Doug McDermott never ruled out the possibility of becoming a walk-on. He just didn't think it would happen. Creighton was waiting to hear whether redshirt senior Grant Gibbs would be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and the Bluejays had already exhausted their scholarships for the upcoming season. That meant McDermott -- if Gibbs was cleared for one final season of college hoops –- would potentially have his scholarship pulled to make room for one final roster addition.
McDermott was not confident he would be seeing his longtime friend and teammate on the court this season; Gibbs’ appeal was based on the claim that the redshirt year he sat out at Gonzaga while recovering from a torn labrum and the post-transfer holdover year at Creighton that coincided with knee surgery should be counted as a medical redshirt season. His chances of receiving a sixth-year extension seemed low.
The NCAA’s adjudication of eligibility questions is never easy to predict, and McDermott -- who joined Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart in Las Vegas as the only collegians selected to participate in Team USA's minicamp -- was prepared to enter his senior season without the floor leader and master distributor that had helped Creighton become one of the nation’s best mid-majors over the past two seasons.
The longer the NCAA took to examine Gibbs’ case, though, the more confident McDermott grew that Gibbs would return. “I thought it was a pretty big long shot at first,” McDermott says. “But when we found out the news, I wasn’t too surprised. I had a pretty good feeling about it, because I didn’t think they’d take so much time to do the research and then tell us no.”
On July 2, McDermott’s inclinations were confirmed: Gibbs was awarded another year of eligibility. And now Creighton –- with Gibbs, most of last season’s major contributors and the most unlikely walk-on in recent college hoops memory gunning for his third consecutive first-team All-America honor -– is one of the frontrunners to win the new Big East.
The Bluejays, who begin their first season in the new league after leaving the Missouri Valley Conference this offseason, bring back four starters and a cast of capable reserve contributors from last season’s MVC regular season and conference tournament championship team. According to Kenpom.com, Creighton averaged 1.16 points per possession in 2012-13, posted the nation’s best effective field goal percentage (58.2) and made major strides on the defensive end, giving up an average of 0.94 points per possession after yielding 1.02 one season prior. The Bluejays also beat Cincinnati in the Round of 64 to secure NCAA tournament wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history, defeated Wichita State (which advanced to the Final Four) twice during the regular season and notched impressive nonconference wins over Wisconsin and Cal.
All of those accomplishments were achieved with the same core group returning this season (save for center Greg Echenique, who graduated), and Creighton would have likely been picked to finish near the top of the Big East whether Gibbs returned or not. With Gibbs back, Creighton is the favorite.
“That’s always the goal, to win our conference,” McDermott says. “I think it’s definitely more realistic now, because we have Grant back, than it ever has been.”
There are obvious, statistical ways to gauge what Gibbs’ return could mean for Creighton this season. Gibbs’ 34.3 assist rate in 2012-13 ranked in the top 50, according to Kenpom; his 119.1 offense rating and 61.2 true shooting percentage were top-90 figures. He averaged 5.8 assists, 8.5 point and just over four rebounds per game. Gibbs’ numbers are solid, but his value transcends stat analysis.
Going back to his first year in Omaha, when coach Greg McDermott named Gibbs captain before he ever played a game, Gibbs has been one of Creighton’s most prominent leaders. He barks instructions to teammates, exerts at least some measure of control over a large share of Creighton’s offensive possessions and is just as encouraging an influence off the court as he is on it.
“First and foremost, Grant is one of the better leaders I’ve ever coached,” Greg McDermott says. “His value both on the court and in the locker room is really difficult to measure. To return someone with those qualities and the fact that he’s in his sixth year of eligibility from an experience standpoint is off the charts.”
A more specific contribution, one that goes back to Gibbs’ first season with the Bluejays, is his ability to direct precise post-entry passes to McDermott, a sequence described in detail by SI.com's Luke Winn during Creighton’s run to the 2012 MVC tournament championship.
It’s called the “Creighton Connection,” and Gibbs and McDermott have turned the play into a staple of the Bluejays’ offense. Gibbs and McDermott have developed so much trust, and are so in-tune with each other’s movements, that Gibbs regularly directs passes away from McDermott’s standstill location toward the spot he wants McDermott to move, catch and finish near the basket.
“Grant’s level of trust in Doug’s ability to catch a tough pass and turn it into a basket certainly exists,” Greg McDermott says. “When Grant passes to a certain spot, for Doug it’s something where, ‘That’s probably the direction I should turn, because I’ll probably have an easy basket.’”
That specific formation doesn’t come close to encompassing everything Gibbs does for Creighton on both ends of the floor. Gibbs’ general comprehension of Creighton’s offense, combined with his nuanced understanding of his teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, makes him a crucial component of the entire operation.
Plus, the Creighton Connection is merely one component of the high-flying offense Gibbs and McDermott have guided over the past two seasons. In 2013-14, as Creighton looks win its new league, Gibbs and McDermott have a chance to reprise their offensive mastery once more. Without Gibbs, the system would be missing something. It would be missing the Creighton Connection, and much, much more.