PHILADELPHIA — Creighton has tried not to let its focus stray from the task at hand, but that can be difficult now that the Bluejays know the challenge that awaits them just around the corner.
Following the conclusion of its NCAA tournament run, which begins Friday against Cincinnati, Creighton will have played its last game as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. When the Bluejays get back to Omaha, their returning players will begin preparing for next season in the new Big East.
“As you can imagine, we have Cincinnati on our minds and everything else will take care of itself,” Creighton guard Jahenns Manigat said. “But it is an exciting time. When you’re growing up, you dream of playing the best competition that you can.
“To find out that we’re going to be playing all that talent in a great league is really exciting. It’s something that we can all look forward to.”
Even for a couple of guys who may not be around to experience it. Creighton forward Doug McDermott will weigh turning pro, while guard Grant Gibbs has the option of petitioning the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility.
Although it would be a long shot, Gibbs said, the thought of coming back for Creighton’s first season in the Big East is enticing.
“It’s really cool for our school and our program,” Gibbs said. “And I think everyone in this locker room had a part in us getting the opportunity. We can take some pride in that.
“It probably doesn’t change anything for me, but it would be really cool to be a part of that first year and have a chance to establish our program in that league.”
McDermott, the Bluejays’ two-time first-team All-American, called the move “huge” for Creighton.
“You can’t say no to that offer because not a lot of schools could say they could join the Big East Conference,” he said. “It’s awesome for our school, awesome for our athletics. I know all of our fans are excited, as we are, as well.
“Having Georgetown, Marquette, teams like that coming to town, you can’t pass up on that.”
Would the lure of playing against those teams, along with maybe getting the opportunity to play in the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, be enough to bring back McDermott for one more year?
“I haven’t put much thought into that one,” he said. “I’m the kind of guy that just likes to focus on what’s going on right now. Right now, that’s Cincinnati. (Wednesday’s) news was huge for our school and our fans.
“It’s definitely cool, and I don’t think I can make a bad choice now.”
Of course, McDermott and his teammates know that with opportunities come risks. Creighton has been one of the Valley’s top teams for as long as —if not longer than — most of the Bluejays have been playing basketball.
Creighton is trading being in contention for championships and NCAA trips on an annual basis for a lot of uncertainty.
“In general, we’re going to have to take it up a notch,” McDermott said. “It’s a whole new world now. We can’t get away with some of the same recruits. We’re going to have to expand where we recruit and who we recruit.
“I think it will be a good transition. I’m confident our coaches will do the right things.”
The returning players will have to ratchet up their games, both in preparing for the upcoming season and then once play begins.
“We just have to be physically and mentally tough,” Manigat said. “The tougher the competition, the more mentally in tune you have to be. We’re all going to have to be on the same page.
Junior forward Ethan Wragge provided a veteran’s perspective in assessing Wednesday’s move. Wragge joined the program for the 2009-10 season. He redshirted because of injury the next season, and has come back to play a valuable role as Creighton’s sixth man the past two years.
The Bluejays went 18-16 in Wragge’s freshman season, finished fourth in the Valley and participated in the lower-level CollegeInsider.com Tournament at the end of the year.
“I’m almost in awe of this,” Wragge said. “When I came in, we were fourth in the Valley. Now, four years later, we’re entering the Big East. This program has made a lot of big strides, and it’s an honor that we’re looking forward to.
“We know we’re going to be playing better competition, so we’re going to have to bring it every night. I’m just glad that it’s finally been announced so that we can embrace it and get ready for it.”
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