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Polyfro Postgame: Back in the Hunt

Saturday night, Creighton notched the biggest win of the Greg McDermott Era (so far), winning 68-61 on the road in Wichita. Koch Arena is always a difficult venue to come out of with a win, but in front of a “juiced” up crowd on New Years Eve, a national television audience and against a Shocker team poised to take Creighton’s place in the Top 25 … well, you could certainly understand the people who didn’t think it was possible for the Jays to win.

Borrowing a page from Missouri State’s gameplan, the Shockers took Doug McDermott out of the game. During the non-conference, it almost became a cliche as one opposing coach after another said after the game, “We didn’t think he was THAT good.” Teams in the MVC already know he’s THAT good, so instead of being surprised after he goes off for 30 points against them, they scheme to slow him down.

“I actually told the guys in the film room two days ago that we’re going to get to the point now where nobody wants to give the second leading scorer in the country his average,” Coach McDermott said on the postgame show. “They want to do whatever they can to stop him, so we have to take what they do to stop him, and use it against them.”

In the early part of the first half, the Jays were able to successfully do that, at least for the first ten minutes of the game. They were up 17-9 at the 9:42 mark, despite just three points from Doug McDermott. Then things fell apart. They started missing defensive assignments, they stopped feeding the post, their offense became stagnant, and the crowd got back into it. One of their assistants even got T’d up for arguing a foul call. The Shockers outscored them 30-14 the rest of the way, a stretch that could have been even uglier if Antoine Young had not converted a conventional three-point play at the end of the half. It was the sort of stretch that left many fans thinking, “Here we go again.”

Blowout city, right? Wrong. What the last ten minutes of the half proved were how important Grant Gibbs is to this team — saddled with foul trouble, he didn’t play the final ten minutes of the half. With him poised to return, I thought the Jays could make a run. The question in my mind was whether they’d dug too deep of a hole.

Why did I feel that way? With Gibbs on the floor the first ten minutes of the half, Creighton seemed poised to run Wichita out of their own gym. With him on the bench the rest of the half after picking up his second foul, Wichita returned the favor. Doug McDermott gets the headlines and the accolades, and rightfully so, but Gibbs is the straw that stirs the drink, with apologies to Reggie Jackson.

McDermott sat out nearly the entire first half against Northwestern, and the Jays were able to survive and still take a lead into the break. They have enough other scoring weapons to compete short-term with him on the bench. But as we saw Wednesday night against Missouri State when Gibbs picked up his second foul ten minutes in, and again Saturday night in Wichita when he did the same, they do not have anyone to replace his passing, his basketball savvy, or his knack for making plays. I think the Plus/Minus stat is incredibly misleading at times, but in this case, it’s a terrific illustration of Gibbs’ importance. Creighton was +25 against Wichita with him on the floor, and -18 when he was on the bench.

Down 39-31 at the break, and with Doug McDermott having just six points on 2-6 shooting, the coaches made some adjustments to counter what Wichita State was doing to their star. It was a brilliant schematic move. “We made the adjustment at halftime to take what they were doing with Doug and Ethan and use it against them,” Coach McDermott said on the postgame show. “On some of our ballscreens, they weren’t leaving them, so we spaced them to a spot where Antoine could come off with his left hand and Grant could come off with his right hand, and were able to get them to the basket.”

That spacing, combined with Wichita’s aggressiveness defensively, allowed Creighton to use the Shockers aggressiveness against them. Time after time, Young, Gibbs and Josh Jones were able to get wide-open jumpers from short range, and more often than not, they knocked them down. It was a great coaching adjustment, because the only way for Wichita to counter was to play McDermott straight-up — and there was no way they were going to do that. With the Jays’ guards hitting the open shots they were getting, it left Gregg Marshall with a classic case of Pick Your Poison.

Gibbs was the guy that made that poison so hard to swallow. “He got to the rim a couple of times when he made a great read, because the play was actually for something else,” Coach McDermott said on the postgame. “We told Grant, if they run with Doug you might be able to get all the way to the rim and be wide open. What were we, plus-25 with Grant Gibbs on the floor? At Wichita? That’s incredible.”

Inside, Gregory Echenique had one of his best defensive games of the season. Carl Hall had 17 points and 13 rebounds, but Garrett Stutz was held to just five points. Echenique’s defense didn’t shut down their post play entirely — something not many people will do to Wichita incidentally — but kept them in check enough to allow Creighton to not need to drop a defender inside to help. As Coach McDermott told T. Scott on pressrow in the postgame, that allowed them to keep their defenders outside with the Shockers’ shooters, and played a big role in the Shockers going 5-26 from behind the arc. If you can make Wichita shoot jump shots from 20 feet out, they’re a beatable team. Most teams in the MVC don’t have the size to make them do that, but to Creighton’s — and Echenique’s — credit, they were able to.

Coming into the week, most fans would have been happy to escape a brutal first week of MVC play with a 1-1 record. The Jays did so in unorthodox fashion — losing at home to Missouri State, winning on the road in Wichita — but when they welcome Drake to town Tuesday night, they’re sitting right where most thought they would be. Whenever you lose one at home, you have to go get one on the road somewhere you weren’t expected to, and certainly, this qualifies.

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