Sometimes, what you’re looking for comes to you when you’re not looking for it.
Sometimes, the changes you need to make become apparent before you know changes need to be made.
For Greg McDermott, it happened during his first season as the head coach at Creighton, as he was leading an unremarkable Bluejay team on a run to within a game of the 2011 CBI title, an event only “memorable” because former Creighton coach Dana Altman, then in his first season with Oregon, squared off with his old team for a three-game series in the finals.
No one has ever dreamed of playing in the CBI. McDermott was coaching a roster full of veterans that he did not recruit to play in a tournament that they never wanted to be a part of. Keeping seniors engaged when they are going to end their career in an event far less prestigious than even the NIT is a tough sell, but doing so when there is a 10-day layoff between being eliminated from the conference tournament and playing the first game of the CBI is like trying to motivate a locker room full of seven-year olds to lineup and wait to get flu shots.
McDermott had a plan, one he thought could help.
Old Guys vs. Young Guys.
There were a handful of promising freshman on the roster, including McDermott’s son, Doug. Grant Gibbs, a transfer from Gonzaga, was sitting out as a redshirt, as was Ethan Wragge, who dealt with an injury that season. They were on the scout team most of the year, meaning they never got reps alongside that year’s starters in practice. This was a chance to make that happened, and there isn’t a coach in the country that wouldn’t love to get those extra practices in after the season; it’s like getting the Cliffs Notes for next season’s team.
This time, however, there was a catch.
“He just said play,” said Gibbs, which is a departure from the norm for a guy who had spent the past decade coaching like he learned the game from Tony Bennett. “Run it up the floor, set early ball-screens, space the court and let it fly.”
McDermott’s never gone back.
Ben Jacobson’s answer is nothing if not to the point when asked if he ever thought that he would see the day where Greg McDermott would be running a spread pick-and-roll system on a team that ranks top 25 nationally in pace, in the process eschewing the set plays with actions and counters on top of counters that made him so successful at Northern Iowa.
“I would not have, and I know for sure I would not have been alone.”
Jake, as he’s known in the coaching world, knows Mac and the way that he was raised in this business better than anyone. McDermott’s first season as an assistant coach came at North Dakota the same year that Jacobson was a freshman in Rich Glass’ program. He played for McDermott for four years. They spent a year on staff at UND together and, six years later, joined forces against as McDermott took head coaching positions at North Dakota State and, in 2001, Northern Iowa.
Jacobson worked for McDermott for five years in Cedar Falls. He took over for him when McDermott was hired by Iowa State. He still hasn’t left, and he’s still running those same sets, same actions and same counters – still playing that Pack-Line defense – that McDermott did.
“What I think is a great thing about college basketball and basketball in general is that there are so many different ways to be successful,” McDermott said. “Ben Jacobson is one of the best college basketball coaches in the country, but he does it totally different than I do. It works for him and his program and what they do.”
And it worked for McDermott while he was there as well. He reached the NCAA tournament in his last three seasons with the program, and that included earning an at-large bid out of the Missouri Valley for the last two. They’ve reached the NCAA tournament four more times since McDermott left, including two of the last three years. As it stands, UNI is arguably the best basketball program left in the Valley, and their current success makes it easy to forget what they were when McDermott took the reins.
Sam Weaver amassed a 30-57 record during his three-year tenure with UNI. He went 7-24 the year before McDermott arrived, and prior to the trip to the 2004 NCAA tournament, the program had been to just a single NCAA tournament as a member of Division I.
“When we got here, I remember going over to some workouts in the spring and just seeing the guys a little bit,” Jacobson said. “And it didn’t feel like the guys I just worked out would have played for us on [my North Dakota State and North Dakota teams] that were Division II.”
“I’m 100 percent convinced he’s the only guy that could have come in here and get it turned around that fast while putting in a foundation for us to be able to continue to have success.”
It’s simple, really.
McDermott had the connections. He played there. He knew who he needed to get support from on campus. He knew where to go and what to do to get support for the program from people in the community, whether it be financial or something as simple and necessary as butts in seats. More importantly, he had relationships with high school coaches in the state of Iowa. He was able to get players that had the ability to end up somewhere better, and he was able to do that before the program was good. It’s one thing for Northern Iowa to land a high-major recruit these days. It was a different story in 2002, when the program was in the midst of their sixth-straight losing season.
And with the players that McDermott was bringing into the program, it only made sense to play the way that he had spent the majority of his life playing and coaching.
“We weren’t the most talented team,” McDermott said. “We didn’t want more possessions, we wanted less possessions.”
