Grant Gibbs recalls a meeting that Creighton's basketball players had with Greg McDermott after his first season as coach
McDermott told the players he was considering changing the way the Bluejays would go about their business on offense. The structured attack that had produced some success during the 2010-11 season — the Bluejays had won 23 games by reaching the championship series of the College Basketball Invitational — would be replaced by a more wide-open style of play.
“I wasn't a fan of it,” he said. “My thought was that maybe we could play up and down in the MVC, but when we went up against someone that really played that way, we'd get run out of the gym.
“His answer, or maybe it was one of the assistants, was something like, 'We'll address that when we get there, but we have to get there first.' ”
The Bluejays not only got there, but they've made their offense among the most-discussed in college basketball as the sport heads into the final five weeks of the season.
Folks are still marveling at the shooting display Creighton put on in a 28-point mid-January demolition of a Villanova team ranked fourth at the time. Creighton's offensive efficiency ranks near the top of traditional raw statistics used to measure scoring and shooting. It rates high in the expanded statistical analysis that is becoming more popular with some observers.
Of course, this was all part of McDermott's grand plan, right?
“I don't think anyone could have envisioned this,” said Steve Merfeld, who spent the previous three seasons as a Creighton assistant and now is the Bluejays' director of player development. “Because of the skill level of the guys we have, it doesn't necessarily surprise me.
“But there are nights where it's overwhelming because it's so good. That's when we're making shots. That's what it all comes down to.”
Creighton has made a lot of shots over the past three seasons — 2,508 to be exact. Almost a third of them — 824 — have come from beyond the 3-point arc. This season, the Bluejays are making 43.2 percent of their baskets from 3-point range.
“I would have never envisioned the kind of stuff we're doing now,” said Doug McDermott, the Bluejays' two-time All-American and the front-runner for this season's player of the year awards. “We just have so many pieces, and that's a credit to the coaching staff because they've developed us individually.
“My dad deserves so much credit. I get a lot of attention, but he's the mastermind behind it. He puts us in the right spots, and he deserves so much more credit than he's getting.”
Gibbs agrees, saying Creighton's success is as due to the “brainchild” of the coaching staff as it is the Bluejays' personnel.
“They've given us a style that's different than the way a lot of teams play,” Gibbs said. “We rely on ball movement and multiple actions and setting each other up rather than going one-on-one and making individual plays, which has become more popular in today's game.
“We didn't have a ton of dudes that could go one-on-one and create their own shots. The coaches convinced us that if we move the ball from side to side and are committed to making the extra pass that we're going to get the good shots in our offense.”
In Greg McDermott's first nine seasons as a Division I coach — five at Northern Iowa and four at Iowa State — his teams played within a more structured offensive system. There was an emphasis on set plays rather than the wide-open play that put extra value on scoring in transition.
His first Creighton team played a lot like his UNI and ISU teams, mainly out of necessity.
“The reality of it was that first year, our personnel didn't lend itself to this system,” the coach said.
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Creighton finished 116th nationally in scoring that season but provided a subtle hint of what was to come in the CBI, one of the two pay-to-play tournaments that give a taste of the postseason to teams not qualifying for the NCAAs and NIT. The Bluejays scored 85, 102, 82 and 84 points in the first four games.
McDermott's decision to alter the offense was aided by the exhibition tour the Bluejays took that summer to the Bahamas.
“I think the 10 days of practice we had in preparation for that trip was really valuable in changing what we were going to do on offense,” Greg McDermott said. “I think the guys enjoyed it when we had some success with it when we were in the Bahamas.”
The Bluejays won 29 games that season and finished ninth nationally in scoring. That standing dipped to 30th last season, but they still won 28 games and again reached the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.
Creighton is off to an 18-3 start this season and currently sits 22nd in scoring at 81.3 points a game. The Bluejays are the top 3-point shooting team in the country, and they also lead the NCAA in assists.
The latter is a key to the success of the offense, McDermott said.
“We've found a system that fits the personnel, and those that didn't fit it at the start have figured out a way to function within it,” the coach said. “Obviously, it doesn't work with selfish players.”
Creighton's offensive mantra: make the extra pass to turn a good shot into a great one.
“It's crazy to see how some guys have developed over these three years,” forward Ethan Wragge said, “and just the way we've embraced playing with one another.”
Wragge has been the beneficiary of many of those extra passes, setting him up on the perimeter where he has been deadly efficient. He has made 80 baskets this season. All but two of them have come on shots from beyond the arc.
His transition from backup to starter underscores one aspect of the system's evolution this season. Creighton's starting center the previous two seasons was Gregory Echenique, a 6-foot-9, 270-pounder who played a more traditional inside role. Post touches — getting the ball inside to Echenique close to the basket — were emphasized. Those touches often set up shooters on the perimeter when Echenique passed the ball back out.
With Echenique gone and Wragge starting at center, Creighton has placed less emphasis on what Greg McDermott calls the “deep seal.” Getting the ball inside remains important, but Wragge is often called upon to pull his defender out to the perimeter. In turn, that opens up the floor.
“Putting Ethan and Doug on the floor together really adds opportunities for guys that aren't great at taking it to the rim,” Greg McDermott said. “Suddenly, those are one-on-one finishes without a shot blocker around.”
Doug McDermott's continued development within the system has helped make it go. He averaged 22.9 points per game as a sophomore, when he became Creighton's first consensus first-team All-American of the modern era. He repeated the honor last season when he averaged 23.2 points.
His scoring average has increased to 25.0 in Creighton's first 21 games this season.
He's not the only key to the offense's success.
“But it helps to have a player of the year candidate and All-American that scores from everywhere,” Gibbs said. “If things bog down, we just throw it to Doug and he just does his thing. Without him, the rest of it might not work as well.”
McDermott has always downplayed his contributions to an offense he calls both complex and simple. He estimated that the Bluejays have a couple of hundred set plays at their disposal.
“But a lot of times when you watch us play, it's the simple things, like a trail 3-pointer or a pick-and-pop, that gets us going,” he said. “It's an offense based on simple reads, and sometimes we're almost better when we don't run our plays.”
His father agrees.
“We have a lot of set plays to try to get the ball in certain places at certain times or to the hot hand,” Greg McDermott said. “But in transition, there is tremendous freedom to make plays with very few rules.
“And when we're in our ball-screen offense, there really are no rules. We want guys to have the freedom to make plays.”
The fact that it's a lot of the same guys making those plays is another big factor in the offensive efficiency, Greg McDermott said. This is a veteran team, with seven of the top nine players in the rotation having been around for at least three seasons.
“You hope that the more you work on something, the more efficient it becomes,” Greg McDermott said. “With each passing day, they have a better understanding of what we're looking for, and they definitely have a better understanding of one another.
“That has as much to do with it as anything.”
The question beyond this season is whether Creighton will be able to utilize the same system without seniors Doug McDermott, Gibbs, Wragge and Jahenns Manigat.
“That's a really good question, and I'm glad I don't have to answer it,” Gibbs said, laughing. “It kind of comes down to the guys you recruit. You have to adapt and change and tweak things based on your personnel in order to give yourself a chance to win.
“It would be really cool if they can adopt that system to where you could always play that way, that when you watch Creighton you're going to see them move the ball, they're going to shoot it really well from 3 and they going to play unselfishly. But that can change from year to year.”
Greg McDermott said he's committed to the system, and he believes Creighton can continue to find success with it.
“We're going to continue to play the way we're playing,” he said.