Creighton finds itself on top of a basketball mountain today in part because the Bluejays refused to get sucked into the mud.
It's been a wild and wonderful and sometimes wacky season for Creighton. The Bluejays opened the season 17-1. They hit a stretch that saw them lose six of 11 and, at times, look bad doing it before righting themselves for a March that has seen them twice cut down nets.
During the dark days, Creighton players experienced just how difficult life can be as a modern college athlete. Social media have given upset fans and armchair coaches a public voice, often behind the veil of anonymity.
The Bluejays said repeatedly when times were tough that they tried to steer clear of such things. But eventually, some of the comments made their way back to the players.
“As much as you try to ignore that stuff, that's kind of the world we live in,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “It's pretty impossible when your team's struggling and you wake up to 100 tweets a day.”
To counteract the outside criticism, the Bluejays looked within.
“We had a tough February,” forward Ethan Wragge said. “We didn't start pointing fingers at anyone or blaming anyone. We just found a way to fight through it, block out what the outside world was saying and just kind of focus on ourselves.
“We've had a pretty good March with it.”
One that started with Creighton knocking off Wichita State to win its first outright Missouri Valley regular-season championship since 2001. The Bluejays followed that up by winning three games in three days in St. Louis, the last coming against the Shockers as Creighton earned its 12th tournament championship.
In opening comments at his postgame press conference after Sunday's 68-65 win over Wichita State, Creighton coach Greg McDermott offered up an unsolicited show of the pride he has for his team's resiliency.
“During a time in January and February when the chips were down, it would have been easy to cave,” McDermott said. “It would have been easy to give in to the negativity that floats on the social media when a team that was nearly a top 10 team isn't functioning at a high level.
“It takes a lot of maturity and character in your locker room to avoid that. These guys stuck together. They stayed the course.”
About a half-hour later, in the quiet of an almost deserted locker room at the Scottrade Center, McDermott was asked about his comment.
“It's really a small percentage,” McDermott said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of our fans are with us through thick and thin. We've had some thick and thin this year. Our team did and some individuals did.
“That's going to happen over the course of a long season, but you have to avoid that other stuff. It's fun to read about yourself when things are going great. That's human nature. But the truth usually lies somewhere in between. It's never as good as it seems, nor is it as bad as it might seem.”
As it turned out, Sunday's championship game could be labeled the revenge of the whipping boys. Few players took as much heat over the course of the season as did Wragge and Jahenns Manigat.
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With Wichita State making it tough for All-American Doug McDermott to get shots, it was Wragge and Manigat who stepped up. Wragge made five 3-point shots, the first three coming when Creighton's offense appeared stuck in neutral.
He finished with 15 points, one less than Manigat's team-high 16. The Canadian junior made half of his eight 3-pointers, but it was his drive to the basket for a layup with 12 seconds to play that clinched the title for the Bluejays.
Afterward, both players were asked if they drew any satisfaction in proving their value to their team.
“I don't play any attention to that kind of stuff,” Wragge said. “There are always going to be some people that question you. They're going to say what they want to say.
“As long as we can keep coming down here and winning this thing, I really don't give a crap what people say about me.”
Manigat trod a little more softly in his comments on the criticism he knows is out there.
“I try not to look at that stuff, but eventually, you're going to see it yourself or someone is going to tell you about it,” he said. “It's tough, but the people in the locker room understand why you're in the position you're in and what you bring to the team.
“Everyone is going to have their ups and downs in a season. I've had them, and the team has, too. You just have to stay the course and trust the guys to your left and to your right. This whole team just kept working to make something special happen.”
The Bluejays kept the faith in the locker room when many were doubting them. That helped them leave the Scottrade Center as champions.
“I thought we did a great job of blocking out everyone when times were tough,” Doug McDermott said. “We're a really close group. About eight of us live right across the hall from each other. We're always around each other, and we're just one big family.
“We knew that we could get to a moment like this, and that's what makes it that much more special. We've got a really mature group of guys and some of the best leadership I've ever been around. It's been a great ride, but we're still working for a lot more.”
That will come in 10 days or so, when Creighton makes a return trip to the NCAA tournament. They'll continue trying to build a legacy that no tweet or post can diminish.
“When things aren't going your way, it's easy to starting pointing fingers and quit,” Gregory Echenique said. “Like Coach said, we never did that. I think it speaks a lot about who we are as a team, as a family.
“I'm just glad we were able to accomplish this and prove a lot of people wrong.”
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