The sense of pride was palpable as both Creighton and North Carolina State earned their way into the NCAA Tournament.
One of the sides will be able to keep its head held high after Friday afternoon’s first-round game in the South Region at Denver.
For No. 11 seed NC State, the reversal of fortune has been stark following an 11-win season in 2021-22, that matched its lowest total since 1993-94.
“I’m proud of our guys to go from where we were at last year to turn this thing around,” NC State coach Kevin Keatts said. “We had a really, really great regular season.”
The Wolfpack (23-10) is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018, at the end of Keatts’ first season in Raleigh, N.C.
In sixth-seeded Creighton’s case, it was an in-season turnaround that not only salvages the season, it turned it into something special.
“It’s probably one of the more rewarding things that’s happened during my coaching career because I haven’t experienced it much,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. “We’ve had some teams that were in a rebuild mode where we lost some games, but never a team that was in the top-15, top-10 and then you lose six in a row and then you fight your way back to the Top 25. That’s really hard to do.”
An eight-game winning streak spanning January and February made the Bluejays (21-12) a contender in the Big East. They ended the regular season in third place.
“(It was) just the process that we went through and our ability to not lose our cool and stick with each other during that time,” McDermott said. “I’m really proud of them for that.
“A lot of teams might’ve packed it in in that situation. We didn’t, we kept on fighting. We lost six in a row and we’re a six seed. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.”
NC State lost three of its last four games, with one of those setbacks to Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champion Duke and the other two to Clemson, which is in the NIT.
Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner is one of five finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award to the nation’s top center. He’s a two-time winner of the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, and he’ll encounter a different type of post player in burly NC State big man DJ Burns Jr.
“I’m going to be ready regardless of who it is,” Burns said. “Doesn’t bother me.”
Kalkbrenner’s 71.4-percent shooting from the field is the top mark in the country, helping him to a team-leading 15.4 points per game.
NC State’s top scorers are guards Terquavion Smith (17.5) and Jarkel Joiner (17.1). The Wolfpack averages 78.2 points per game. Creighton has scored 76.6 points per game.
“They shoot a lot of 3s,” Smith said. “Even in transition, they’re going to get 3s.”
Creighton is 15-24 all-time in NCAA Tournament games. The Bluejays have won at least one game in 11 of their last 13 appearances in a postseason tournament.
NC State and Creighton have split the only two previous meetings. NC State won in the 1987 Rainbow Classic, while Creighton prevailed in the 2016 Paradise Jam.
Friday’s winner meets either Baylor or UC Santa Barbara in the second round.
–Field Level Media