PHILADELPHIA — It was a journey that began a year ago in a quiet locker room in the middle of Tobacco Road.
In the wake of an NCAA tournament loss to North Carolina, Creighton's basketball players pledged to do everything they could to get themselves back in position to make program history.
They get that chance Sunday night, and it comes against another Tobacco Road giant. Duke, winner of four national championships and one of the college game's premier brands, stands between the No. 22 Bluejays and the Sweet 16.
“We got that shot at Carolina last year and we didn't play one of our best games,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “That kind of stuck with us and drove us through the offseason and the fall to get back to this moment. Coach has talked about it a lot, to get another shot at someone like this.
“This is the moment we wanted back, and now it's up to us to go out there and take it.”
The Bluejays know it won't be easy, but nothing is when you're one of the last 32 standing. Duke will come into the 8:40 p.m. game at Wells Fargo Center with a 28-5 record and national rankings of sixth and seventh. Seeded No. 2 in the Midwest Region, the Blue Devils are making their 18th straight tournament appearance.
Creighton's NCAA trip last year ended a five-year absence from college basketball's grandest tournament. With all but one of the key contributors from last season back, the Bluejays knew anything short of making it back to this position would be judged a failure.
“Everything we've done has been designed to get us back to this point,” guard Jahenns Manigat said. “This is what our whole season has been about. We not only wanted to get back here but we're looking to advance past this point.”
No Creighton team has made it to the final 16 since 1975, the year the tournament started an expansion that has taken it from 25 teams to its present 68-team format. In that same span, Duke has made 20 Sweet 16 appearances, 18 under the direction of coach Mike Krzyzewski.
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No man has coached in more games in the tournament (104) nor won as many times (80) as Krzyzewski.
“There aren't many that have had the impact on college basketball that Coach K has had,” Bluejay coach Greg McDermott said. “It's an honor to know him and certainly stand on the same court with him.”
It would be an even greater honor to get what would be a historic win for Creighton against a program such as Duke.
“Whoever you play to go to the Sweet 16 is going to be good,” Gibbs said. “But to have the opportunity to play these past two years against two of the nation's elite in Carolina and Duke has been special for our program.
“We want to make the next step and hopefully move up to where we're one of those programs. We want to take care of the opportunity this time.”
The Bluejays are 28-7, with the latest win coming Friday against 10th-seeded Cincinnati. Their victory came a couple of hours after Duke ended 15th-seeded Albany's season 72-59.
The Blue Devils shot 58.7 percent in their win, with senior guard Seth Curry scoring 26 points and senior forward Mason Plumlee adding 23. The pair made 19 of 25 shots.
“They've got a lot of guys that can score the basketball and score it at a very efficient rate,” McDermott said. “In a lot of ways, they mirror us in what they attempt to do. They spread you out with the 3-point shot, they've got guys that can score inside, and they have a stretch 4 in Ryan Kelly.
“It will challenge our defense more than any game we've played this year but we're excited to be back on this stage. This is what we've strived for, and hopefully we can put our best foot forward tomorrow night.”
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Creighton's efficiency worries Krzyzewski. The Bluejays came into the tournament third in the country with an average of 1.15 points per possession.
Krzyzewski particularly is concerned by the challenge Creighton's three primary inside players — All-America forward Doug McDermott, center Gregory Echenique and backup forward Ethan Wragge — pose for his team.
“They have three big guys, and they're all different players,” he said. “When two of them are in, their two starters, they create a little different dynamic. When they come off the bench, and McDermott is in, boy, it's a whole different dynamic.”
Wragge is a 3-point bomber who contrasts the inside power of Echenique. McDermott? He's the total package, a player Krzyzewski called the best on offense that he's seen in the past decade.
“He's a counter puncher,” the Duke coach said. “They run stuff for him, and if it's not there, he sees it's not there and he goes right to his counter punch. Many of his shots are made before he gets the ball.
“He's so difficult to defend because you don't know exactly what he's going to do, and he's making his shot before he gets the ball. They're the most efficient offensive team in the country.”
Like so many games this time of year, it's what happens on the defensive end that ultimately decides the outcome. The Bluejays think they are better equipped to handle the challenge Duke presents than they were a year ago against Carolina.
The Tar Heels put up 87 points in beating Creighton. The Bluejays worked to shore up their defense in the offseason and they're eager to gauge their improvement against another elite offensive team.
“We've been through a lot this season, and it feels good to get back here,” Wragge said. “But we just don't want to settle for just being back here. We want to get over the hump with this team.”
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