OMAHA — Here's a unique sentence: Wichita State needs to handle Creighton before it can get to the really big basketball game on its schedule.
That's Northern Iowa on Tuesday, and it's true. Until this season, nobody ever considered the Panthers a more significant opponent than Creighton. That is changing.
The point is not to hint WSU will overlook today's game in anticipation of playing first-place UNI. That's a ridiculous notion, given the history of that rivalry.
The point is, the Shockers play two important games within four days. By late Tuesday, they could be tied for first in the Missouri Valley Conference near the halfway point. Or they could be looking up at the Panthers with diminished hopes of catching them.
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To make Tuesday's game all it can be, all the Shockers must do is end a losing streak that ranks as irritating as any in the program's history. WSU has lost 16 straight games in Omaha. It's not a streak with a tremendous burden on the current Shockers, most of whom lost one or two games in Omaha, and none when they went in with high hopes.
"It's going to happen at some point," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "We just need to try to make it happen Saturday."
Today's game appears to be one of WSU's best opportunities to end the streak. The Shockers last won in Omaha in 1992 under coach Mike Cohen. In many of the following seasons, the Shockers traveled to Omaha as underdogs.
This season, WSU (16-2, 5-1 MVC) is playing well, capable of lockdown defense and fireworks on offense. Creighton (8-9, 3-3) is inconsistent and looking for leadership.
The Shockers put their offense on display in Wednesday's 84-73 win at Indiana State. They made 58 percent of their shots and 12 of 22 three-pointers. Toure Murry, Clevin Hannah and Graham Hatch combined to make 10 of those threes in the kind of shooting performance that ruin defensive scouting reports.
"All three of us need to step up and take our a team to a different level," Murry said. "We're making open shots. Last year we struggled, but this year we know what we need to do."
The Shockers cruised past Creighton a week ago in Koch Arena. Their defense sucked the life out of the Bluejays early and Creighton failed to fight back in the 70-58 loss.
"They just pretty much dominated that game, every aspect of that game," Creighton forward Casey Harriman said. "In a way, this could be good because we still have the feeling of losing to them. We still have that anger. We want to get that one back."
The seven-day waiting period between games is unusual; the MVC prefers at least 13 between rematches. It works out well for WSU, which faced former Creighton assistant Kevin McKenna, now coach at Indiana State, in between. The scouting report repeated itself in many ways the past week.
"It will be really fresh," Marshall said. "If Dana Altman is the dean of Missouri Valley Conference coaches, I guess Kevin McKenna would be the provost. He runs the same system, and he runs it well."
Northern Iowa has already won in the Qwest Center. In fact, the Panthers are setting an intimidating pace with road wins against Creighton, Southern Illinois and Illinois State. Marshall doesn't want his team worried about watching the Panthers and their unbeaten start.
"We just have to do our deal," he said. "In a conference race, you've got to take care of your business first. A lot of things happen that you don't expect."