The two NCAA Basketball Tournament opponents came to Indianapolis this week from opposite directions.
UCSB flew in from the Big West Tournament in Las Vegas. Creighton flew in from the Big East Tournament in New York.
The Gauchos (22-4) were soaring high after a 16-point win over UC Irvine — their 18th victory in the last 19 games. The Bluejays (20-8), reeling from the suspension of their coach the previous week, had been laid low by a 17-point defeat to Georgetown.
Creighton is still ranked No. 19 in this week’s Associated Press poll with 411 points and seeded No. 5 for the tournament. But those recent events have convinced several pundits to predict that UCSB — a No. 12 seed which received only two points in the poll — will upset Creighton in Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. PDT opener at Lucas Oil Arena.
“This is a team capable of beating Creighton and challenging the winner of Virginia-Ohio,” wrote Sporting News’ Bill Bender. “This is the 5-12 upset we like.”
“This one seems ripe for the picking,” wrote Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com.
But Creighton was still crowing like the Bluejays of happiness during a Zoom press conference on Monday.
“I’m over it,” coach Greg McDermott said of Creighton’s most recent setback. “Like I told the guys, if they wanted to hang their heads for an hour or so after the game, go ahead and do it. But by the time you put that head to the pillow, it’s over.
“When you have a great win over a UConn team the night before, you can’t let that go to your head, either. You’ve got to get ready for the next one. We had one where we weren’t ourselves, and that hasn’t happened to this team at all this year.
“That thing is long gone in the rear-view mirror.”
McDermott’s colorful analogies are what got him into trouble in the first place.
“Guys, we got to stick together,” he told his team two weeks ago after a defeat at Xavier. “We need both feet in. I need everybody to stay on the plantation. I can’t have anybody leave the plantation.”
The racial insensitivity of the “plantation” reference stirred a public outcry and got him a week’s suspension from Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen. McDermott made a public apology and was back on the sidelines for the Big East Tournament, guiding the Bluejays to victories over Butler and UConn before the Georgetown debacle.
“I have never used that analogy and it is not indicative of who I am as a person or as a coach,” McDermott said in a public statement. “I am deeply sorry. I have apologized to our student-athletes and to our staff, as well as to President Hendrickson and Director of Athletics Bruce Rasmussen.”
Team captain Mitch Ballock was projecting nothing but “positivity” during Monday’s Zoom conference.
“We just have to come together and stay together because we win or lose as a team, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “So, just find some joy in it.
“Obviously, when you’re down 25-30 points (to Georgetown), it’s tough to smell the roses and really look at the bright side. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to find some positivity going forward and really get the guys’ minds in the right spot.”
Ballock, a 6-5 senior wing player, is the only Bluejay remaining from Creighton’s last NCAA Tournament team of 2018. His experience at that event taught him to take the underdog Gauchos seriously.
“In March, anything can happen,” he said. “UMBC (No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County) actually beat (No. 1) Virginia on the same court right after our game, so when you see things like that …
“In this stage of the season, everybody is good. Everybody is a high-level basketball team, playing at a high level. You just have to approach every game like you’re playing the No. 1 seed or you’re playing the No. 16 seed … because you’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
McDermott was impressed after watching “four or five of Santa Barbara’s games over the course of the last 18 hours.”
“They’re a very talented team,” he said. “They’re a very experienced team that’s really good on both ends of the floor. I think they’ve won 18 out of 19, something like that, so they’re obviously playing at a high level right now.
“They won their league outright and won their conference tournament, so we’ll have our hands full. But we’re excited for a week of preparation. I know the guys are thrilled to take the court on Saturday afternoon.”
McDermott had high praise in particular for Gaucho guard JaQuori McLaughlin. The 6-foot-4 senior won both Big West Conference Player of the Year and Tournament MVP honors, and he’ll bring team-leading averages of 16.2 points and 5.2 assists into Saturday’s game.
“He’s terrific,” McDermott said. “Obviously he’s a high-level scorer, but his assist-to-turnover ratio … going into their tournament, he had something like 120 assists and 40 turnovers (119-46). He also really makes plays for his teammates.
“He plays with really good pace. He doesn’t get sped up and he doesn’t take a lot of bad shots, so he’s really, really efficient. He’s a very good player who was the Player of the Year in the league, obviously, and deservedly so, from what I’ve seen. He’s a talented young man.”
The Bluejays are a balanced team that starts five players who average at least 10 points per game. Four of them are major three-point threats. Creighton ranks 17th nationally with an average of 9.7 threes per game.
Ballock, their top gun from distance with 72 makes, said they won’t be intimidated by the big stage of the cavernous Lucas Oil Stadium.
“At the end of the day, it’s just all the same distance from the rim,” he said. “It’s all the same height and everything.
“You’ve just got to keep that same approach and just let it fly.”
And that’s true whether you’re coming from the big-time Big East or the smaller Big West.