Last year the Creighton men’s basketball team ended the regular season 4-14 in Big East play and tied for ninth in the conference standings.
This season the Bluejays improved their conference win total by five games (9-9), placed sixth and will play in the postseason for the 18th time in the past 19 years.
Creighton accepted an invitation to the NIT and will host Alabama (18-14) in a first round NIT matchup on Tuesday night at 8 p.m.
“It’s a huge step from where we were last year,” junior guard Maurice Watson Jr. said. “Around this time we were about to get ready for this time off and get back in for spring workouts.”
The Bluejays (18-14) have lost five of their last six games, but picked up a convincing 100-59 win on senior day against St. John’s, and lost four of those games by less than eight points.
Seniors Geoffrey Groselle and James Milliken combined to score 41 points against the Red Storm.
The Jays entered March 5 with an opportunity to finish as high as fourth place with a victory in the final game of the regular season, but No. 5 Xavier held off a late Creighton comeback to drop the Jays to the No. 6 seed for the Big East Tournament.
At Madison Square Garden in New York City, Cole Huff scored a career-high 35 points and Creighton rallied from a 14-point deficit, but eventual-champion Seton Hall defeated the Bluejays 81-73 in the Big East quarterfinals on Thursday night.
“We’re over it,” Huff said. “No matter how much we think about it and wish we could have done things different it’s not going to change the outcome. We lost to the team that won the conference tournament, and I don’t know what seed they ended up being in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s a great team. We have nothing to hang our heads about and we just have to move on and get ready for this tomorrow.”
Less than a month ago, Creighton was making its case for a possible at-large selection.
Entering their game at Butler on Feb. 16, the Bluejays held an 8-5 Big East record and 17-9 overall while holding onto third place in the Big East race.
“We were on the bubble at that time,” McDermott said. “That thought was a million miles away a year ago in February. So the fact that James and Geoff have led us back to the point of relevance is a credit to their leadership.”
The Big East coaches projected the Bluejays to finish near the bottom of the conference, but with three weeks remaining, the team had its sights on finishing close to the top and making a run in the conference tournament.
“I feel like we weren’t satisfied with being just fourth or fifth,” Milliken said. “We wanted to win the whole thing.”
Creighton also had the chance to extend its three-game winning streak before returning to Omaha for the final two home games of the regular season.
The Bluejays lost by 13 in Indianapolis to the Bulldogs and followed their performance by dropping single-digit games to Marquette at home, and Providence and Xavier on the road.
“It’s definitely good to not end our season that way,” Huff said. “[We] get another opportunity to play some basketball and send our seniors off on a better note and make a better name for this program.”
Tuesday’s Creighton-Alabama winner will play either St. Bonaventure or Wagner in the second round of the NIT.
The Jays and Crimson Tide met once previously on March 16, 2012 in the NCAA Tournament. Creighton defeated Alabama 58-57.
The 2016 NIT marks Creighton’s 11th appearance in the tournament and first since 2009.
“I’d rather be playing in the other tournament, but given where we started this is a good step for our team,” coach Greg McDeromtt said. “It’s an opportunity to keep practicing and play some really quality opponents.”
Coached by former NBA champion as a player and 2006 NBA Coach of the Year Avery Johnson, the Crimson Tide are led by senior guard Retin Obasohan. He is one of two players on Alabama’s roster to average double-figure scoring.
“They’re going to be physical and they’re going to be aggressive, obviously they have great coaching experience in coach Johnson coming from the NBA,” Huff said. “It’s going to take a lot of heart for us to get the job done, but that’s the beauty of it.”
Similar to the Bluejays, the Crimson Tide have lost five of its last seven games.
“It’s like we’re kind of looking in the mirror right now with a team who’s fought hard,” Watson said. “They have some edge to them just like we have some edge to us, so it’ll be good to give the fans a show tomorrow night.”
Alabama and Creighton are two of 17 at-large teams in the 32-team NIT field. The other 15 teams earned automatic bids because they won their regular season conference championship, but did not qualify for the NCAA tournament.
“You’re in a new tournament so everybody is the same,” McDermott said. “We have to win three games to get back to New York City and that would be a great opportunity for us.”
Creighton students with valid student IDs will be admitted free of charge to Tuesday’s game. Students are permitted to start lining up inside CenturyLink Center Omaha beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, and distribution of tickets will begin at 6:30 p.m.
“We’re in it to win it,” Huff said. “It’s not quite the NCAA Tournament, but it’s the next best thing. We’re going to play hard and try to compete to win it all.”