OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Truman State at Creighton.
The game sticks out on the schedule of the nation’s eighth-ranked team, and not because it’s supposed to be a good one Saturday. The analytics website KenPom.com gives the Bluejays a 100 percent chance of beating their Division II opponent from Kirksville, Missouri.
Told that, Truman State coach Chris Foster burst out laughing.
“I don’t take it as an insult,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect too many people to give us much of a shot.”
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Foster’s school is named after the 33rd U.S. president. So in the spirit of Harry Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” credo, it must be asked: How does a game like this happen?
Blame the Big East.
The conference set up the made-for-TV “Big East Marathon” for Monday, Martin Luther King Day, and all 10 teams are participating. Five league games will be played in succession from early afternoon to late at night, all televised by FS1.
On Saturday, eight teams are playing conference games, and Georgetown meets UConn in a nonconference matchup full of memories of the old Big East. Creighton, which played Butler on Wednesday, initially was to have an open date Saturday. But the Big East told the Bluejays to find a game so they wouldn’t get more rest than its Monday road opponent, Xavier, which is playing at Butler on Saturday.
“They were not going to allow us to be the only team to have an off day going in and playing a team that had one day of prep,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “We had the building open, so we were able to do it.”
Big East spokesman John Paquette confirmed there was a mandate.
Given that the “Marathon” wasn’t finalized until late summer — after nonconference schedules are set — and that Division I teams are immersed in conference play in January, McDermott was in desperation mode. So he called Foster, who played for him at Northern Iowa from 2001-05. When Foster got the Truman job in 2014, he and McDermott discussed lining up an exhibition game someday.
Someday is Saturday.
The rub is that Creighton, as a Division I team, can’t play an exhibition after the regular season starts. So the game will count on the Bluejays’ record, as will the statistics, but it won’t be factored into their RPI.
Division II schools can play up to three exhibitions any time in the season. So it will be an exhibition for the Bulldogs (12-3) — and one that will earn them a $35,000 guarantee.
The Bulldogs had to re-arrange their schedule as well and are playing nationally ranked Division II opponents Southern Indiana and Bellarmine in Kirksville on Thursday and Friday. Right after the Bellarmine game, the Bulldogs will take a four-hour bus ride to Omaha. They’ll arrive about 2 a.m. and tip off against the Bluejays at noon.
Foster said the grind is worth it to his players. Most come from nearby states and are familiar with Creighton and the Big East.
“They see their games on TV all the time. Big crowds, guys that are projected to go in the draft, All-Americans,” Foster said. “So for them to be able to go from watching it to getting to live it for a day, I think, will be a great experience for them.”
The game is especially big for Connor Lusso and leading scorer Jake Velky. Lusso grew up in Omaha, and Velky, from Waverly, Iowa, has an aunt and uncle who live here and are Creighton season ticket holders.
The Bulldogs’ Cory Myers said he and his teammates have done their best to stay focused on their Division II opponents this week. Myers did admit to spending some time reading up on the Bluejays. He said he remembered watching Creighton scoring leader Marcus Foster on TV when Foster played at Kansas State.
“We’re blessed to have the opportunity on Saturday to play Creighton,” Myers said. “Big thanks to coach McDermott and coach Foster for putting it together.”
Despite KenPom’s certainty of victory for the Bluejays, McDermott is taking no chances.
“We’re going to play the game to win the game, and whatever that takes,” he said. “It’s the next game on the schedule, and it would be nice if we didn’t have to play our starters 30-plus minutes like they have been. If that’s what it takes to win the game, the most important thing is that we win that game.”
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