Creighton outlasted Illinois State in overtime to win Arch Madness. (Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE)
ST. LOUIS -- The most frequent Creighton Connection, during the Bluejays' run to the Arch Madness title and their first NCAA tournament bid since 2007, has been Grant Gibbs to Doug McDermott. Gibbs, a 6-foot-4 junior point forward, has turned the low, angled post feed into an art form, delivering it on a knee-high bounce to McDermott, a 6-7 sophomore forward, at the exact moment he's sealed off his defender. The sure-handed McDermott would make the catch-turn-and-shoot move so quickly -- "It's a unique skill," Gibbs said, "and it makes my job easy" -- that he either scored or got fouled.
In Sunday's thrilling, 83-79 overtime win over Illinois State in the Arch Madness final, Gibbs led Creighton in assists (five, all to Doug, against zero turnovers) and McDermott was the leader in points (33, while Gibbs added a career-high 20). Even though the Scottrade Center scoreboard kept showing "Purina Dog Chow Replays," the Jays' offense, which scored 182 points in its final two Missouri Valley Conference tournament games, was serving up gourmet highlights. The duo responsible for many of them is the product of an unlikely reunion.
When Greg McDermott, now Creighton's head coach, was in his second season at Iowa State in 2007, he desperately wanted Gibbs, then top-150 prospect at Linn-Mar High in Marion, Iowa, to commit to the Cyclones. "At that period in the development of our program," McDermott said, "I thought I needed a Grant Gibbs in the locker room." ISU was lacking a glue guy, and Gibbs was a point guard who acted like a coach on the court.
Doug, then a freshman in high school, was well aware of how badly his dad coveted Gibbs. They would attend many of the same camps in Iowa, and somehow it would always be arranged for them to play on the same team, keeping Gibbs close to the family. Doug was shooting hoops in his driveway on the day in July 2007 when Gibbs called the house to announce his college decision: He was going to Gonzaga, a team that said he'd "been a fan of ever since I was a little kid."
"My dad was pissed when he got that news," Doug said. "But I remember him saying to Grant on the phone, 'If you ever need anything down the road, I'll be here.'"
Gibbs went off to Spokane, fulfilling a childhood dream, but soon realized that what was best for him as a fan was not best for him as a basketball player. He didn't fit in the Zags' system, and struggled to earn playing time as he battled injuries -- first a torn labrum in his shoulder, and then tendonitis in his knee that forced him to have multiple surgeries. In the summer of 2009, after Gibbs' redshirt freshman season, Doug traveled to Spokane to attend Gonzaga's elite camp, and they spent a weekend together. "Doug's one of those guys who, every time you see him play, you feel like he's gotten better," Gibbs said.
He monitored Doug's progress as he emerged as a star at Ames (Iowa) High alongside the nation's No. 1 recruit, Harrison Barnes, and Gibbs believed Doug wasn't getting nearly enough credit for how good of a prospect he was. Gibbs did not, however, have any expectation that they'd ever play together. Doug was never pursued by the Zags, only took visits to Northern Iowa, Creighton and Central Florida. In October 2009, he committed to UNI, where his dad had coached for five years before leaping to the Big 12.
Greg had no expectations he'd coach either player. The tale of him mis-evaluating, then reuniting with his son -- thinking that Doug wasn't a good fit for Iowa State, then taking the Creighton job, and having Doug decommit from UNI so he could play for his dad -- has been told many times during Doug's All-America sophomore season. There's no need to rehash it here. It's worth considering, though, that had everything stayed the same for the three of them, Gibbs would be a role player at Gonzaga now, Doug would be a star at Northern Iowa -- perhaps cutting down the same nets he did on Sunday, just in a different jersey -- and Greg would be at Iowa State, checking in on his son's progress from afar. They might have been fine, but they wouldn't be having this much fun.
By the time the '09-10 season ended, Gibbs had made up his mind to leave Gonzaga and was looking for a setting in which he could resurrect his college career. One of his initial thoughts was to re-connect with Greg McDermott, but Gibbs wasn't fond of the idea of transferring to Iowa State, a Big 12 program in turmoil. That April, when Greg left for Creighton -- a job and a conference that fit him better -- Gibbs said that "everything fell into place." He got his release from the Zags that May, left for Omaha, and made enough of an impression during his NCAA-mandated season off that teammates voted him captain for '11-12. It takes a special kind of leader, Greg says, to be named captain before you've played a single game.
The pieces fell into place for Creighton, too. They had a savvy senior point guard in Antoine Young, who was essentially a Bluejays lifer, having committed there before his sophomore year in high school. They added Rutgers transfer Greg Echenique, a 7-foot center, to anchor the middle; they had perimeter depth in Jahenns Manigat, Josh Jones and Austin Chatman, and over the summer, Gibbs got into sync with Doug, who blossomed into the Missouri Valley's best player, averaging 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. What they've formed is something that looks nothing like what Greg had the last time he coached at the mid-major level.
Doug told a story during Sunday's post-championship press conference of how he last stood on the victor's podium at Arch Madness in 2003, when he was in sixth grade. Greg's Northern Iowa team won that title, and Doug called it "one of the best weekends of my life." Those teams, though, never scored like the modern Jays, who've broken the 90-point mark nine times this season. ("I can't ever remember [Northern Iowa] putting up 90," Doug said.) Gibbs used to attend Greg's UNI camps, and remembers him running an entirely different system.
"That was grind it out, defensive basketball," Gibbs said. "He's done a tremendous job of adapting to what we have."
Greg's last Northern Iowa team, in 2006, averaged 60.9 possessions per game, which classified them as plodders; this Creighton team averages 67.3 possesions, which classifies them as up-tempo. They score like mad (ranking fifth nationally in offensive efficiency on kenpom.com) and defend, at times, like matadors (ranking 177th in defensive efficiency). When they're making shots, they're one of the best shows on hardwood. "We're not blessed with a lot of great individual defenders, but we are blessed with a lot of great individual offensive players," Greg said. "So we had to create a tempo that fit them the best -- and at times we've just gotta get out of their way and let them play."
In a timeout with under two minutes left on Sunday, after Illinois State had tied the game at 60-60, Greg was drawing up a play for Doug, then scribbled it out and said to Gibbs, "You know what? Screw it. If they're going to leave you open, knock down the shot." The Redbirds had been sagging off of Gibbs all game, fearing his post feeds to McDermott. And Gibbs -- despite the fact that his Twitter handle is DoubleGFor3 -- had yet to burn them from long range.
When it mattered, though, he knocked down the shot: With 1:29 left, he got the ball on the left wing, with his defender lagging back, and drilled a three to give Creighton a 63-60 lead. Gibbs then sank two free throws after ISU's Nic Moore committed an inexplicable foul with 11 seconds left, and scored five of the Jays' first seven points in overtime. Young iced the game with six free throws, and the celebration began.
Doug, who made a clean sweep of the Missouri Valley's regular-season and tournament MVP awards, only needed to score once in overtime for Creighton to win. But when the Jays appear in the NCAA tournament as a likely No. 6 seed, his teammates will get back to feeding him. Doug knows how to get leverage in the post, and Gibbs knows how to lead him. "Every single time," Doug said, "he puts it in the right spot."
When you're in the right spot at the right time, great things can happen. Gibbs needed to transfer to get here, Greg needed to change jobs, and Doug needed to switch recruiting commitments. They ruled Arch Madness; they're on their way to March Madness; and they're all, finally, where they were meant to be.