Jays save best for last, stop eight-game skid vs. SIU

ST. LOUIS -- So you want to turn your middling mid-major college basketball program into one that is nationally recognized and has a chance to knock off one of the sport's powerhouses in the NCAA Tournament at the end of nearly every season?

Go to Omaha, Neb., the Midwestern city best known for its beef, where Creighton University has done what so many small colleges would like to do -- beef up its program so it can compete with any team in the country.

When Dana Altman became Creighton's basketball coach in 1994, about 39,000 fans came out to watch the Bluejays play -- in the entire home schedule. This season, the Bluejays averaged nearly 16,000 fans for each of their 14 home games in the four-year-old Qwest Center, a $291 million facility financed by the city and private funds.

"We gave them a reason to drink beer during the winter," said Creighton athletics director Bruce Rasmussen, joking about the fact that beer can be sold during Bluejays' games now because the new arena is off-campus and located downtown.

Omaha fans have learned that watching the Bluejays play basketball isn't a bad experience, either. Creighton again claimed an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday with its 67-61 upset of No. 11 Southern Illinois in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at Scottrade Center.

It will be the Bluejays' seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1999, a mark of consistency that would make many larger programs envious.

"It's a great feeling," Creighton guard Nate Funk said. "This is my third time here, and it doesn't get any better. All that preseason hype doesn't mean anything if you don't finish it out."

With Funk and fellow seniors Nick Porter and Anthony Tolliver leading the way, the Bluejays again look like a team capable of pulling off an upset or two in the NCAA Tournament. Creighton beat No. 7 seed Louisville in the first round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament, then stunned No. 5 seed Florida in double overtime in the opening round in 2002.

"We always feel good going into the tournament," Altman said. "It's a crapshoot with matchups and who's playing well and who isn't playing well. Hopefully, we'll get a good draw and play well."

Creighton's ability to keep Altman is one of the biggest reasons it no longer can be considered a true mid-major program. The Bluejays beat the big boys, spend money (sort of) like the big boys and draw fans like the big boys.

"That doesn't guarantee it will happen, but it makes it easier," Rasmussen said. "If you're going to talk about being a Top 25 program, you can't just talk the talk. You've got to walk the walk."

Altman, who grew up in Nebraska and coached a junior college in the state, has turned down several opportunities to leave Creighton, a Jesuit university with an enrollment of about 6,000 students. In the past several years, Altman has interviewed with larger schools such as Georgia, Iowa, Iowa State and Tennessee, but he kept coming back to Creighton, which reportedly is paying him an annual salary close to $1 million.

"I think loyalty is developed by doing things you don't have to do," Rasmussen said.

Altman has needed Creighton's loyalty in parts of the past two seasons. After the Bluejays missed the NCAA Tournament in 2006 -- a campaign thwarted by season-ending injuries to Funk and guard Josh Dotzler -- many fans wondered earlier this season whether they would be relegated to the NIT again or, worse, left out of the postseason altogether.

Creighton lost five of its first 13 games, falling at Nebraska, Dayton, Fresno State, Hawaii and Indiana State. Even after Creighton seemed to right its ship during conference play (the Bluejays won nine of their next 11 games after losing to the Sycamores), Altman still wasn't satisfied with the way his basketball team was performing.

When the Bluejays lost consecutive games to Drexel at home and at Illinois State in mid-February, leaving them dangerously close to falling out of competition for an NCAA at-large bid, Altman knew things had to change.

"This season was just a little disappointing because our fans' expectations were just so high," he said. "We didn't play well in November and December. Most of the kids are from the Midwest, and they were carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. They felt like they were letting everybody down."

Perhaps no Creighton player felt that burden more than Funk, who missed all but six games last season because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. The 2006 season was supposed to be his final year at Creighton, but he petitioned the NCAA for an extra season of eligibility and was awarded it. Funk, who averaged 17.8 points and 5.1 rebounds in 2004-05, was named the preseason MVC Player of the Year this season.

"We play about 10 different ways," he said. "We haven't been consistent at all. You've got to adjust during a season. With our personnel, we had a couple of guys leave and had some injuries."

Against the Salukis, the Bluejays proved they're versatile enough to press and run up and down the court, as well as capable of playing with the same blue-collar ethic as Southern Illinois.

The Salukis, the top seed in the MVC Tournament and a possible No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the NCAAs, had defeated Creighton eight straight times. The Bluejays last beat the Salukis in the 2003 MVC tournament final, although they lost the two regular-season meetings this year by a combined five points.

"You almost couldn't consider it a rivalry anymore because they had just dominated us," Funk said.

But Creighton jumped on the Salukis early, leading by seven points early in the second half and by as many as 14 in the second. Funk scored 19 points and was named the tournament's most outstanding player. Tolliver outplayed Southern Illinois' Randal Falker, scoring 15 points to go with 13 rebounds -- his sixth double-double of the season. Porter had 15 points, six assists and five boards.

"I just knew I wasn't going out a loser," Funk said. "We've gone through a lot of ups and downs this season, but it's always nice to finish like this. Hopefully, we can keep it going and make some noise in the tournament."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.