Anytime Nebraska and Creighton take the court against each other is a big day in basketball around the state, but Sunday's game in Omaha carries as much significance as ever for both teams for a variety of reasons.
The Huskers are coming in having lost two of their past three games at home, and desperately need to get back on the winning track to re-establish some sort of momentum entering their first run through the Big Ten Conference.
The Bluejays are on the opposite end of the spectrum, as they come in a perfect 6-0 on the year and ranked No. 22 in the coaches' poll. With strong NCAA Tournament aspirations, Creighton would love to add another win over a BCS opponent to its resume, and of course beating Nebraska is always a top priority.
As frustrating as the past few games have been for Nebraska, the players know full well what a win on Sunday could do for their season.
"It's definitely a huge game for us," junior forward Brandon Ubel said. "We've got to get back on the winning track. I mean, you drop two of three, and it doesn't look too good. You get a big win like this, that can kind of propel you and give you some momentum going into the rest of the non-conference and into conference play. It's definitely important for us to get this win. I think we all realize that."
Senior guard Toney McCray said that while the Nebraska-Creighton rivalry was obviously important to both teams, the Huskers were looking at the game more as just a chance to get back on the winning track after dropping two games to Oregon and Wake Forest that they knew they could have won.
"We've just got to go out there and just play," McCray said. "We worked too hard throughout the preseason and getting ready for this. Regardless of our record right now, we've got to go out there and play and make things happen for the team. Whether it's a top-ranked team or a low-ranked team, we don't have the luxury of taking any nights off right now."
Head coach Doc Sadler has never put more emphasis on the NU-CU series than any other game, mostly because he's always valued league games far more than non-conference contests.
This year was no different. Even though he recognized what a win over Creighton could do for his team, he said Nebraska's post-season fate would be determined by how it fared in Big Ten play.
Because Creighton doesn't have the luxury of 18 league games against BCS-level opponents, Sadler said this game would likely always mean a bit more to the Bluejays than it would for the Huskers in terms of the grand scheme of their seasons.
"We're fortunate that we have 18 games coming up, no matter what happens in preseason, that can get you into post-season play," Sadler said. "The Wichita States, the Creightons, are very good - they just don't get the same opportunities. Right now, if you look across college basketball, there are a lot of mid-major universities probably playing better than BCS schools, but when it comes to Selection Sunday, I ain't saying it's fair, I ain't saying it's right, I'm saying it's real.
"So it is a huge game for both teams because it is in the state of Nebraska, but as far as the big picture is concerned, and it's going to be taken the wrong way, but it's a much bigger game for them than it is us because of the 18 league games that we get starting in December. They don't get those. They're the best team in their league, they've got the best program in that league, but unfortunately they've got to finish first or second probably (to make the NCAA Tournament), and that's not right, because I can promise you there's not 65 teams or however many that are better than Creighton. I can promise you that."
Around the rim
***Sadler and Creighton head coach Greg McDermott go back a long way together in their coaching careers, and they've developed a good friendship over the years. However, Sadler said his relationship with McDermott would by no means change the tenor of the Nebraska-Creighton game.
"Oh no. I want to beat his brains out," Sadler said. "When you get to this level, competing against the coach is fun."
***Sadler had nothing but praise for what he's seen from Creighton on film this season. He said the effort the Bluejays have played with all year has been one of the biggest reasons for their success, and much of that has come from the leadership of sophomore forward Doug McDermott.
"This is probably the hardest-playing team that (Greg McDermott) has had, and I think a lot of that comes from his son," Sadler said. "He is a very, very good player that competes to win, and I think that's different with a lot of people. In the San Diego State game, I mean, he willed them to win, and you don't see that with a lot of players."
***Ubel remembers the last time he played at the Qwest Center two years ago as a true freshman. At the time, he said it was one of the most intimidating venues he'd ever played in, and he expects it to be just as rowdy on Sunday.
"That was probably my second road game that I was ever here for, so it was definitely the most hostile environment I had ever been in," Ubel said. "It was a little crazy, a little hectic… Obviously the environment when you get there, it's a fun atmosphere to play in, but I think we're still going to come in and play our game, play our pace and try to dictate that. In our approach, I don't think it'll be any different, but it's still a big game. They're a ranked opponent, and anytime you can play a ranked opponent this early in the season, it's definitely an opportunity for us to get a quality win."
***McCray said the biggest thing for Nebraska to turn things around was to bring the same energy the team has had in practice to the court on game days.
"I think we're close," McCray said. "A lot of things, it's not about playing hard or not having the guys to do it, it's just about executing. We do it in practice, but we've got to go out there and do it on the floor. We play so hard against each other in practice, we've just got to take what we do in here into what we do out there."
***Freshman guard Corey Hilliard sat out of practice on Thursday and Friday with an undisclosed injury. He is listed as day-to-day.