Top 25 Countdown: No. 18 Creighton Bluejays

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-6, 14-4 MVC (2nd); Lost in the Round of 32 to

Head Coach: Greg McDermott

Key Losses: Antoine Young

Newcomers: Isaiah Zierden, Andre Yates, Mogboluwaga Oginni

Projected Lineup:

G: Jahenns Manigat, Jr.
G: Austin Chatman, So.
F: Grant Gibbs, Sr.
F: Doug McDermott, Jr.
C: Gregory Echinique, Sr.
Bench: Ethan Wragge, Jr.; Will Artino, So.; Avery Dingman, So.; Josh Jones, Sr.

Outlook: Doug McDermott is a name that you are going to hear quite a bit about heading into the season.

After putting together an All-American caliber season as a sophomore, McDermott is just about as close as you can get to being a consensus Preseason First Team All-American. We had him on the first team. So did every other publication that I’ve seen that’s worth paying attention to. When you throw in the fact that McDermott plays for a program that resides outside of the six power conferences and that he averaged 22.9 points as a sophomore, the assumption for those that have never seen him play will likely be that he is a gunner.

And while McDermott does take a lot of shots, he’s anything but a “gunner”. In fact, McDermott is one of the most efficient scorers in the country, a statement that both the stat-nerds and basketball gurus will agree on. What makes McDermott so efficient, in the Kenpom sense of the word, is that he makes a lot of threes (48.6% on 111 threes last year), hits 63.2% of his twos, knocks down his free throws and doesn’t turn the ball over. But McDermott’s efficiency goes beyond simple excel spreadsheets; I’m not sure that anyone has managed to put together a stat for it yet, but I’d be willing to be that McDermott averages the fewest number of dribbles-per-point in the country. When he’s hitting threes, they are off of a catch-and-shoot. When he’s scoring around the basket, it’s usually because he’s sealed off his man to the point that all he needs to do is turn and lay the ball it.

It’s remarkable to watch, but it is also a microcosm of what Creighton does offensively. The Bluejays are a delight to watch on that end of the floor. They spread the floor, they move the ball well, they not only make the extra pass but they make the right pass, they don’t turn the ball over and they seemingly never miss an open look. You want an awesome stat? I got an awesome stat: Creighton made 287 threes last season, and 276 of them came off of an assist.

The biggest reason for that was Grant Gibbs. A 6-foot-5 wing, Gibbs led the MVC in assists last season. He’s not overly quick or explosive, but he’s crafty and has terrific vision. A good word to describe his game is patient; he never seems to be in a rush and always makes the right play. He’s got a bit of “old-man” game, and it works with this group. Gibbs’ ability to create becomes that much more important with the graduation of Antoine Young, who was Creighton’s point guard last season, chipping in with 4.5 assists-per-game.

Who joins Gibbs on the perimeter will be interesting to see play out. Creighton has four other guards returning from last season’s rotation: senior Josh Jones, junior Jahenns Manigat and sophomores Austin Chatman and Avery Dingman. Chatman — who, like Young, is a small, quick, penetrating guard — looks like the guy that will take over at the point with Manigat, who started last season and shot 46.8% from three, alongside him. Jones is the biggest of the bunch, and he, like Dingman, will likely see extended minutes off the bench. Whether Chatman, or any of the other guards, can grow into the point guard role will be one of the most interesting subplots this year for the Bluejays.

Joining McDermott up front will be Gregory Echenique, a Rutgers transfer that plays on Venezuela’s national team. Echenique is a lumbering, 6-foot-9, 275 pound center that does for Creighton what centers are expected to do: scores around the rim, blocks some shots, gets some rebounds and bangs with other bigs. He also just may have the biggest head in the country. Ethan Wragge, a 6-foot-7 sharpshooter, is the name to know off the bench, while 6-foot-11 sophomore Will Artino will see time off the bench.

Predictions?: You notice how I didn’t once mention Creighton’s defense above. That’s because it was borderline non-existent last season. The Bluejays finished the season ranked 178th in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom. They don’t force turnovers — in fact, Creighton was one of the three worst teams in the country in turnover percentage — or block shots, and they’re ranked 200 or below in defensive effective field goal percentage and defensive three-point percentage. In other words, they don’t have play-makers that can force the end of a possession and they struggle when it comes to forcing teams to miss shots. About the only thing Creighton does well defensively is box out; they were ninth in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.

I know that’s a lot of numbers to throw at you, but the point is that the Bluejays have a cap this season if they don’t improve defensively. It has been a point of emphasis for the team during the preseason, but it has also been a point of emphasis for the team in preseasons past. The problem is that this group is made up of small guards in the back court and land warriors in the front court. I really like this group and this program, but until they prove they can get stops, I have a tough time seeing them make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”

Drake hires Furman’s Niko Medved to be new head coach

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Drake has hired Furman head coach Niko Medved to the same position, the school announced on Sunday.

The 43-year-old Medved has led the Paladins to back-to-back CIT appearances as he’s been the head coach there for four seasons. Also an assistant coach at Minnesota and Colorado State, Medved is a noted recruiter.

“I am ecstatic about the opportunity to be the next men’s basketball coach at Drake University,” Medved said in the release. “Drake University’s tremendous reputation partnered with its strong leadership and the thriving Des Moines community make this a special place.  I was born and raised in the Midwest and have so many strong roots in this part of the country.  My family and I can’t wait to get started.”

Medved was named the Southern Conference’s 2017 Coach of the Year for helping lead Furman to the regular-season title in the league.

The Bulldogs are coming off a last-place finish in the Missouri Valley Conference as former head coach Ray Giacoletti was relieved of his duties in January. Drake only has one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1971 (coming in 2008) as the Bulldogs have struggled to remain relevant in a tough league.

VIDEO: North Carolina and Roy Williams dance in locker room after advancing to Final Four

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Watching Roy Williams dance never gets old.

The North Carolina head coach is taking his team back to the Final Four next weekend after the Tar Heels outlasted Kentucky in a thrilling South Regional final.

North Carolina is making its 20th appearance in the Final Four as they are going for the second consecutive season.

2017 NCAA Tournament Final Four schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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National Semifinals– Saturday, April 1

6:09 p.m. EST, CBS, Glendale
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Approximately 40 minutes after conclusion of first game, CBS, Glendale
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

VIDEO: The insane final 10 seconds of North Carolina’s win over Kentucky

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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North Carolina and Kentucky ended in legendary fashion on Sunday.

After freshman Malik Monk buried a heavily-contested three-pointer to tie the game at 73-all for Kentucky with under 10 seconds left the Tar Heels didn’t use a timeout as Theo Pinson found forward Luke Maye for the game-winning jumper.

These 10 seconds will go down as one of the greatest finishes in NCAA Tournament history.