Knowing a loaded question when he hears one, Doug Elgin decided to steer clear of biting on this one:
“Is Wichita State’s run to within one victory of the Final Four the basketball gods’ way of punishing Creighton for leaving the Missouri Valley for the new Big East?”
The longtime Missouri Valley commissioner did address it, but first he had to put down his black-and-gold towel, slip off his Wu-Shock headdress and take off his “Gregg Marshall for President” button.
“I certainly think,” Elgin said, “that the timing is coincidental.”
Elgin is justifiably proud of what Wichita State has accomplished in the NCAA tournament. The Shockers opened the tournament with a victory over Pitt (“Aren’t they a Big East team?” Elgin asked), knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the round of 32 and then dominated La Salle in a Sweet 16 matchup.
A victory over Ohio State on Saturday would allow Wichita State to make the Final Four, something no Valley school has done since Indiana State in 1979. As it is, the Shockers are the first to get to the Elite Eight since 1981.
Having slipped into his conference commissioner blazer adorned with an “I (heart) the Valley” pin, Elgin did talk about the ramifications of what Wichita State has accomplished and can still achieve.
“I think it truly emphasizes that our league is not defined by any one of its institutions,” he said. “I think it says that the Valley will remain relevant and strong, and that we’re not in a panic mode.
“Creighton’s leaving is a major loss for us, and I’m sad to see that a lot of rivalries in many of our sports could be ending. At the same time, we must go on, and this is showing that the Valley is capable of maintaining its status as a very strong non-BCS league.”
Elgin harbors no ill will toward Creighton for bolting to join a new league made up of seven members of the old Big East, along with Butler and Xavier. I remember talking to him in mid-December, when news first broke that the seven Catholic schools were leaving the old league to form a new basketball-centric conference.
Creighton was being mentioned as a possible candidate to join the league. Elgin knew then that if an invitation were ever extended to the Bluejays, the Valley’s chances of keeping Creighton were slim to none, with an emphasis on none.
“And they’d be foolish not to accept it,” he said four months ago.
The invitation did come, and Creighton was officially announced as a member two days before the Bluejays opened NCAA tournament play. They defeated Cincinnati in their first game but saw their hopes of advancing to the Sweet 16 end with last Sunday’s loss to Duke.
With their team’s season in the books, some Creighton fans have found themselves doing something they never thought they would: pulling for the Shockers.
“As hard as it is to believe, I found myself rooting for them — really rooting for them,” Creighton fan Katie Mullen said. “It should be us. We beat them twice and had a close game in the third. Knowing that we ‘had their number’ is comforting to know.”
Mullen said she will continue cheering for the Shockers, as will Doug Quinn. He was among the Creighton fans who made the trip to Philadelphia for the Bluejays’ tournament games. The night between Creighton’s two games, Quinn found himself in the lounge of the team’s hotel with a lot of other Bluejay fans.
“I found myself cheering for them (Wichita State) against the Zags,” Quinn said. “Same thing last night. They are our enemy, but they are our conference, too.”
No other Valley rivalry in recent seasons had developed the intensity that Wichita State-Creighton conjured up. When told about Creighton fans in the Philly bar cheering on the Shockers against Gonzaga, Elgin replied, “That’s really neat.”
The madness of March can turn emotions on a dime. A week ago, Creighton fans were on top of the world. the Bluejays twice cut down nets early in the month after wins over their heated rival. And then they got invited to the new Big East and beat Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament.
Duke spoiled things for the Bluejays. Meanwhile, Wichita State bounced back from losing to Creighton twice in eight days to go on a historic run for the school. Maybe it is the basketball gods at work. Or …
“Maybe Carl Hall’s haircut has something to do with their success,” Mullen said.
Hall, the chief warrior on a Wichita State team filled with them, traded his dreadlocks for a buzz cut for the tournament.
If things get hairy Saturday against Ohio State, the Shockers can rest assured that some old rivals will be cheering them on.
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