In one game last week, the team many are picking to win the new Big East was hit by two pieces of bad luck that easily could have – and still might – derail a season that has as much postseason promise for Creighton as any since the school last made a Sweet Sixteen four decades ago.
Late in the first half of what would become a Creighton 81-62 blowout win at DePaul, Doug McDermott – the best pure scorer in college basketball who is second in the nation in points per game and leads many midseason lists for player of the year – banged his left shoulder against an opposing player. He briefly left the game, returned, and then, favoring that shoulder, ended the game with a workmanlike 19 points.
If McDermott’s injury were serious, and if it had meant a significant amount of time off the court, it would have meant the end of Creighton’s run. This is surely a team that plays like a team, but the load McDermott carries amid that team concept is huge. He takes 36.9 percent of his team’s shots, according to KenPom.com, which is the fourth-highest rate in the nation.
But after the game, his head coach (and father) Greg McDermott downplayed Dougie McBuckets’ injury. It didn’t seem that serious. Sure enough, an MRI the next day revealed only a minor shoulder sprain and a bruised rotator cuff. McDermott wouldn’t even miss a game.
The bigger injury had happened earlier in the first half, when Grant Gibbs – a player with far less plaudits than his two-time All-American teammate but a guy who is nearly as much of a key to Creighton’s success – fell to the floor while battling for a rebound and grabbed his knee.
It looked like a worst-case scenario for the sixth-year senior whose career has been plagued by injuries. When Gibbs was holding that knee in searing pain, I couldn’t help but think about Nerlens Noel’s season-ending ACL injury last season for Kentucky and feared Gibbs had suffered the same fate.
Turned out the injury was bad – a dislocated kneecap, which will cause Gibbs to miss four to six weeks – but not nearly as bad as feared. He should be back well before the Big East tournament.
So why make such a big deal out of an injury to a 6-foot-5 point forward who averages only 6.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 26.3 minutes a game?
Because every Batman needs his Robin. And that’s the role Gibbs fills on this McDermott-dominated Creighton team.
The chemistry the two players have is perhaps unequalled in college basketball. They have known each other since Doug McDermott was in eighth grade and they played for the same AAU program. Yes, Gibbs can shoot, but more important, he has the court vision of a great point guard. That vision often points him toward an open McDermott.
I recently spoke with coach Greg McDermott about Gibbs. He told me what makes Gibbs stand out on the court isn’t raw athletic ability – it’s his unbelievable leadership skills and basketball IQ. McDermott says Gibbs is like a coach on the floor, which is appropriate because Gibbs told me he wants to be a basketball coach someday.
Gibbs is able to get the ball to Dougie McBuckets in so many different ways. He passes equally well with either hand, he can feather in soft passes, and he can rifle hard passes into tough spots, his coach told me. Gibbs said he clicked with Doug McDermott from Day 1, and since McDermott has developed into one of college basketball’s most efficient scorers, Gibbs knows all a glue guy like himself needs to do is to get the scorer the ball in the right spot.
“It’s a lot of time in gym together,” Gibbs told me of his chemistry with Doug McDermott. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and tendencies. But really, from Day 1 we just clicked. He works so hard to get open. You just need to get him the ball. We’re a good match on the court.”
That’s where Creighton needs Gibbs: back on the court, and back at full strength. A four- to six-week window could have Gibbs on the court in time for Creighton’s most crucial Big East stretch of the season: hosting eighth-ranked Villanova on Feb. 16 before playing three of its final five regular-season games on the road.
One thing about the Big East this year is that there aren’t too many gimme wins. DePaul and Seton Hall, considered the bottom of the conference, each have an upset win so far in league play plus a handful of decent wins apiece in nonconference games.
In the long run, Creighton will be fine. This is a team that ranks seventh in KenPom.com’s overall rankings, with the nation’s most efficient offense and a defense that has steadily improved each of the past three seasons. This year the Bluejays are 49th in the nation in defensive efficiency. Two years ago? 191st. They shoot a ton of threes – ranking seventh in the nation in percentage of shots from behind the arc – and make a lot of them, too, an amazing 43.7 percent, which is first in the country.
“We turned the corner last year on defense,” Greg McDermott told me. “The longer guys play together, the more times you have together on the practice floor, the better you work together.”
I love this team. With its sorta-Euroball style of offense, Creighton might be one of college basketball’s unique attractions. They’re a team whose offense is based on ball movement and all five players playing together. That’s why one injury to a player like Gibbs could have an outsized impact on this team’s chemistry. I picked the Bluejays to win the Big East, and I’m stubbornly sticking with it. But if it’s another team that pulls it off – Villanova, perhaps, or surging Xavier – we’ll be able to point back to Gibbs’ injury as the moment when things changed.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.