Once regular sparring partners, Creighton and Marquette square off Tuesday night for the first time in 15 seasons in a matchup laced with historical overtones.
The 9:02 p.m. game at the CenturyLink Center marks the first game for each team in the reconfigured Big East, the 10-team league that blossomed out of the football-forced implosion of the old Big East.
Marquette was one of the seven schools from the old league that formed the core of the new conference. Creighton was one of the three new schools that joined, and its inclusion sated a desire to become a member of a big-time league that had burned within the Bluejay program almost since basketballs first started bouncing on the Hilltop a century ago.
The historical significance of Creighton’s Big East debut undoubtedly will be on the minds of more than a few of the 18,000-plus fans that are expected to jam the CenturyLink, hoping that the final hours of the old year will mark a successful start to a new era of Bluejay basketball.
All that probably won’t be more than a passing thought in the minds of the participants.
“It’s like a lot of situations where we’re so focused in on the game plan and what we have to do to win that we don’t have a lot of time to think about that,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “I think those things happen later in life, when you look back on things.
“We’re excited to start conference play knowing that we have one of the best teams in the league coming in here on day one. To see a team like Marquette, as well as all the other great opponents that we’re going to have in this arena, is really special. It’s hard to believe at times.”
There will come a time, Gibbs said, when a visit by Marquette will be just a normal occurrence. Like it once was for the Bluejays.
The teams have played 76 times since the first meeting in 1923. From 1923 until 1940, they played at least once every season but one (1939-40). After a 10-year break, Creighton and Marquette played annually from 1950 to 1988 except for the 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons.
The teams have met just three times since Marquette traded its independent status for conference membership in 1989. Marquette won the two games the teams played in the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons, and then posted a 80-68 win in the 1998 National Invitation Tournament.
Gibbs was 8 years old the last time the two teams played.
“This is really a cool step for our program,” he said. “Now, it’s time for us as a team to take that responsibility to make that next step.”
It won’t be an easy one against a Marquette team that was picked to win the championship before the first tip of the season. Marquette brings an 8-5 record into Tuesday’s game, having played perhaps the most demanding nonconference schedule of Big East teams.
Four of Marquette’s five losses came to teams with top 50 RPI rankings.
“They played one of the best schedules, if not the best schedule, in the country,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “That’s part of the reason why their record isn’t as glamorous as it has been in the past.
“They’ve gone on the road and have played good people, and they’ve come up a few possessions short in a few of those games.”
Ohio State spanked the Golden Eagles 52-35 in the season’s third game. Since then, Marquette’s losses have come by two points at Arizona State, by eight points to San Diego State in the championship game of the Wooden Legacy tournament, by six points at Wisconsin and by seven points against New Mexico.
“We’ve put ourselves in position in each of those games and have come up short for one reason or another,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “We have a lot to work on and a lot to improve on. We just have to continue to improve.”
Tuesday’s opener matches teams with contrasting styles. Creighton leads the Big East in scoring (82.9 points per game) and 3-point field goal percentage (.437) and is tied for first in field-goal percentage (.492).
Marquette, with a rugged front line anchored by 6-foot-11 Chris Otule and 6-8 Davante Gardner, is first in scoring defense (61.5 points per game) and is tied for first in field-goal percentage defense (.385).
It’s the front-line matchup of Otule and Gardner against his duo of Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge that Greg McDermott sees as being perhaps the most crucial of the night.
“Their front line is physical, and we’re a little more finesse,” the coach said. “I think how that plays out in the end will have a lot to do with the outcome of the game.”
Another big factor could be the crowd. Combine Creighton’s Big East debut with a late start and New Year’s Eve, and Williams knows exactly what’s in store for his team.
“I think it’s going to be unbelievable,” he said. “We’re walking into a buzz saw.”
McDermott and his players say they hope the atmosphere is similar to what it was last March when Wichita State visited the CenturyLink. That crowd of 18,613 was energized from the time the players came out for warmups an hour before the game to the final seconds of the Bluejays’ 91-79 victory.
“It was different than anything I’ve experienced here,” the coach said. “There was an energy from start to finish that was very impressive. It was worth eight to 10 points that particular day.
“I hope our fans understand they can have that kind of an impact if they really truly participate in the game. On that day, we had everyone in the building into the game from the opening tip.”