The last time the top-ranked team came to Omaha, Creighton’s fans were all on their feet 15 minutes before tipoff.
The teams were still in their locker rooms, yet you couldn’t see an empty seat. They shouted and clapped. They waved towels. It was the third-largest crowd in CHI Health Center history — and the noise level was peaking well before Creighton’s game against No. 1 Villanova actually began.
Jacob Epperson remembers. He wasn’t on the Jays roster yet, but he and his high school teammates watched on that 2016 New Year’s Eve afternoon from the stands.
“That was insane,” the sophomore forward said. “It was the perfect time to go, just to see all the fans out there just screaming while we’re playing against one of the top teams in the NCAA that year. It was pretty crazy, just to experience that.”
He’s assuming Saturday’s environment will be similar when the Jays host No. 1 Gonzaga. The CHI Health Center crowd rarely disappoints when there’s a marquee opponent taking the floor opposite CU, he said.
And he can’t wait.
“It’s like having a sixth man out there,” Epperson said.
It’s possible that the energy in the building could help determine the outcome.
CU will need all the help it can get against Gonzaga (7-0), which has one of the most potent offenses in the country. The Bulldogs rank second nationally in scoring (97.7 points per game) and first in shooting percentage (54.5 percent). They have six players averaging at least nine points per outing.
“They’ve showed why they’re No. 1 in the country,” junior Martin Krampelj said.
But Creighton’s players think they can compete, especially at home.
CU was a different team inside the CHI Health Center last year, which was particularly evident during the round-robin Big East schedule.
The Jays were outscored by an average of 6.5 points while compiling a 3-6 road record in league play.
But at home against those same teams? CU went 7-2, outscoring them by an average of 9.8 points per game. One of those losses was the controversial defeat to No. 5 Xavier, decided by a foul call just before the final buzzer.
“When the fans are into it and it’s loud, it’s hard for (opponents) to communicate with each other,” coach Greg McDermott said. “You never know if a couple communication mistakes can be the difference in a close game. We need our crowd.”
Villanova’s players talked about that following their 80-70 win over then-No. 10 Creighton back in 2016. The nation’s No. 1 team was pushed until the end as the home fans rooted CU on.
The Wildcats couldn’t hear play calls from the bench. They had to relay messages one by one across the court, like a game of telephone.
The atmosphere was similar when the Jays upset Villanova last season, according to Creighton’s players. There were other raucous games, too.
Saturday — regardless of the result — will be memorable because of that. The Jays hope the advantage pays off.
“When you’re at tipoff, you get goose bumps,” Krampelj said. “Everybody’s locked in. Everybody wants us to win in the arena. It’s going to be an exciting game.”