In case you missed the news (somehow) the Big East is kind of changing.
No, it’s not getting a new tournament site. No, records aren’t getting cleaned out – we still own those. I like to think of it more as a “return to the roots” type of change. We’re going back to what the Big East was built on. We’re going back to the vision that Dave Gavitt had so many years ago. We’re going back to basketball.
And we’re not doing it alone either. We’ve added quite a few buddies to come along for the ride. In addition to the “Catholic 7″ Creighton, Butler, and Xavier are all joining us next year in pioneering a basketball-only, high major conference.
So it seems only right that we should get to know our neighbors.
In this three part series I interview the bloggers from the Creighton, Butler, and Xavier sites. First up is Creighton. CTO of White and Blue Review Patrick Marshall (@wildjays on twitter) got us in touch with Max Univers (@polyfro) to answer a couple of our questions about the Blue Jays. Give both those guys a follow on Twitter and bookmark the White and Blue Review for future reference guys – we’re going to be seeing Creighton a lot more! And after you’ve done that read our interview with them here, right now, after the jump!
WarriorFriar: First things first, let’s talk about Greg McDermott. He just had his third season finish up at Creighton and hasn’t exactly been a shadow on the wall, going 80-29 in his three seasons. What’s been the keys to coach McDermott’s success, and how will that continue with the conference shift?
Max Univers: Greg McDermott’s predecessor, Dana Altman, went 327-176 in 16 seasons and took the team to seven NCAA Tournaments and five NIT’s over that span. After the 2007 season, Altman took the Arkansas job, (in)famously changing his mind 24 hours later and returning to Omaha to reclaim his old job. The three years following his return were not quite up to the standards he’d set previously — two NIT berths and, in his final season, a trip to the CollegeInsider.com (CIT) tourney. His last teams suffered from player defections, recruiting misfires, and a gradual erosion of the principles he’d built the program on (pressure defense, hustle, high-post offense).
Despite the instability of the program in Altman’s final season, McDermott didn’t exactly inherit a program in disarray or one with a bare cupboard. Gregory Echenique, Antoine Young and Josh Jones — key contributors to last year’s NCAA Tournament team that defeated Alabama — were Altman recruits, for example. McDermott has taken what Altman built over 16 years and grown it. Their styles are different; the Jays almost never run a full-court press, and he prefers traditional big men who play around the rim to the type of big man that played 10-15 feet out, as Altman did.
The biggest key to his success is recruiting players that fit his system, and coaching them up so by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’re the key contributors to the team. While that will change a little bit with the move to the Big East — they’re more likely to recruit the type of player who might not stay all four years in a “major” league — Creighton’s never going to be anything remotely close to a Kentucky situation where their team is comprised of one-and-done players. The bulk of their recruits will still be midwestern, high basketball IQ players who work hard in practice to improve their skills over a four-year career.
WF: Out of all the Big East members the Bluejays are the farthest away. That said, there’s nothing we’d like more than to see your fans come around. What’s the fan culture like? Any trips out east planned for next season? (first beer’s on me!)
MU: Creighton has been a top ten team in attendance for several years in a row, routinely drawing over 16,000 to home games. But they also travel well, historically; over 6,000 fans flocked to St. Louis for the MVC Tournament this March, and while that number was inflated somewhat by the Jays’ outstanding season, in a typical year they had 2-3 thousand fans follow them to the tourney, which still led the league most years. Over Thanksgiving, the Jays played in a tournament in Las Vegas with Wisconsin, another school who travels well, and Jays fans outnumbered them 2:1. No one expects 6,000 CU fans to descend on Madison Square Garden next March (St. Louis is a six hour drive, while NYC requires a flight), but CU will be well-represented.
Fans were accustomed to making road trips to see their team play in the MVC, and though the destinations are further away now, there’s already been talk on the Bluejay Underground message board from fans excited to travel to new cities/venues. Creighton also has a large alumni base on the East Coast who’s excited to see their team play games close to home, so expect to see them at road games, too.
WF: Let’s play a word association game – how would you describe the identity of your team? Are they scrappy and cutthroat, refined skills or streetballers, something in between?
