Published Friday, March 8, 2013 at 8:35 pm / Updated at 8:53 pm
basketball
Shatel: As rumors swirl, Bluejays keep eyes on prize

ST. LOUIS — Has a school ever left a conference in the middle of a game?

Let the record show the report came across Twitter at 1:38 p.m. Friday. Or, with 7:54 left in the game and Creighton leading Drake 54-46.

“Creighton has withdrawn from the Missouri Valley.”

Thankfully, the team didn't walk off the court.

Welcome to the wonder and mystery of conference realignment. For a minute there, CU was no longer a member of the Valley, according to a report from ESPN.com. Minutes later, the report was corrected to say the school had not yet withdrawn.

Much to Drake's chagrin.

Creighton overwhelmed the Bulldogs 65-53 in a Valley tournament game that had the intensity of a pickup game played indoors. But the Jays' semifinal on Saturday was soon in doubt.

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Not long after Friday's game, USA Today reported that the Valley was looking at Denver, Belmont and Loyola (Ill.) to replace Creighton.

Well, there you go. The Bluejays beat Drake and will advance to the second round of the Big East tournament.

Let the record show the Jays have not left the Valley.

Creighton fans have not withdrawn. There were close to 6,000 Bluejay fans in the Scottrade Center on Friday, whooping it up in Surround Sound, wrapped around the entire lower bowl. This was the best CU crowd ever in St. Louis. Not even close.

Doug McDermott has not withdrawn. Under the Valley lights he became king of the Hilltop, passing Rodney Buford as the school's all-time leading scorer. On a day when CU legend Bob Portman was inducted into the Valley Hall of Fame.

Gregory Echenique has not withdrawn. Eleven points, 11 rebounds, six blocks. If the Jays don't care about this league or this tourney, somebody should have told Echenique, who sprang to life and dominated in the second half.

Will Artino hasn't left the building, either. The 6-foot-11 sophomore, with 14 points and six rebounds, might just be getting started. This event has inspired breakout performances from CU role players over the years. Might it be Artino's time?

If this is Creighton's walk-off performance from its longtime club, it's hard to discern. What we saw Friday looked and felt like any other CU party here. Jays crowd dominates. Jays win. Guy from band does the “Gangnam Style” dance.

OK, that last one is new. But this was same old, same old business here. There was more animosity toward CU in 2001, when the Southern Illinois crowd used to wear the “H8 Cr8ton” shirts.

Maybe everyone is too busy trying to keep up with their Twitter timelines.

“We obviously know about it. We read it on Twitter and Facebook,” Doug McDermott said. “But we really don't know what's going on. We have no control over anything. All we can do is play.”

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And try to take care of business that has become the family business. A program tradition. An event with great meaning to the school. Just look around the arena. Still.

“Unbelievable crowd,” McDermott said. “It was just like a home game. This is a very big deal for our school. It means so much. We want to win back-to-back tournament titles.”

They know it won't be easy. Drake showed them that. The Bulldogs were junkyard dogs in this one, scrapping, clawing. And that was just McDermott's arm. Obviously Valley teams know to get physical with the Jays. Sometimes it works.

Not this time. Echenique and Artino came to play. The sophomore bounced off the bench and worked the backboard for rebounds and putbacks; a dunk, too. The senior came to life in the second half, scoring 11 points and swatting five blocks in the paint.

If CU gets that Echenique and Artino in the NCAA tournament, that's big, play on words intended. The thing is, nobody knows when that Echenique will show up. The big man from Venezuela looks like the Incredible Hulk but sometimes plays like Bill Bixby. Friday, he was all Hulk.

“Sometimes somebody will do something to set him off, make him mad,” Artino said. “When he gets like that, he scares me.”

Echenique said there was no incident, no prodding. Just Doug McDermott telling him they need him now.

The big man became like the shark that he saw Artino catch last May when Echenique tagged along with Artino and his family on a cruise to Mexico. Artino said the shark was measured at 6-6, 230 pounds. A small forward.

Artino said he and Echenique have become best friends.

“Over time, he's really helped me with my game,” Artino said. “When I've struggled, he talked to me about how he struggled as a freshman. He's a great guy.”

There was Creighton Karma going on Friday, with Portman introduced on the same court that McDermott would set foot on. The two haven't met. Doug said he has met Rodney Buford, at Kyle Korver's golf outing, and two summers ago when Buford showed up in the old gym for summer pickup duty.

“Rodney told me, 'So you're going to break my record one day,'” McDermott said. “Kyle said, 'He probably already has.'”

The ghosts of Creighton past and present are everywhere here. You wonder if the Valley will induct McDermott as a Hall of Famer one day. He's definitely a Valley Hall of Famer. Still.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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