By Lenn Robbins ,The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
Ryan Hawkins was driving his 2014 Silverado down Dodge Street when he looked up, literally saw himself, and tapped the brake pedal. He continued to roll down the street at a snail’s pace.
“I wanted to soak it in,” he said. “One of my friends texted me. He said, “Did you see that?”
If you’re a Creighton basketball player, you get accustomed to seeing your likeness on billboards throughout downtown Omaha. Or getting stopped in Target by a family of four and having a half-hour conversation about all things Bluejays basketball. Or taking the court for every game at CHI Health Center to a sellout crowd of 17,413 fans. Every game.
“It’s kind of like a hidden gem in the middle of America,” said Hawkins. “And I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
If Creighton is the hidden gem of college basketball – a neat trick in this age of social media – than Hawkins is the discovered jewel. He was leading Northwest Missouri State to its third Division II national championship in five years when he began thinking about a new challenge for his super senior season.
Hawkins had taken the one-hour drive from his hometown of Atlantic, Iowa to Omaha many times. He was one of the 17,413 fans that make every Creighton home game a happening. He knew about the new NBA-quality practice facility. He knew that if you make it at Creighton, well, his coach said it best.
“Our guys are rock stars wherever they go around town,” said Greg McDermott, who might be on the short list of underappreciated coaches.
The Bluejays, pulled away from Marquette for a 74-63 win in the Big East Conference tournament quarterfinals in The Garden on Thursday. Creighton (21-10) and will meet No.1-seed Providence (25-4) in one of Friday’s semifinals. No.2 Villanova (24-7) will face No.3 UConn (23-8) in an old-school Big East rivalry that’s been revived.
The Bluejays really had little right going 12-7 in league play. They were the youngest team in the league at the start of the season and that was before point guard Ryan Nembhard, the Big East Newcomer of the Year, was lost in late-February after undergoing wrist surgery.
Another freshman, Trey Alexander, replaced Nembhard and Creighton won three of its last five. The Bluejays remained poised when Marquette made two late runs, getting to within 63-61 with three minutes left.
“I take timeouts when my team looks unsure, scared or panicked,” said McDermott. “When I looked out there, even when they made the run, I didn’t see that.”
Of course, he didn’t. He’s a got a team of rock stars.
This Big East tournament has been rocking, thanks in part by the return of Connecticut. The Huskies have the kind of frenetic fan base and history of success that has many thinking they are the most likely candidate to threaten Villanova for conference supremacy.
But the hidden gem known as Creighton may have something to say about that. As McDermott pointed out, the Bluejays are the only show in town. There are no pro sports in the state and Nebraska basketball is bastard stepsister to the football program.
When asked about the program’s Top 10 attendance record, McDermott corrected this reporter.
“We’re top five in attendance, not top 10,” he said.
Jason Baum, Creighton’s newly hired executive associate athletic director who worked at Rutgers and Boston College has been to most campuses in America. When he visited Omaha, he experienced what many first timers do.
Call it the Great Creighton Epiphany.
“I went on their Pink Out night,” Baum said referring to Creighton’s annual game to raise money and awareness for the fight against cancer. “Everyone in the building is in pink. Seventeen thousand people in pink. And I wasn’t expecting to see facilities that I’d match against any in the nation.
“I remember thinking on the flight home, “This place is a gem.”
Which brings us back to the jewel. Hawkins was about as under recruited as it gets. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward is 37-percent shooter from behind the arc and averages six boards. He led the way with 18 points on 4-of-7 shooting from behind the arc, six rebounds and three steals.
The last time Creighton played Providence they got torched 72-51. It was their first game without Nembhard. There are no guarantees in this tournament. The Friars barely got past Butler, 66-62. No.2-seed Villanova survived a last-second half court heave to edge St. John’s, 66-65.
“None of us are surprised by this,” said Nova coach Jay Wright.
Nor should anyone be surprised if Creighton cuts down the nets in The Garden next year if not this. And no one should be surprised if the Bluejays ruin more than a few March Madness brackets.
“I think it’s a great basketball place,” said McDermott. “And it’s okay — people don’t really know about us and think about us, but as long as this time of year our name keeps popping up, that’s just fine with me.”