Creighton and Wichita State find themselves staring at a basketball opportunity of a lifetime.
The winner of the 1 p.m. game walks out of the CenturyLink Center a champion.
“You can go a whole career as a coach and as a player and not have an opportunity like this,'' Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “I've been doing this for 20-some years, and this is the first time as a coach that I've been playing for a conference championship.
“I've been part of teams that have had it decided by then, and I've been a part of teams that have come up short with a couple games to go. That's what makes Saturday's game so meaningful and special.”
Creighton and Wichita State come into the game tied for the Missouri Valley Conference lead with 12-5 records. Saturday's game marks the third time in the past 30 years that two teams tied for first place will face each other to end the regular season with an outright title on the line.
The Bluejays have won seven outright championships, and never have faced the winner-takes-all scenario in their regular-season finale.
“It's Wichita, it's Senior Night and we're also playing for a championship,” Creighton center Gregory Echenique said. “This one is going to be big.”
Add to Saturday's intrigue is that this might be the last regular-season game between the longtime rivals. According to media reports, Creighton is emerging as a leading candidate for a spot in the new league being started by seven Catholic schools that have left the Big East.
The league will begin play next season, meaning this 99th meeting between the Bluejays and Shockers could be the last regularly-scheduled matchup. Significant but hardly impactful, given so many other high stakes associated with Saturday's game.
“Nothing we do really affects what is going to happen,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “It's not like if we win this game, we're going to be in (the new conference). Our attention is focused on what's at stake. That stuff is going to work itself out.”
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The teams reached this point because of what has transpired in the first 17 Valley games. Creighton and Wichita State got off to fast conference starts, with the Bluejays unbeaten in Valley play heading into the Jan. 19 meeting in Wichita.
The Shockers, who had lost early in league play to Evansville, posted a 67-64 win that day. A three-game skid dropped Wichita State a game behind the Bluejays, but Creighton had its three-game slide to slip a game behind in the standings with four games to play.
The teams went into Wednesday's action with Creighton needing a win at Bradley to assure itself of playing for a share of the title, while Wichita State could have clinched the championship with a home win against Evansville. The Bluejays got their win but the Purple Aces pulled out a 59-56 victory to leave the teams tied.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall is uncertain how the loss will impact his team Saturday.
“We'll find out at 1, how we start out in that game,” Marshall said. “We can't dwell on that last game. We've had some success against them of late, and the guys can recall that.
“They're probably thinking more of our game here this year in Wichita more than they are the Evansville game. Last time we were in Omaha, it was really a nice outcome for us. We've got enough guys that walked out of there feeling that feeling. It's going to be difficult, but every road game is difficult.”
The Shockers posted an 89-68 win in Omaha last season. In this season's earlier meeting, Wichita State struggled to make shots but a 23-5 edge in second-chance point that grew out of 22 offensive rebounds helped swing the day the Shockers' way.
“If we rebound better than we did the first time we played them and take care of the basketball, we can put ourselves in a position to win,” Creighton forward Doug McDermott said. “We can't let the emotions get to us.
“They're a really good team and it's going to be a tough battle, but this is just what we want.”
The emotions of the day might provide some extra juice for the normally staid atmosphere of the CenturyLink. Creighton hasn't won an outright Valley championship since 2001. The thought of pulling off the feat against its biggest rival on the last day of the regular season should have pulse rates soaring.
The Shockers know what they are in for with this visit.
“It's their Senior Night and they're going to play hard,” forward Carl Hall said. “I don't think their gym is as loud as ours, but there's a lot more people. It could be (as loud) if they get going.”
The Shockers' precision performance in Omaha a season ago quieted a record turnout of 18,735. Their 21-point margin of victory represents Creighton's most lopsided loss in three seasons on Greg McDermott's watch.
He downplays that, saying he has trouble remembering what happened yesterday, let alone more than a year ago. Gibbs said the Bluejays might be able to use that outcome for some added motivation Saturday.
“It's not something I've thought about a ton,” he said. “Obviously, we're two different teams but it still sticks in the back of our minds.”
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