PHILADELPHIA -- Over a period of three years, Duke coaches took at least 10 recruiting trips to Ames, Iowa, in hot pursuit of a future All-American. By the end of the breathless courtship, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant Steve Wojciechowski knew the Little Cyclones so well they can still recite the school's clever slogan -- Ames High, Aims High!
It could be remembered as the most futile recruiting expedition in Duke history. The Blue Devils lost Harrison Barnes, the country's No. 1 player, to rival Carolina. But they also completely overlooked another future All-American, Creighton's Doug McDermott.
"Based on what we know now we would have loved to have him," said Wojciechowski, who sat courtside and scouted McDermott on Friday afternoon. "Watching him in high school, you always felt like he'd be a really good college player."
No one knew that McDermott would evolve into one of the elite players in college basketball, the type who can take a program on his shoulders and carry them deep in the NCAA Tournament. Even his own father didn't recruit him to Iowa State.
On Sunday, when No. 7 Creighton plays No. 2 Duke, McDermott will get a chance to beat the team he grew up rooting for.
"I remember I was star-stuck when I saw Coach K come to my high school," said McDermott. "There were no hard feelings," he added. "I felt like my game fit the mid-major scene a little better. I dreamed of playing at a school like that, but at the same time they had to go their separate ways and I'm happy where I'm at."
On Friday McDermott led Creighton to the Round of 32 for the second consecutive year. But just squint, and it's easy to see McDermott in Duke blue and white instead of the Bluejay hue. With better footwork than a Zumba instructor and savvier angles than a Memphis pool shark, McDermott has emerged as the most fun player to watch in college basketball.
He dominated No. 10 Cincinnati in Creighton's 67-63 victory, scoring a variety of duck-ins, bank shots and converting all 11 of his free throws. McDermott turned the ball over five times, but after adjusting to the loose whistle of the referees, he just kept figuring out ways to score.
"When he takes a shot and doesn't make it, you're, like, relieved," said Cincinnati assistant coach Darren Savino. "That's how good he is."
McDermott's 27 points came on 15 shots, including shooting 2-for-4 from three-point range. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, McDermott is skinny enough that his uniform looks two sizes too big. He still wears a white undershirt under his uniform, typically something freshmen do to hide their skinny arms.
"He's bulky now compared to what he was," said Creighton assistant Darian DeVries, accidentally identifying why few power-conference schools showed serious interest.
McDermott's dominance comes from his craftiness. With three minutes remaining and Creighton clinging to a two-point lead, McDermott snared a post feed and in one sweeping motion darted to the basket and drew the fifth foul on Cincinnati's Justin Jackson.
Savino said from his vantage it was hard to tell if Jackson fouled him. But McDermott moved so swiftly and drew so much contact that it would have been hard for the officials not to call it.
He hit two free throws. One of the Bearcats best players left the game. And his basketball genius -- great angles, crafty footwork and situational knowledge -- were all on display.
"He's smart; as soon as he knew he had an angle on Justin, he's going this way and he jumps right into him," Savino admired. "He's tremendous at angles. Riding you and catching it and laying it in or getting it off quick. That'll be a tough game on Sunday."
DeVries is the longest standing member of Creighton's staff. In recruiting, it's all about angles, too. And he'd recruited McDermott hard until the dark day when he found out that he'd committed to Northern Iowa. Ben Jacobson, the Northern Iowa coach, is McDermott's godfather. Duke assistant Chris Collins remembers Coach K and Wojo returning from recruiting trips to Ames and remarking what a good player he'd be in the Missouri Valley.
Then a chain reaction occurred that brought Doug McDermott to Creighton. Dana Altman left for Oregon and Greg McDermott beat the posse at Iowa State by moving to Creighton. (You can argue whether Creighton is actually a better job, but that's for another day).
The Creighton staff suddenly had an angle, and much like Doug McDermott, they exploited it nimbly.
"I won in the end because we decided to hire his dad," DeVries said with a laugh about the recruiting battle.
Soon enough, Doug McDermott became Dougie McBuckets, pump-faking and glass-kissing his way through the Missouri Valley. He averaged 14.9 points as a freshman and 23 points the past two years. His trademark has become his efficiency, as he shot 56 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point range and 86 percent from the free-throw line. After his 27-point outburst against Cincinnati, point guard Grant Gibbs had no idea McDermott was that prolific.
"That's kind of him," he said. "Super efficient. Playing with him and being engulfed in the game, I never would have realized he had 27. He's a silent killer like that."
Needless to say, the Duke assistants watching courtside were impressed. McDermott had been Ames High's sixth man his junior year. And he'd played almost exclusively in the post, meaning that some of his touch and feel were lost.
Few have witnessed his evolution more than the Duke staff, who overlooked him four years ago and will be game-planning like mad to stop him Sunday.
"He's terrific," Wojciechowski said. "Not that he wasn't a real good shooter in high school. He's become a deadly shooter."
The kid from Ames high did indeed aim high, going from starstuck around Coach K to a potential nemesis. With another monster game, McDermott could make all those recruiting trips to central Iowa feel a bit more futile.