Since the 1998-99 season the Gonzaga Bulldogs have been the program that all mid-major programs aspire to be. The Bulldogs have appeared in 14 straight NCAA Tournaments thanks in large part to their 10 West Coast Conference Tournament titles in that span. Having amassed a 325-97 (17-14 in the NCAA Tournament) record and five trips to at least the Sweet 16, Dan Monson and Mark Few have built the epitome of a nationally-successful program.
While no program has reached the heights of Gonzaga over such a prolonged period of time, there is another mid-major team that has had enough success over the past 14 seasons that they should be 2nd off the tongue of most people when talking mid major successes. George Mason? Nope. Virginia Commonwealth? Try Again. Back-to-back National Runner-up Butler? Wrong again. The answer is Creighton. The Bluejays have had eight trips to the NCAA Tournaments and four NIT bids over the last 14 years. Much like Gonzaga, much of Creighton’s success starts with being a perennial contender in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bluejays have seven conference tournament championships over the last 14 seasons.
Dana Altmanarrived in Omaha before the 1994-95 season, fresh off a four-year stint at Kansas State where he led the Wildcats to three straight
postseason appearances. He took over a Creighton team that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991. In his first season the team won just seven games, three years later the Bluejays went 18-10 and earned a bid to the NIT in 1998. The following season Altman led Creighton to a 22-win season and its first Missouri Valley Tournament championship in eight years, earning the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. As a 10-seed the Bluejays upset 7th seeded Louisville in the 1st round before falling to Maryland in the 2nd round.
The ’98-‘99 season began a run of five straight trips to the NCAA Tournament and four conference tournament titles in five years. The run that ended in 2003 with a 29-5 record and first round loss to Central Michigan in the tournament ended a stretch that saw Creighton average 24 wins a year over that span. By comparison Gonzaga averaged 26 victories a season over the same five-year period.
Altman benefited by having sharpshooter Kyle Korver arrive on campus in 1999, by the time he graduated in 2003 he was 5th on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,801). After the loss of Korver to the NBA, Creighton had a 2nd year player Nate Funk to lead the next crop of Bluejays to continued success. Funk and Altman would lead Creighton to two more NCAA tournaments and two NITs over the next four years. Funk would graduate in 2007
as the team’s 6th highest scorer (1,754 behind Korver) and the school’s all-time leader in games played. With seven NCAA bids under his belt (the school had eight total in the years prior to Altman’s arrival) he would stay at Creighton three more seasons before leaving for the head coaching job at Oregon. Altman spent a total of 16 seasons at Creighton with career record of 327-126 (273 of those coming between 1998-2010).
Looking for a new coach Creighton turned to someone familiar with the Missouri Valley Conference. They followed the blueprint that brought Altman to Omaha. They went to Big 12 country and grabbed Greg McDermott from Iowa State for the job. McDermott had a first-hand look at what Altman built at Creighton, he coached at the Bluejays’ biggest rival during that time, Northern Iowa during the heart of the Kyle Korver/Nate Funk run (2001-2006) earning three straight NCAA Tournament bids of his own from 2004-06. When McDermott decided to coach at Creighton, his son Doug who had originally signed to play at Northern Iowa was released from his commitment in order to plougay for his father. In the McDermotts’ first year at Creighton the Bluejays finished 23-16 and despite losing in the conference semifinals they received a bid to the College Basketball Invitational where they made it to the finals, losing a three-game series to a familiar face, Dana Altman and the Oregon Ducks. The freshman McDermott led the Bluejays in scoring and rebounding with 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds respectively.
Last season there was a lot of optimism in Omaha as the Bluejays returned 10 players from their CBI finalists’ team. In addition to the returning players, the younger McDermott was joined by a fellow Iowan transfer guard Grant Gibbs. Gibbs may be the only person who knows what has made both Creighton and Gonzaga so successful, having spent his freshman season at Gonzaga. The optimism was well warranted as the experienced Bluejays won 28 games en route to another MVC Tournament title. Outside of a three-game losing streak in February Creighton went a remarkable 28-2 heading into the NCAA Tournament.
The season earned Creighton an eight seed and a second round date with #9 Alabama. In one of the more exciting games of the second round, Creighton erased an 11-point 2nd half deficit thanks to McDermott’s 16-point 10-rebound effort and hung on for a 58-57 victory earning them a date with #1 seed and McDermott’s former High School teammate Harrison Barnes. Despite 20 points and nine rebounds the Bluejays fell to Barnes and the Tarheels 87-73.
The Bluejays enter 2012-13 with even higher expectations than last season. They come in ranked in the preseason top 25 and have Doug McDermott whose 23.2 points per game in 2012 makes him the nation’s leading returning scorer, a unanimous preseason first-team All American and one of the early favorites for National Player of the Year. Heading into 2012-13 nine of the top 10 scorers return for Creighton including McDermott, Gibbs and senior big man Gregory Echenique. Joining them are a couple of guards that should add to the Bluejays depth, redshirt freshman Nevin Johnson is a big 6-5 guard who has the potential to be a defensive stopper, something the team needed after giving up over 70 points per game last year. Also freshman guard Andre Yates who also had offers from Dayton and Nebraska (among others) may see significant time backing up Gibbs at the point guard position.
The Bluejays’ success has helped in recruiting for 2012 and beyond as they already have three commits for 2013 that each had multiple offers from BCS-conference schools, including 6-9 South Dakota forward Zach Hanson who also had an offer from the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
There is no argument that Gonzaga is and always been the mold for mid-major teams that want to compete on a national level. Since the 1998-99 season the Bulldogs have 12 West Coast Conference regular season titles, 10 WCC tournament titles, 14 straight trips to the NCAA tournament, four Sweet Sixteens and a trip to the Elite Eight. Dan Monson and Mark Few have led Gonzaga to over 26 wins a season over the last 14 years.
Creighton will be tested early and often in 2012-13, they open the season November 9th against Sun Belt favorite North Texas and their sophomore star Tony Mitchell. In addition they have games with Wisconsin, Atlantic 10 favorite St. Joeseph’s and Pac-12 contender California.
Dana Altman and Greg McDermott have quietly built their own marquee mid major team in Nebraska. Over the same 14-year span Creighton had 10 seasons with either a regular season or conference tournament title, four NIT berths and eight trips to the NCAA Tournament. With the building blocks having been in place, this may be the year that Creighton breaks through to the postseason successes that Gonzaga has enjoyed.