OMAHA, Neb. — The team that might be the Cinderella of March stood in this empty Omaha arena in October, the exciting possibilities of this season looming as heavily as the expectations.
The coach told a group of reporters that his goal this year is to make the Sweet 16, which this mid-major school has never done. The team’s star player, who happens to be the coach’s son, gave those typical athlete-being-interviewed answers about working hard and staying focused. And as he spoke, two teammates stood to the side, making faces and enjoying the attention and doing everything they could to disrupt the interview.
It didn’t work, of course. Doug McDermott is indeed too focused, which is a very good trait for someone who’ll surely be on this year’s watch list for the Naismith Award given to the college player of the year, just as he was last year, his sophomore season at Creighton University.
It’s a trait that his father, third-year Bluejays coach Greg McDermott, had better hope permeates his entire squad. Because as long as they don’t buy into things like rankings and predictions, this could be the year when Creighton makes the jump from a pretty good mid-major school to the level of the Butlers, the Virginia Commonwealths, the George Masons of March.
At 15th, Creighton is the highest-ranked mid-major in the preseason USA Today coaches poll. But look seven spots below Creighton and you’ll see the school McDermott hopes to model his program after. It’s not Kentucky or Kansas or Duke. Despite ranking sixth in the nation in average home attendance, Creighton knows it never can dream of competing with the blue-chip schools. But perhaps surprisingly, it’s not a Virginia Commonwealth or a George Mason, either, that McDermott hopes his program emulates.
It’s 22nd-ranked Gonzaga, perennially one of the best mid-majors schools in the country, which has reached the Sweet 16 five times since 1999.
“Why do we give schools like Gonzaga and Xavier so much credit?” Greg McDermott said. “They’ve been successful, but they’ve been able to sustain it. There hasn’t been any falloff whatsoever. And obviously their investment in basketball at those two institutions is off the charts, much like it is here. And all the things are in place here. Now you just have to sustain success.”
“One thing we don’t have,” McDermott continued, “that all those schools have is an appearance in the Sweet 16. When you get to that second weekend, things change. Your story is told. You become much more known nationally when that happens. You’re down to just a few games that second weekend, and they have to have something to talk about, so they tell your story.”
And the story for this year’s Creighton team is a good one. If they make the Sweet 16 in March — which is entirely possible, since they’re returning all but one starter from last year’s team that was an eight seed in the NCAA tournament — it’ll be a story about family.
“I’ve grown up around the game my whole life, going to his practices, so it still kind of feels like a kid every time I go to practice and step on the floor,” junior forward Doug McDermott said about his father.
Both father and son talk about keeping their shared DNA away from the basketball court. Sure, they play golf together in the offseason, and Doug makes plenty of in-season visits to his parents’ house for a home-cooked meal and laundry. But when they’re at home, they don’t talk hoops. And when they’re practicing, they don’t act like father and son.
“My guess is most people wouldn’t be able to tell I’m his father by watching us practice,” Greg said, “and that’s the way both of us want it.”
It’s true, Creighton teammates say. Well, mostly. Because sometimes father-son connections come through.
“One day at practice, (Coach McDermott) was mad at (his son), and (Coach McDermott) called him an SOB,” senior guard Grant Gibbs laughed. “So we were all like, ‘Woooo, that’s his wife he’s talking about!’ And then we were like, ‘OK, whatever, keep practicing.’ And then after practice, (Coach McDermott) grabbed Doug. He said, ‘Hey Doug, we gotta get you better, blah blah blah.’ And he said, ‘You can’t tell your mom I said that, by the way.’ ”
It’s impossible to predict in October who’ll be Cinderella in March. It’s hard enough to predict an upset at the beginning of the NCAA tournament. That is what makes March Madness the single greatest tournament in American sports. But for this mid-major school that doesn’t look like a mid-major, success in March seems very possible. After all, last year McDermott ranked third in the nation in scoring with 23.2 points per game, and Creighton was ranked as high as 12th in the nation before losing three in a row in February. They beat Alabama in a thriller in the Round of 64 before losing to top-seeded North Carolina. This year they’re breaking in a new point guard, Austin Chatman, who counts NBA star Deron Williams as his mentor.
“That mid-major tag gets annoying sometimes,” Gibbs said. “People hear the term mid-major and they think you’re inferior to the big dogs… It’s kind of like we’re always nipping at the heels of the big dogs, wanting our chance. That’s always the mentality of a mid-major, trying to earn respect.”
And the only thing that’ll get them the lasting respect McDermott covets is making that magical second weekend in March, which is when things change, and stories are told, and a mid-major program’s status is cemented.