When Wichita State basketball players from the Ralph Miller era gather, they talk about playing Cincinnati. Gene Smithson’s guys will remember Tulsa throwdowns. For the latest generation of Shockers, games with Creighton will dominate the memories.
“It’s the greatest rivalry that I’ve been a part of,” former Shocker J.T. Durley said. “It’s one of the first schools you hear about. You must beat Creighton.”
That is the mantra for WSU since 2000, when coach Mark Turgeon started rebuilding. He targeted Creighton and coach Dana Altman as the Missouri Valley Conference’s top obstacle. The feeling is similar at Creighton, which wanted to fend off the Shockers while dealing with Southern Illinois.
“They got better and they were starting to be a name in the league,” said former Bluejay Jimmy Motz, who played from 2001-06. “It’s one of those games Creighton fans had circled on their calendars.”
Geography helps the rivalry. Personalities made the proximity matter.
Creighton fans hated the antics and expressions of WSU’s Jamar Howard. WSU fans believed the referees kept the Shockers from looking hard at Kyle Korver or Nate Funk. Altman grated on the Shockers from his time at Kansas State. Creighton fans mocked Turgeon for NIT bids. Turgeon wore out MVC commissioner Doug Elgin complaining about how the conference favored Creighton. The sports columnist for the Omaha World-Herald accused current WSU coach Gregg Marshall of carrying a Bluejay paranoia, a charge Marshall strenuously denied after winning for a second straight season in Omaha.
Memorable moments do even more.
Seasons rose and fell for both programs based on the two- or three-game series. Tyler McKinney’s layup in 2002. DeAnthony Bowden’s steal in 2003. Buzzer-beaters by Anthony Tolliver and Matt Braeuer in 2006. Booker Woodfox’s much-disputed jumper in 2009 and Aaron Ellis’ layup in 2011.
“There’s a lot of history around Creighton-Wichita State,” former Shocker Ben Smith said. “You don’t want to disappoint your fans. One fan told me: I don’t care if you lose every game. When you play Creighton, you’ve got to beat them.”
Former Shocker Clevin Hannah is playing professionally in France. One season, he wants Marshall to call upon him for the pre-game speech. He knows what he would say, and the Woodfox moment from 2009 will be part of the lesson.
“I would let them know the game has a lot of history behind it,” he said. “I’d tell them the story of when Booker Woodfox made that shot and I’d tell them to go out there and play with a chip on your shoulder.”
Pain for one side. Celebration for the other.
“You feed off the rivalry,” former Shocker Kyle Wilson said. “You want to win that game so bad.”
WSU and Creighton shared membership in the Valley briefly in the 1940s and again since 1976, when Creighton rejoined after an absence of 29 years. The series didn’t turn into a real rivalry — passion, championships, stories — until Turgeon took over. While Southern Illinois also ruled the Valley in those days, Creighton always seemed to one-up the Shockers. Thirteen years later, WSU owns the upper hand in the rivalry heading into Saturday’s game at Koch Arena against the 12th-ranked Bluejays.
“I will be there, it’s my first trip to Wichita since 2006,” Motz said. “I’ve put on about 30 pounds, so I’m hoping nobody will recognize me and try to pinpoint me.”
The Shockers played from behind in the rivalry during most of Turgeon’s tenure. They couldn’t win in Omaha — the streak eventually reached 17 losses. They couldn’t beat the Bluejays in the MVC Tournament, adding NCAAs to Creighton’s resume while WSU settled for the NIT.
“That was a big part of it,” Wilson said. “We felt like we were at that level. We wanted to prove that.”
The Shockers did in 2005-06, when they won the MVC and played in the NCAA Tournament. A year later, Turgeon departed for Texas A&M and Creighton cruised along with Altman. It took Marshall two seasons — and some painful losses — before he gained the upper hand. He finished ahead of Creighton in 2010 (Altman’s final season), 2011 and 2012. He ended the losing streak in Omaha in 2011. Coach Greg McDermott took over the Bluejays in 2010 and is 1-3 against WSU.
“The first time we won at their place — to hear that place completely quiet was a big deal,” Durley said. “I was disappointed Dana Altman wasn’t there. That kind of bothered me.”
The Shockers don’t pretend the rivalry is a friendly one. Shocker fans wouldn’t allow it. Wilson got to know Bluejays Dane Watts and Funk while playing professionally. Nice guys, out of the blue uniforms.
“When we were playing at WSU, I didn’t really care for any of them,” Wilson said.
Motz remembers games getting chippy, especially when they involved Howard and Korver. That didn’t change in recent seasons.
“There’s some tension there,” Smith said. “It’s not like you hate guys, but you want to beat them.”
Tension will fill Koch Arena again on Saturday afternoon.
The Bluejays are in first place in the MVC, one game ahead of WSU. The Shockers can’t afford to fall two games back — they play at Creighton on the final day of the regular season. National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott is the latest Bluejay star to highlight the rivalry. WSU, last season, didn’t need a star to rout the Creighton in Omaha on its way to the MVC title.
Pain for one side. Celebration for another.