WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Wichita State's Carl Hall remembers vividly when Creighton visited the Roundhouse last season. The two Missouri Valley Conference heavyweights went toe-to-toe for 40 minutes before the Bluejays pulled away late for the win.
He also remembers what happened when the Shockers traveled to Omaha, Neb.
They kept the Bluejays' Doug McDermott in check, and their best performance of the season in an 89-68 rout helped them wrap up the regular-season conference championship.
It was clear that the Bluejays and Shockers were the class of the Valley - they were the only teams with winning league records. And that appears to be the case again, with Creighton perfect through six games and the Shockers just a game behind in the standings.
Their burgeoning rivalry will be renewed Saturday in Wichita, and Hall - the senior forward of few words - got straight to the point.
"It's a big-time game," he said.
In what should certainly be a big-time atmosphere.
Charles Koch Arena, affectionately known around these parts as the Roundhouse, is expected to be sold out. The students will be back on campus, and they'll turn their attention toward one of the nation's mid-major darlings and the biggest reason they tick.
McDermott, a first-team All-American last season, is averaging 24.0 points and 7.4 rebounds for Creighton (17-1, 6-0). The son of coach Greg McDermott scored a season-best 39 points in a recent win over Missouri State, and is coming off a 31-point outburst against Northern Iowa.
"Northern Iowa was a little rough start, but I think I kind of settled in and started getting easier shots, so I think my confidence is at an all-time high," McDermott said. "Things are just rolling, so hopefully it will continue."
Things seem to be rolling for his entire team.
The Bluejays already have non-conference wins over the likes of Wisconsin, Arizona State and Nebraska, and their lone loss to Boise State suddenly doesn't look so bad given the way the Broncos have been playing. And since that defeat on Nov. 28, the Bluejays have won 11 straight to knock on the door of the top 10.
Only once during their winning streak have they even been tested, a 79-72 win at Illinois State. Otherwise, they've won every game by double figures.
"We don't often get teams that are ranked that high to Koch Arena, so it's a special opportunity for us," Wichita State coach Greg Marshall said before practice Friday.
"They were picked No. 1 (in the Valley) for a reason," he said. "They have so many pieces and weapons, and they've improved from last year, and they're undefeated and in first place and we're a game behind them, so a loss would mean separation and make it harder for us to catch up."
The lone loss for the Shockers (16-2, 5-1) happened Sunday at Evansville, and knocked them out of the national rankings. But it also came with Hall, their second-leading scorer and top rebounder, out for the seventh consecutive game with a broken thumb.
Hall returned for Tuesday night's win over Illinois State, and even though he's still trying to get into game shape, he'll be on the court against the Bluejays.
"Having him back and having a 10th healthy, eligible player, it's like I grew an arm back," Marshall said with a smile. "It's bizarre."
Yes, the Shockers are still a bit thin thanks to a string of lousy luck.
Over a span of just a few days in December, Hall went down with his injury, versatile wing player Ron Baker sustained a stress fracture to his foot, and Evan Wessel, arguably the team's top 3-point shooter, broke the little finger on his shooting hand. Marshall is hopeful that Baker will be able to return sometime in February, but Wessel finally resorted to season-ending surgery on Thursday.
"In the seven games without those three, we went 6-1. We're one game short of perfection," Marshall said. "Now if you watch us play, it was far from perfect basketball. It was grind-it-out, scratch-and-claw. But that's what I loved about it. They found a way to win."
Finding a way to win against Creighton should prove more difficult.
The Bluejays can start 18-1 for the first time in school history and win their seventh straight road game for the first time since 1962. They would also start 7-0 in the Valley for just the second time since rejoining the league in 1977.
But both coaches understand that nothing comes easy against each other in one of the nation's underappreciated rivalries. The teams have played 28 games decided by 12 points or less since the 1994-95 season, and neither coach expects Saturday to be any different.
"You want to try to beat the teams that are playing the best in your league, and Wichita had an outstanding year a year ago and were the league champions of the regular season," Greg McDermott said. "I think that makes it fun. These are the types of environments that players play for and what coaches coach for. This is what college basketball is all about."
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