-- Last year, no one saw them coming. This time around, the Creighton Bluejays are neither underdogs nor unknowns. Ranked 15th and champion of the Missouri Valley Conference, Creighton comes into the NCAA tournament with respect, recognized as the No. 6 seed in the cutthroat West Region.
The Bluejays (29-4) are riding the most wins and best season in school history into their first-round game against 12th-seeded Central Michigan (24-6). Last season, they stunned No. 5 Florida in the first round. To get past their first-round opponent this time, star forward Kyle Korver must do something he's never done: shine in the postseason.
"I don't know why I didn't shoot so well the first two times [in the tournament]," said the senior. "Last year, I thought I was a little better. Hopefully this year, I'll be better still."
In his four previous NCAA tourney games, Korver -- who has averaged 45.2 percent from beyond the arc and 14 points per game for his collegiate career -- has scored 12.5 points per game, and shot an abysmal 29.7 percent from three-point range. In last season's stunning first-round, double-overtime upset of the Gators, Creighton won in spite of Korver, who shot 4 of 14.
"As a freshman, it was tough on him," said Creighton Coach Dana Altman. "As a sophomore, he got a lot of good looks that just didn't go down. Last year, he shot it okay. He's played well on the boards in all the games. He's done the other things. His shot just hasn't gone down for him like it has at certain times during the season."
But if this season is any indication, the tide may be turning. The 6-foot-7 Korver, the MVC tournament MVP and repeat conference player of the year, is having the best collegiate season yet.
A finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year and Wooden awards, Korver is averaging 17.7 points, shooting 46.7 percent from field and 47.7 percent from three-point range.
In a victory over Evansville, he made a school-record nine three-pointers, and against 10th-ranked Xavier, he scored eight three-pointers en route to a 32-point performance, despite the loss.
This year, he has 124 three-pointers to his name so far, ranking him third in the nation, and tying him for 17th in NCAA single-season history. For his career, he ranks seventh among the NCAA's all-time best in three-pointers (366), and 15th in three-point accuracy (45.2 percent).
If Creighton is going to defeat Central Michigan, Korver will have to continue to shoot well. In the Chippewas, the Bluejays find a formidable foe in the midst of a hot streak.
"Central Michigan is as good as any of the first-round teams we've faced in the last four years," said Altman. "I'm sure Central's coming into this game sure that they're going to win."
The champion of the Mid-Atlantic Conference, the Chippewas have won six straight games. Altman has warned his players against looking past Central Michigan in anticipation of a possible second-round game against Duke.
"I told our team, 'There will be no Saturday unless we get focused on Thursday,' " he said. "So I hope that our players are mature enough and that we have enough experience that that won't be a problem for us."
The Chippewas' primary weapon is 7-foot center and MAC player of year Chris Kaman. Kaman, who averages 22.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, towers over his Creighton counterpart, 6-8 Brody Deren.
"He's very agile," Altman said of Kaman. "He moves extremely well. He runs the floor very well. He's got great hands. He will present a lot of problems for us."
But if Creighton and Korver do what they're capable of doing, Central Michigan will be dealing with its own set of difficulties.
"We'll try to get Kyle some shots," said Altman. "Hopefully, Kyle will do a good job in picking and choosing his opportunities and won't try and force anything. He's been very efficient all year, and I see no reason for that to change during the tournament."
For his part, Korver isn't looking to do anything differently from what he's done in the regular season. "You can't really plan on shooting the ball well," he said. "It's just a thing that happens. We'll have to see."