Before playing in conference tournaments in Madison Square Garden, the Creighton Bluejays played their conference tournaments at the
Kiel Center Savvis Center Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Before having the likes of Georgetown, Villanova, Providence and Marquette on their schedule, the Creighton Bluejays played Drake, Evansville, Southern Illinois and Wichita State. Before Doug McDermott there was Benoit Benjamin, Rodney Buford, Paul Silas, Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver. Before having a nightmarish monster as a mascot, the Creighton Bluejays had a beloved chubby bluejay dance around the hardwood court. Before the private jets and state-of-the-art championship center, the Creighton Bluejays were just a private Jesuit university in north Downtown Omaha, Nebraska that happened to have a pretty good basketball team.
On Saturday afternoon, Creighton heads to Chicago to take on the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago. To the untrained eye, this may seem like just another game on the schedule, a relatively weak opponent that the Bluejays should run over and get an easy W. To a Creighton fan, this game has weight. It has history... or something. Loyola-Chicago filled Creighton's vacated slot in the Missouri Valley when the Bluejays defected to the bright lights of the Big East. After two years without a Valley opponent on their schedule, Creighton heads to the North side of the Windy City to play on a basketball court with a Missouri Valley Conference logo painted in front of the free throw line. The only Creighton player on this year's team to experience the Missouri Valley is senior center Geoffrey Groselle.
As a whole, Creighton was a force in the Valley. In 54 seasons, the Bluejays held a .592 winning percentage (475-328), won 15 regular season Valley championships (seven of those were shared), won 12 Tournament championships, and beat Wichita State to win the MVC championship in their final season in the conference.
Since this is the first time Creighton has faced an opponent from the Valley since joining the Big East, I'd like to take you on a trip down memory lane and highlight some swell tilts the Bluejays were part of in their days with the MVC. In the collection below I decided to rank a few games that I recall fondly during the MVC era. A big shoutout to White and Blue Review and especially to Tom Nemitz - a guy who has put together a rather impressive library of Creighton highlights. Without you guys my summer nights searching for nostalgic bliss would be cold and empty.
5. Creighton v Southern Illinois - MVC Championship - 2006-07
Southern Illinois was incredible in the 06-07 season, dominating the Missouri Valley and ending the regular season ranked #11 with a 15-3 conference record. With the combination of the brothers dread - Jamaal Tatum and Randal Falker - and a tenacious, blitzing defense, it was always a nightmare to play the Salukis. SIU visited Omaha for a regular season tilt in mid-January with a 15-5 record and man, I'd never seen an arena so tense. The collective will of the Qwest Center (now CenturyLink Center) felt heavy, like the humidity on a late July night in the midwest. The game was back and forth throughout, with the Salukis eventually winning by just two points.
Creighton had a dream team that year and it felt like a win-at-all costs sort of season. With superstars Nate Funk and Anthony Tolliver graduating at the end of the year and no big man waiting in the wings, Creighton fans felt like this was their best shot to make a run in the tournament. With Josh Dotzler playing a defensive and pass first point, Nick Porter slashing his way to the bucket and Dane Watts hitting threes on the wing, the offense was never in question. They ended up losing both regular-season affairs to Southern Illinois, however, and eventually met the Salukis in the championship. This, was the result: (h/t to White and Blue Review)
Another championship for Creighton? Why not.
4. Creighton v Bradley - 2007-08 - 2OT & Cavel Witter's 42
There were some really weird years mixed in after the Funk/Tolliver era. Creighton managed to notch a pretty excellent and exciting recruit in P'Allen Stinnett, a combo guard that played with an explosive step and an equally explosive temperament. There was no real big man and Dana Altman decided to play Dane Watts, a 3-point specialist that was a tweener (SF-PF) at best, at center. This provided some wild and wacky results, with Creighton succumbing to double digit deficits in the first half only to claw their way back to win a few games. The Missouri Valley was also in a bizarro transitional period, as Drake was the best team in the conference while their starting 5 consisted of 0 highly touted recruits. Hell, their best player was a walk-on by the name of Adam Emmenecker.
