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Mark Turgeon's concerns about how Wichita State would handle winning its first Missouri Valley Conference title in 23 years were answered Monday afternoon.
"We had our best practice of the year," the Shocker coach said. "The pressure is off of us. We've been carrying around a 23-year weight, and no matter what happens from here on out, they can't take what we've done away from us."
The Shockers survived perhaps the most grueling Missouri Valley Conference basketball race ever. And they won a title that escaped more talented Wichita State teams over the past two-plus decades.
They all but assured themselves of making the NCAA tournament for the first time in six seasons under Turgeon and for the first time since 1988. They will take a 23-7 record to St. Louis as the tournament's No. 1 seed and have an unofficial RPI of 25.
But the Shockers are more concerned about what is still to be had, starting with this week's Valley tournament.
"Our guys were talking about St. Louis almost as soon as we got finished cutting down the nets," Turgeon said. "This is a hungry group. They were picked to finish fifth, and they've played all year with a chip on their shoulders."
Center Paul Miller, named Tuesday the league's player of the year, agrees that the Shockers are still hungry.
"We've actually divided this season into parts," Miller said. "We're done with the nonconference and conference parts of it. Now it's time for the postseason, and we want to continue to play even better than we have."
Close but . . .
That's the difference in Nick Porter's mind between Creighton going into the Valley tournament as the No. 1 seed and the No. 4 seed.
"We were one shot shy of winning a championship," Porter said.
Porter was referring to Matt Braeuer's 3-point basket with 0.4 seconds to play in overtime that gave Wichita State a 62-61 victory over the Bluejays on Feb. 14. If Braeuer had missed, Creighton would have led the conference with two games to play.
And they would have been the tournament's No. 1 seed even if the final two games had played out as they did, with Wichita State going 2-0 and Creighton 1-1. The teams would have tied for the regular-season title, with the Bluejays holding the tiebreaker in head-to-head competition.
Instead, they wound up in a three-way tie for second, with Southern Illinois grabbing the No. 2 seed because of the tiebreaker. Missouri State is the third seed, while Creighton dropped to fourth and will have to play red-hot Bradley in Friday's quarterfinals.
I second that notion
I'm not alone in thinking that the Valley's all-conference second team would be an awfully tough matchup for the first team. Creighton's Anthony Tolliver and Johnny Mathies, Bradley's Marcellus Sommerville and Patrick O'Bryant and Indiana State's David Moss made up the All-Valley second team.
"Give me those guys," former Creighton assistant coach Len Gordy said, "and I'd go and play anybody."
I'd say the second-teamers would win eight out of 10 against the first team of Miller, Northern Iowa's Grant Stout and Ben Jacobson, Southern Illinois' Tony Young and Missouri State's Blake Ahearn.
Northern Iowa went from championship contender to sixth seed in the Valley tournament in the final two weeks of the regular season. What the Panthers did not do, coach Greg McDermott said, is damage their NCAA at-large hopes.
Northern Iowa is 22-8 and has an unofficial RPI of 31. The Panthers arguably own the Valley's two most distinguished nonconference wins, having beaten No. 10 Louisiana State on its home court and No. 13 Iowa at home. UNI also benefits from its BracketBusters win over No. 38 Bucknell, a likely NCAA tournament participant.
"If all the committee did was judge you on conference play, they wouldn't make you play a nonconference schedule," McDermott said. "We made some tough decisions, like going to LSU to play, that worked out great for us and great for our league.
"If the committee judges us on the body of our work, there's no question we're in."
Quote of the week
"I was blessed to have that injury. Sure, it was disappointing at the time, but to have my career turn out as it has and to have a chance to be a part of what this team achieved, I'm just so thankful."
-Wichita State's Miller, on the ankle injury that forced him to redshirt his freshman season
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