UK Men's Basketball

Creighton gets a rare visit from Goliath

About 500 tickets sold overnight. A pre-game pep rally — more correctly, a "Beat Kentucky Pep Rally" — is a first for Creighton.

Kentucky may not be Kentucky. Kentucky may be in the National Invitation Tournament. But Kentucky is coming to town, and that still rates as big news in Omaha.

"Kentucky could be 0-25 and Kentucky coming to Omaha, Nebraska is something people never, ever thought they'd see," said Matt Perrault, who plays host to Creighton's pre- and post-game call-in radio programs. "You've got Jodie Meeks. You've got Patrick Patterson. You've got Kentucky. All you have to say is Kentucky is coming to Omaha. People are ecstatic."

Despite Creighton's rich basketball history (or maybe because of it), big-name college programs don't bring their teams to play on the Bluejays' home court. When Miami came in 2006, that marked the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to play at Creighton since Clemson on Dec. 15, 1962 (or two months after the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Kentucky last played at Creighton in 1940.

Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen, a friend from Tubby Smith's coaching days at Tulsa, recalled asking the then-Kentucky coach about a home-and-home series.

"No way," Smith said.

That highlights the dilemma Creighton and other so-called mid-major schools face.

"The frustration is in a lot of people's minds, they're crazy to come to our place to play," Rasmussen said. "We're too good.

"Yet, we're not good enough to belong in the NCAA Tournament. So it's frustrating."

The NCAA Selection Committee asks mid-major schools to strengthen their non-conference schedules. But that's not so easy to do when teams from the major conferences refuse to play a home-and-home series. Rasmussen has talked to such schools as Auburn and Clemson about a one-and-one-and-one deal: a game at each school plus a third game at a neutral site.

"We've had discussions," he said. "We haven't been able to make it a reality."

Creighton Coach Dana Altman recalled his efforts to play Kentucky in Louisville during the Smith era. The game could have been a homecoming for a Bluejays player, Johnny Mathies, who was a Male High graduate. Kentucky declined.

Kentucky is not alone in resisting such games. Schools want as many home games as possible in order to maximize revenues.

"There was a day and age in college basketball where economics didn't drive it quite as much," Rasmussen said.

This isn't that age.

Title IX, the federal program that mandates funding for a full spectrum of teams, puts the onus on the revenue-generating sports (read: football and men's basketball) to generate the money. A byproduct is the explosion of priority seating fees, corporate sponsorships and guarantee-games in which a non-threatening team gets a paycheck to serve as a designated loser.

Creighton, which has a rich tradition that includes such former coaches as Eddie Sutton, Hall of Famer Eddie Hickey and Willis Reed, looks to strengthen its schedule against top competition in so-called "exempt" tournaments.

Meanwhile, Creighton and its fans see a school from a major conference like Arizona get a bid to the NCAA Tournament and see a double standard.

In separate interviews, Perrault and Rasmussen noted that Arizona had only two victories on the opponents' home court while Creighton had eight.

"The schedule is one of the biggest topics here every year," Perrault said. "One of the big reasons the Bluejays are not in the NCAA (Tournament) is because of their schedule. Who did they beat? Who did they play? They have a very difficult time getting major programs to come here. Who wants to walk into a building with 17,000 people in it screaming at you? It's really a hard place to play."

That would be the Qwest Center Omaha, an arena built six years ago, in part to enhance the possibility of drawing top teams to Creighton. The NCAA held a sub-regional in the facility last year. The fans got to see eventual national champion Kansas, Kansas State All-American Michael Beasley and Southern Cal's O.J. Mayo in the flesh.

The fans want that treat. The 9,557 that watched Creighton outlast Bowling Green on Wednesday marked the largest crowd for an NIT first-round game. Creighton expects something closer to the average home attendance — 16,242, the 12th highest among Division I programs — when the Bluejays play Kentucky.

Rasmussen denied that the fans will vent their scheduling frustration on Kentucky.

"The frustration for the fans is they've not had the opportunity to see top programs in the country come to Omaha and play in person," the Creighton AD said. "They've had to watch on TV.

"This is their opportunity to see Jodie Meeks in person. I think you'll see more excitement than any kind of resentment."