PHILADELPHIA — An interesting thing happened on the way to the Sweet 16.
A big interesting thing.
The Creighton Bluejays are here, in the NCAA tournament, as expected and on schedule. And yet the Jays find themselves in a strange place.
No, not Big East Country.
Let's just say the narrative of this season changed.
This is the weekend the Jays and their fans have been waiting for all year. This is when they would go after history, a berth in the Sweet 16, and a fist full of legacy.
But now, whatever they do can't top what just happened two days ago.
So, dare I say, CU enters this NCAA tourney with house money.
The stakes haven't changed. Creighton wants to get to that next weekend, something the school hasn't done in the modern NCAA tourney era.
If the Jays do that, the same week as joining the Big East Conference, they might have to shut down school for the rest of the year. Seriously.
But if they fall short, even lose today, the depression will be short-lived. The blow softened.
Normally, they'd be called out as underachievers. Major disappointments. History's bums. They understand that. They took that risk when they put the Sweet 16 up on the pedestal.
But how do you say Creighton basketball underachieved the same week it accepted membership into a national hoops league?
How do you label it an epic failure when the Creighton party has just started and figures to last through the spring and into the summer?
Aren't you going to be too busy dreaming of Marquette and Georgetown in Omaha next year to fall into a summer funk?
Even non-Creighton fans are going to have a hard time sticking those labels on the program this week.
It's a rather amazing turn of events, when you think about the timing. Pressure season meets Dream Come True.
The rules of the game just changed. These Jays have been referred to as special, a “team of a lifetime,” by Nebraska coach Tim Miles.
And, it's true, when you're a mid-major, Sweet 16 runs don't come down the road every year. For most, once a generation.
That was then. This is now. And it's hard to think of this as the pinnacle, the best team CU will build in the Big East, hard to think of this as an only chance. Rather, maybe the first of many more to come.
So these Jays can still make their history. They can still be the first CU team to make the Sweet 16.
Oh, about that Sweet 16 dream.
If you see anyone from the Big East this weekend, keep it to yourself.
Shooting for the Sweet 16 is such a mid-major thing. As CU Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen once said, the Sweet 16 is the Final Four for mid-majors. Butler and VCU said otherwise, but it's a good rule of thumb.
Don't look now, but the Jays have joined a league where eight of the 10 members have been to a Final Four, all but Xavier and Creighton.
Big East schools don't want to win two games in the tournament. They want to win four. Or more.
As it increases its budget, and its recruiting, Creighton will have to increase its goals and expectations, too. I'm sure it will be in the manual.
Meanwhile, maybe the pressure of this NCAA tourney has shifted to today and good impressions.
The Jays were sent smack dab into Big East Country. It's probably a coincidence, but the timing is unreal.
There will be an arena full of discerning East Coast fans with an East Coast hoops bias watching the Jays today. They'll be trying to figure out what a Creighton is, and whether or not it can play some hoops.
Was this a good add for the league? I'm sure they'll be saying that in the cheese steak line, assuming there's a cheese steak line.
On top of that, the white and blue are going up against one of the schools not deemed good enough to stay in the Big East, or go to the ACC, for that matter. The Bearcats may want to prove a point or two.
Oh, and CU's long lost chums from Wichita State just beat another Big East team, Pitt, by 18.
There's a lot of stuff going on here today.
Good thing the team has acted oblivious to the Big East storyline all week, and acting as loose as ever here.
“This is kind of a loose group, really,” CU coach Greg McDermott said. “They enjoy each other's company, they get after each other a lot. That makes it fun.
“I want to make sure they smell the roses and enjoy the experience, because you need to look around that arena, and the environment that surrounds the NCAA tournament, because so few athletes get to enjoy it. That said, we know what we have to do and we'll be ready.”
Break the Bearcats' pressure. Make them pay by making some shots. Survive the first half. The 12-day layoff since the Valley tourney makes it dicey to get back in offensive rhythm.
“I think we're playing really good basketball right now,” senior Grant Gibbs said. “Which is encouraging. But if you think that we have to make a Sweet 16 for this to be the season we wanted, you put yourself in a tough situation.”
No matter what happens today or this weekend, Creighton University has already won.
But these lads started the season with a mission. Might as well finish it.
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