception can be reality, Xavier's Bobinski said.
“The thing we've found is that it's more difficult to get that perception than it is to lose it,” Bobinski said. “Now, if a team disappears for a couple of years, it's going to be difficult to get that perception back.
“Once you get the perception of being legitimate, it's one of the greatest things you can bring to the table.”
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