Creighton entered their final regular season game against Bradley with both teams deadlocked in fourth place. Bradley had a few good players - Maniscalco, Crouch and Warren - yet Creighton only needed one guy that night. His name was Cavel Witter. Witter, a sophomore guard from Kansas City, played the complete opposite role of the starting point guard Josh Dotzler. Dotzler, who had severely injured his wrist early on in his career, was a defensive specialist and assist magician. However, when it came to shooting the basketball he was timid, almost as if he had the yips. He'd be left wide open by opposing teams, as they knew that he would not shoot the ball. It was maddening. His backup, Witter, would shoot from anywhere on the court. I always credited him for being a momentum-changing guy, someone you could pull off the bench and get a quick couple scores from, but when he entered the game against Bradley and started heating up there wasn't a soul that could stop him. 42 points later and a double overtime victory with 4th place in the conference secured, Cavel Witter entered the record books.
3. Creighton v Wichita State - 2008-09 - Booker Woodfox vs Wichita State
The 08-09 season started off a bit like the previous season. Creighton won their first three, lost the next two. The Creighton faithful began to sweat. Then, the Jays proceeded to go 22-4 for the remainder of the season. It was one of the most enticing seasons of college basketball that I'd ever witnessed, mainly because of players like P'Allen Stinnett, JUCO transfer Justin Carter, Kaleb Korver (yeah, Kyle's little brother), and the ultra weird Chad Millard. The downlow presence of Kenny Lawson Jr., gave the Bluejays a bit of respectability around the conference while their frontcourt play ran wild.
Yet, among all of these names, there's one you should probably know. The quickest, purest shot release I'd ever seen from a basketball player before or after belonged to a 6'1 shooting guard from Texas; his name was Booker Woodfox. It was incredible to watch this dude play, as his posture when he shot was so textbook it was almost as if you were watching a simulation. No matter what, he would always square up to the basket and release a dead-on shot. It was mesmerizing. The Valley noticed and awarded him MVC POTY.
Creighton rolled into the conference tournament hot as a firecracker in July, winning 10 straight games with a matchup against Witchita State awaiting them. It was a stellar matchup between the schools, as the fanbases absolutely hated one another. Much like Creighton the year before, Wichita State was having a bit of a down year. The toast of the Valley, the Bluejays took the Shockers to the very last moment, when Booker Woodfox did this:
Yeah, the clock didn't start in time. It didn't need to. Creighton ended up losing to Illinois State in the next game and was sent to the NIT where they eventually lost to Kentucky. That's right - Kentucky was once in the NIT.
2. Creighton v Wichita State - 2005-06 - Anthony Tolliver's Game Winner vs Wichita State
Remember what I said about Wichita State and Creighton fans hating eachother? This game stoked the flames for the remainder of the decade, as Anthony Tolliver delivered the deciding blow to the Shockers. At one point in the game, Creighton was down 25-6.
They came back.
Brice Nengsu, a highly touted recruit for the Bluejays, ended up getting clutch shots to help Creighton back into the game. Anthony Tolliver, who had completely remade himself from his sophomore year, was the other catalyst for the comeback. The Bluejays started the game shooting and defending terribly. Slowly but surely they began to crawl back and the ending to this one will forever live on in Creighton lore.
I will always get chills watching that. My lord, what a comeback.
1. Creighton v Wichita State - 2012-13 - The Finale vs Wichita State
I'll never forget this game, honestly. I was the new guy at a new job in the Pacific Northwest and no one had a clue who or what a Creighton was except for one guy who tended to bet on sports games. He pronounced Creighton 'Cry-Ton' and thought that it was a school in New Jersey. Since it was the Missouri Valley and it was championship Sunday the game started at 11am and ended around 1pm in the Pacific timezone. For most of the dreary, wet morning I checked in occasionally on my phone to watch as the score teeter-tottered between the two teams.
I knew I was missing an instant classic, the final game in the conference, and I was absolutely losing my mind. As the game wore on in the second half, I eventually asked my boss if I could take my lunch break early and he obliged. I raced to my truck, found the game on the radio and drove to an empty parking lot. I called my dad and asked him to give me a detailed play-by-play. When Manigat scored on the drive to the bucket to put the Jays ahead by 3 in the waning seconds I tossed my phone aside and held my head in my hands as I listened to Armstead clang his game-tying attempt off the rim. I hopped out of my truck, took a deep breath, and let out a mighty yell. I had to have looked insane, yet it felt so good. I returned to work, beaming with pride, yet I could tell no one for I knew they wouldn't understand.