The roots of a two-season run of unprecedented basketball success at Creighton can be traced to a late-summer excursion to the Bahamas in 2011.
That's where the chemistry that has helped produce a school-record 56 victories and back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament started to take hold. That's where a couple of transfers from opposite ends of the country, a Canadian, a budding baby-faced superstar from the middle of Iowa and a sharpshooting Minnesotan began forming bonds that have allowed them to play above their individual deficiencies.
A lot of teams like to talk about being a band of brothers, but one needs to spend only a little time around this diverse group of Bluejays to realize that this bunch do more than talk the talk.
“This all came together a little by chance, but I think it all started with that Bahamas trip,” said guard Grant Gibbs, who spent two seasons at Gonzaga before finding his way back to the Midwest. “It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
“We not only got to do something that was really cool, but we spent a lot of time with each other. I think that's helped us win a lot of games these past two years. We have a belief in each other that's rare with the personalities and talents that you get when you recruit different guys for your team.”
The Bluejays spent a week in the Bahamas before the start of last season, playing four games against so-so competition when they weren't on the beach or taking in some other attractions that the island offers.
The seeds of togetherness that were sown helped propel Creighton to one of the greatest seasons in school history last year. The Bluejays won 29 games, including their first NCAA tournament contest in a decade when they defeated Alabama.
That led to the sky-high expectations this season that could have crushed some teams, especially when the Bluejays hit a patch of games in February when shots weren't falling and they couldn't seem to buy a break.
While some fans panicked, the players stayed the course. They produced a string of victories in five late-season, must-win games that brought home Creighton's first outright Missouri Valley Conference title since 2001 and added to its record haul of Valley tournament championships.
In the process, the Bluejays have put themselves in position to achieve the one thing that could cement their legacy. Creighton has been one of the last 16 teams still playing three times in school history — but that was in 1962, 1964 and 1974. Not since 1975, when the field started to expand from 25 to its present 68-team format, have the Bluejays played into the second week of the tournament.
That's the prize they chase this week in Philadelphia, where on Friday Creighton faces a second-round game against Cincinnati. Win that, and powerhouse Duke most likely awaits in a Sunday game that will send the victor to the Sweet 16.
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This team set that as a goal before the start of this season. While the Bluejays realize the significance of what is now two wins from their grasp, they are hardly consumed by it.
“It's hard to believe that with all the success this program has had that we've never been able to get past that,” said Doug McDermott, referring to the Sweet 16 hurdle. “Sure, it's our goal to make it to the Sweet 16, but we're focused on one game at a time. We're going to go out there and try to grab it.”
It's McDermott who gets much of the credit for leading the program back from the wilderness it was slipping into at the end of Dana Altman's tenure.
Altman led a resurgence at Creighton as it played in seven NCAA tournaments from 1999 to 2007. What followed was a gradual slip that saw the Bluejays have to settle for trips to the NIT in 2008 and 2009 before dropping into postseason purgatory with an appearance in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament in 2010.
Five weeks after the 2009-10 season, Altman was gone for Oregon. Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen needed just a couple of days to bring in Altman's replacement, luring Greg McDermott from Iowa State.
Like Altman did when he came to CU from Kansas State in 1994, McDermott decided it was best to get out of Dodge, eh, Ames, before the posse caught up with him. He had produced three NCAA tournament teams in five seasons at Northern Iowa but found success hard to come by with the Cyclones.
McDermott took Rasmussen up on his offer to come to Creighton and brought with him his 6-foot-8 son, who in three seasons has broken the school career scoring record while twice earning first-team All-America honors.
While Doug McDermott's play has left some to label the Bluejays as a one-man show, they've demonstrated during the past two seasons to be far from that. His support has come from Gibbs, a savvy floor general whom Greg McDermott tried to recruit out of high school and then convinced that Creighton was the place to be when he decided to leave Gonzaga.
Canadian export Jahenns Manigat has developed into a perimeter scoring threat. Austin Chatman, who played a cameo role as a freshman last season, has filled in admirably at the point in place of three-year starter in Antoine Young. Ethan Wragge provides the Bluejays with outside firepower off the bench.
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“I don't know of a team in the country that wouldn't love the luxury that Ethan gives us,” Gibbs said.
Gregory Echenique came to Creighton to play for Altman after spending 1½ seasons at Rutgers. He never got the chance, but he's blossomed under Greg McDermott's tutelage.
McDermott recalled the first meeting between coach and player in the spring of 2010. At that time, Echenique's weight had swelled over 300 pounds after months of inactivity as he recovered from eye surgery.
“My first comment to him was that we needed to get his weight under mine,” said McDermott, a former collegiate center now a few pounds over his playing weight.
Through hard work, Echenique transformed his body. He now tightly packs 260 pounds on his 6-9 frame. The weight loss improved Echenique's mobility and allowed him to become an inside force.
“He's a lean, mean machine now,” McDermott said.
The coach has incorporated other players who have given Creighton a chance at history. If his team does move on past this week, McDermott will spend little time pondering the big-picture ramifications.
At least for now.
“Usually you don't think about historical significance until later in life,” McDermott said. “We're right in the middle of this, but obviously I'm proud of what we've accomplished the last couple of years, especially the way they've gone about it.
“These guys have done what they're supposed to do and acted the way they're supposed to act. They've represented our basketball program and Creighton and our community in a first-class manner.”
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