Jays proves team is more than solo act
MAR 11, 2013 12:00p ET
"I couldn't move it six inches (Saturday)," Wragge, Creighton's 6-foot-7 sixth man and 3-point specialist, explained after helping his Bluejays outlast Wichita State, 68-65, to cinch a second straight Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship. "So the Indiana State game was kind of just 'survive and (advance).' (In the finals), it felt a lot better. I was able to get my hand up there on my shot."
Even with a wounded wing, Wragge netted 15 points on five treys, four in the first half, almost every one a back-breaker to the Shockers.
Although the release on each of those bad boys also stung the Jays forward like the Dickens. It's like your mom used to say: This is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you, kiddo.
"But it's Sunday. It's Arch Madness," offered Wragge, who was 5-for-9 from beyond the arc Sunday and 6-for-12 for the tourney. "And you've got to find a way to kind of get through that."
The Eden Prairie, Minn., native had landed wrong during a fall in Friday's quarterfinal win over Drake. He'd been using a combination of blue athletic tape and creams to soldier through the rest of the weekend. Good thing, too: When Wragge hits at least three treys in a game this season, the Jays are 13-0. When he's right, the kid puts the "stretch" in what coaches like to call a "stretch four" -- a big man with a little man's range.
"Ethan Wragge is kind of like your pressure-relief button," teammate Josh Jones said. "When all else fails, you can look for Ethan to hit a three."
Creighton coach Greg McDermott had said last week that it would take a star turn from someone other than preseason All-American Doug McDermott for the Jays to bring the nets back to Omaha for the eighth time since 1999. It was a prescient comment, too: With the younger McDermott (5-of-13 shooting, 14 points) being harassed or denied by the Wichita defense, the load was carried by Wragge, Grant Gibbs (11 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Jahenns Manigat (16 points), whose driving layup with 12 seconds left pushed the Creighton lead to three while snapping a 10-0 Wichita scoring run.
"A lot of us get caught watching Doug so much, the way he makes it look so effortless to go out there and score," Wragge said. "But whenever we're able to give him some help, then our team just starts clicking on all cylinders."
To drive home that point, the elder McDermott showed his guys a bracelet he was wearing in honor of Conrad Adam, a teenager in Pierre, S.D., who's a prep teammate of Jays commitment Zach Hanson. Hanson is battling cancer, and recently lost a leg in the fight. On the bracelet, it read: "No one fights alone."
"At times, I think people thought we were a one-man team," the Jays coach continued. "And I think that idea has been put to rest (Sunday)."
What didn't go to rest were the questions, the wondering, the uncertainty of Creighton's future in a conference they've dominated on the men's basketball side of the equation.
The Jays brought a healthy crowd, even by Jays standards — they’re routinely the top fan draw at Scottrade Center, despite a seven-hour drive from campus — because, in part, of the smoke signals that this could be the program’s Arch Madness farewell. Rather than dissipate, the whispers that Creighton will be invited to join the new basketball-first Big East, that it’s a “when” and not an “if,” get louder by the day.
Which made for a few awkward moments, on several fronts. The elder McDermott, a Valley man who played his college ball at Northern Iowa and won MVC titles with the Panthers and Jays as a coach, has been reluctant to weigh in throughout the weekend. But he did offer this on Sunday:
"If it happens, it will be very bittersweet for me because I love this league, I love the people that run this league, but I also understand the dynamics of college athletics today. And whether that decision's been made or there's an invitation even forthcoming, I don't know."
MVC commissioner Doug Elgin says that he doesn't know either, but admits the speculation has put him in a rather uncomfortable position, at times. McDermott is an old friend; so is the coach's boss, Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen. Elgin and Rasmussen shared a makeshift stage Sunday at center-court during the postgame awards presentation, just as they did a year ago, trading grins even as Rome threatens to burn all around them.
"I love Bruce,” chuckled Elgin, whose league has had the same contiguous, 10-team membership since 1995, a remarkable feat given today’s collegiate climate. “I have no more respect for any person than I do (with) Bruce. He’s a great administrator. He’s raised the bar (at Creighton) perceptibly in the times that he’s been the athletic director, and before (that). And he’s just a good man and he’s got their program going in the right direction.
"You know, I think the issue at hand is whether they're going to go or stay, and that's way out of our control, and I respect any decision any institution makes with regard to where they belong. And if, in fact, we lose members -- I hope we don't lose any of our members -- but if we do lose a member, we're going to be fine. We're certainly not defined by one school and one institution. We're going to go on and be a basketball-centric, relevant, top-8 (RPI) league."
To wit: Sunday's crowd of 16,659 was the second-best ever for an MVC title game, trailing only the 22, 612 drawn in 2007. The four-day cumulative attendance -- 71,029 -- was also the second-best on record. Arch Madness has drawn 50,000 fans for 11 straight seasons.
If the Jays don't want a piece of this kind of action, there are plenty of private schools that will.
"I mean, I think it was a hugely successful tournament," Elgin continued. "(The staff) worked so hard on this, to run a perfect, NCAA-parallel tournament, and it was a grand-slam home run."
At the worst, it was a triple with eyes. There were a few eyebrow-raising snapshots along the way, too, from a Creighton fan hitting a half-court shot during a $50,000 pregame contest but failing to win the cash prize to the constant condensation on the floor (“It slows you down and kind of slows the game down a lot,” the Shockers’ Malcom Armstead said of the frequent stoppages).
There was Austin Chatman's second-half free throw getting stuck between the rim and the backboard with 3:32 left in the game; Wichita's furious 15-3 rally that trimmed the Jays' lead to 66-65; and CBS affiliates cutting away early from the last few minutes of a close contest (to show Indiana vs. Michigan) in several major MVC markets, prompting Elgin to release a statement in which he termed the network's decision "disrespectful to our two teams and to every institution in our conference. This was our championship game, for goodness sake. CBS needs to apologize."
So, hey, even if wasn't a grand slam, it sure as heck wasn't boring. The final stanza gave us a strange, unexpected Sunday with strange, unexpected heroes dancing at center stage.
"It think our team, once they see me hit some (treys), they kind of get excited, get rolling," Wragge allowed. "If I get two in a row, we get that little extra pep in our step, maybe we're a little faster on defense. And I'm a guy, once I get good to go, I'm kind of searching for that next one right away."
Short memory. Killer instinct. Serious backbone, too. You might remember Wragge from a year ago, when he became the subject of death threats after a hard foul on then- North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall in the third round of the 2012 NCAA tourney. That collision knocked the Tar Heels star out of the rest of the dance, a blow from which Carolina never recovered.
But did you know that Ethan's not even the best basketball player in his family? That honor goes to his mother, Kari Kramme Wragge, an Iowa native who hooped at Midland University in Nebraska. Mamma Wragge once blocked 12 shots in a single game; A redshirt junior, Ethan's racked up 18 blocks over his entire Creighton career.
"Ethan knows his role," Kari Wragge said of her son, "and he knows what he's supposed to do."
Ease the tension.
Start the flow.
Let fly, baby.
"If I get a feeling after my first one, if that one comes off smooth and good," Wragge said, smiling, "the next one comes off just the same."
It's Sunday. It's Arch Madness. You find a way.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com