ST. LOUIS — Nice guys finish first.
It was about a month ago that Greg McDermott called his team a bunch of nice guys. In this case, it wasn't exactly a compliment.
The Creighton basketball coach was trying to poke a stick, send his talented team a direct message. He wanted the players to hold each other accountable.
But some took it to mean the coach was calling his team soft. Too soft to win a league title? Too nice to handle weighty expectations?
Not hardly. The nice boys got down and dirty Sunday and plucked a 12th Missouri Valley Conference tournament title out of Wichita State's clenched fists.
So they claim both Valley titles in one season — actually eight days. They won the league tournament as a No. 1 seed for the first time since 1991.
They went elbow-to-rib-to-elbow with the physical Shockers. This was a game of collisions, bodies sprawled out on the floor. Both teams got up and kept swinging. Creighton got up and kept swinging.
The Bluejays dug in and were better when their star, Doug McDermott, was on the bench with foul trouble.
They dug deeper to score a layup by Jahenns Manigat on their final possession. Dug deeper to force WSU into offensive disarray and miss a game-tying shot at the end.
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Ain't that tough enough?
“It was a war, on both ends,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “If you didn't go in there with some malice, the ball wasn't going in.”
That made the victory sweeter, the result more meaningful for the so-called skilled players from Omaha. We know they can shoot. But they leave this tournament with badges of honor and the timing couldn't be better.
Creighton looks ready to go get that Sweet 16.
The bracket, the matchups, will have something to say about that. At least the Jays helped their own cause the last two weeks. With this tourney title, they figure to be no worse than a No. 7 seed, and maybe as good as a No. 6. There shouldn't be any head-on collisions with a No. 1 seed this year.
That's for later. This NCAA tournament is going to be so crazy, so even, that it's folly to try to find advantages or holes in the bracket. There won't be many.
Again, the good news for CU is the image in its mirror today. A tough hombre, with a jump shot.
The Bluejays have taken the best shots that Wichita State and its Twitter and Facebook friends can give. And they leave here, maybe for the last time, the best Creighton team we've seen this season.
“I think we're ready to take that next step,” senior Grant Gibbs said.
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We'll see. But there's a laundry list of myths that was dispelled that may back up Old-School Gibbs on this one.
Myths? They're a one-Doug team. They can't play defense. Their big man is too nice. Don't rebound. You can push them around. Coach doesn't adjust. Consult your nearest Twitter feed for others.
“During a time in January and February when the chips were down, it would have been easy to cave,” Greg McDermott said. “It would have been easy to give into the negativity that floats around on the social media when a team that was nearly a top 10 team all of a sudden isn't functioning at a high level.
“It takes a lot of maturity and character in your locker room to avoid that. These guys have stuck together. They've stayed the course. That's the reason we're here.”
The coach had a lot to do with that. McDermott has had to play as much manager and psychologist as coach this year. He never let the Jays panic or get too caught up in the bandwagon.
He won't get the credit for it, but Mac had a great year. This team executes brilliantly on offense. As an adjuster, his team got the ball to the open man — or open Manigat (and Ethan Wragge) — Sunday when WSU sneaked a guard to double-team Doug.
But the really nice piece of coaching he should be proud of is the player that Gregory Echenique became this weekend. He was a hulk, a beast, a man, all that and more.
The quiet and nice-guy senior came to play. He had 18 rebounds and 13 blocks in the three games. Sunday was a new level: 11 rebounds, six blocks, nine points. He was swatting shots with either hand.
Who was the man in the pink shoes? The guy who should have been named the tourney's outstanding player. Better question: Where did he come from?
Like this team, he was in there somewhere and he's chosen a pretty good time to come out.
“I'd like to think it's that urgency that comes with seeing the end in sight,” McDermott said. “Gregory and I watched a lot of film together the last three weeks. He knew he could do more. He's found a way to do it. He's totally changed the game.”
Exactamundo. Creighton's defense is entirely different with the big Eraser waiting at the end and when he's grabbing rebounds like a man possessed.
“I just like playing here,” Echenique said. “There aren't many games left. It doesn't make me sad. I see it as an opportunity to remind everyone how special we can be.”
They're special when they have it all going, like Sunday, and when you throw this Echenique and a revived Will Artino into the mix, it's not just the team everyone thought they were getting this year, it's better.
“Greg (McDermott) and I said, 'Let's go win multiple games in this tournament,'” WSU's Marshall said. “And that's possible.”
Two goals down, one to go.
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