MU: Gregg Marshall, the Wichita State coach, described the Bluejays as “Suburban HORSE” players earlier this year — meaning a team full of shooters who can drain in shots from anywhere, but are loathe to mix it up with physical players/teams. That reputation stems from their defensive struggles in the first two years of the Greg McDermott Era more than anything; as the Jays showed in their last two battles with the Shockers, and in their victory over a very physical Cincinnati team in the NCAA Tournament, they’re more physical than their reputation would lead you to believe.
With that said, they do need to get bigger, stronger players to compete regularly in the Big East, and the coaching staff has already begun addressing those needs.
WF: What’s it mean to the fans to join the Big East?
MU: The MVC has been very good to Creighton — it’s an underrated league in many sports, especially men’s basketball, and CU has enjoyed great rivalries with several schools over the years. But fans have been enthralled with the possibility of joining the Big East ever since news leaked in December that the Catholic 7 were breaking away from the old Big East.
Aside from the increased profile and competition on the floor, Creighton fans are excited to join a league with nine other schools who share a similar culture and goals. With their huge attendance, great facilities, history of success and donor base, Creighton really feels they can not only compete but succeed in the Big East.
One thing that fans are very excited about is joining perhaps the best men’s soccer league in the country. Men’s soccer has made the College Cup two years in a row (soccer’s equivalent of the Final Four) and plays in one of the best stadiums for college soccer in the country. They were a perennial national title contender despite playing in a subpar league; joining an elite conference should make them even more of a power, and considering men’s soccer is the second-biggest sport at CU, that’s a big deal.
WF: It’s no secret college basketball is made special by it’s student section – tell us a little bit about what the student section at Creighton is like. Any special traditions? Cool distractions? Something hysterical I’m not asking about but totally should?
MU: Creighton’s student section can be rowdy and intimidating for big games, but suffers from a lack of attendance for smaller midweek games. I don’t think that’s much different from most schools, though. They’ve really taken to the “big head” fad that’s swept the country, holding up huge cutouts of players, coaches, and other random celebrities. The biggest tradition is probably the passing out of long tube balloons at halftime, as they’re seated behind one basket and the visiting team shoots at that hoop in the second half. It’s a tradition dating back to the early 1990s; students fashion those balloons into all sorts of things to distract teams while shooting free throws. And occasionally, one of the balloons pops, which is REALLY a distraction.
The band is terrific, and several national writers who were in Philadelphia for the NCAA Tourney last week noted on Twitter that they were clearly the best band of the eight schools playing there. Sometimes they’ll launch into songs that really make you do a double-take. For example, late in the Cincinnati game last week they played “How Far We’ve Come” by Matchbox Twenty…and segued into “The Final Countdown” by Europe.
WF: Rivalry time! According to Wikipedia you’re rivals with Southern Illinois, but who knows if Wikipedia is telling me the truth or not. What’s going to happen to your current rivalries? Do you see the Bluejays squaring off with any of it’s new conference opponents more intensely than usual?
MU: Early in the 2000s, Creighton and Southern Illinois had a heated rivalry due to the teams annually being the top two in the MVC. But prior to those years, the schools really weren’t rivals, and as SIU has slipped into a series of second-division finishes in recent years, it’s cooled back down.
I think most fans (and even coaches/players) would identify Wichita State as their biggest rival in the MVC — there’s decades of history between the schools beating up on each other, in multiple sports, and geographically they’re much closer than Southern Illinois. The defining moment in the rivalry came on the baseball diamond, of all places; the two teams met in the 1991 College World Series, and Wichita State eliminated the Jays, throwing out the tying run at the plate late in the game. They’ve had epic battles in men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, baseball…you name the sport, chances are the schools have cost each other championships over the years by knocking one another off.
Shocker coach Gregg Marshall has publicly expressed his desire for the schools to continue playing, but it’s not apparent whether Creighton shares that desire or not. My guess is they’ll resume the series as a non-conference game two or three years down the road once CU gets settled in the Big East.
As for potential “new” rivals among the Big East schools, I’d say Marquette and Xavier are the two likeliest suspects. Creighton and Marquette have played 76 times over the years; in the 1960s and 70s when CU was an independent, they had a fierce rivalry, and played some spirited battles against Al McGuire’s teams. More recently, CU played Xavier several years in a row with both teams winning in close, hard-fought games. They don’t have as much history with the other schools, but CU is looking forward to building rivalries and history with them.