He had a roster full of players that grew up playing that exact same upper-midwest brand of basketball. Flare screens, back screens, slips. His emphasis on tough defense, execution on offense and spacing was no different than that of the high school and AAU programs he was recruiting players from. That style of play led to a 3-2 record against Iowa in those five years, including a win over the Hawkeyes in his first year, when Iowa was the No. 12 team in the country with Luke Recker and Reggie Evans on the roster. He won at Iowa State. He won at LSU the year LSU got to the Final Four.
But basketball has changed since those days.
And McDermott had to change, too.
In what turned out to be a fortuitous bit of scheduling luck, Creighton drew Davidson in the second round of the CBI back in 2011.
After dispatching San Jose State in the opener, McDermott and his staff had six days to pour over tape of Bob McKillop’s team doing what they do. There aren’t many in the collegiate ranks that embrace pace and space quite like Stephen Curry’s college coach does, and McDermott had all the time in the world to watch it on film. Combine that with what he was allowing his team to do in practice that spring and the fact that the Bluejays eventually beat Davidson 102-92 – the first time in McDermott’s Division I head coaching career that one of his teams cracked triple-digits – behind 31 points and 10 boards from his son, and McDermott saw the light.
It helped that his roster was perfect for that style of play.
There may never be another player better suited to being a small-ball four at the college level than Doug McDermott was. He is skilled enough to play shooting guard in the NBA and he was a killer in the post for Creighton throughout his career. He was also flanked by either Gregory Echinique – a bruising, 6-foot-10 Venezuelan center – or Ethan Wragge – a 6-foot-7 sniper that couldn’t do anything beyond shoot threes – in his Creighton days. Throw in a trio of guards that were able to space the floor with their shooting and operate in ball-screens, and it made too much sense not to run with a new style of play.
“The game has changed,” McDermott said. “At UNI, we might have defended ten ball-screens the entire game, but you’re going to defend a staggered double, you’re going to defend a double-screen, you’re going to defend America’s play, screen the screener, over and over again. It has changed. You may now defend those actions six to ten times per game and defend ball screens every possession.”
“You better change with the game.”
It worked in the Valley. Creighton would reach the NCAA tournament in each of the next two seasons as Doug developed into an All-American and the Bluejays became the target of Big East expansion. And it worked that first year in the Big East; building a system perfectly suited to maximize the talents of the best player in the sport is an easy way to win basketball, and McDermott did that.
The question was what would happen once the McBuckets era was over.
McDermott’s tenure as the head coach at Iowa State was not great. He did not finish above .500 once in four seasons and only bested a 4-12 mark in Big 12 play in his first season – the Cyclones went 6-10 that year – despite the fact that he had four NBA players on his Iowa State rosters: Craig Brackins, Wes Johnson, Justin Hamilton and Diante Garrett.
In McDermott’s first post-Dougie McBuckets season, it looked like Creighton might be headed down that same path. The Bluejays went 14-19 and 4-14 in the Big East as their offense slowed back to a crawl, but McDermott had already started recruiting players to the system he wanted to play. It started with point guard Mo Watson, a dynamic and speedy point guard transfer from Boston U. that sat out the 2014-15 season, and Cole Huff, a transfer from Nevada that fit nicely as a stretch-four. Then McDermott landed commitments from a pair of high-major prospects from Omaha in Khyri Thomas and Justin Patton. Marcus Foster pledged to the Bluejays after a falling out with the Kansas State coaching staff.
He was landing talents that fit the way he wanted to play, and from there it’s only grown. Creighton beat out Kansas State for a commitment from now-starting point guard Davion Mintz, a North Carolina-native. They beat out the likes of Clemson and South Carolina to land Ty-Shon Alexander, a freshman guard that was ranked as a top 50 prospect. Alexander is another North Carolina-native. Perhaps most impressive was that McDermott secured the services of Mitchell Ballock, another top 50 prospect and a Kansas-native (and Jayhawk fan) that picked Creighton over, among others, Kansas.
In the process, the pace and space McDermott has played with has only gotten faster and bigger.
Creighton is 24th nationally in tempo this season, according to KenPom. They have been among the top 75 teams in pace the last three years. In his final season with Northern Iowa, McDermott ranked 321st in pace.
More importantly, they’re winning. In 2015-16, Creighton won 20 games and finished as a top 40 team on KenPom. Last year, had they not lost Watson early in Big East play, they would have finished the season as a top 10 team. This year, they’re a top 25 team with a roster that has plenty of young and intriguing talent on it.
Building UNI was one thing. McDermott is an alum. He was connected to the high school coaches in the state. He was able to get guys that could thrive in the Valley, and he won there by playing the style of basketball that defines where he’s from and where he was coaching. He was the perfect guy for the job, and it only made sense that he would make it work.
The same logic applied to Creighton when he took the job, which is why it made sense for him to leave Iowa State on his own volition to replace Altman in 2010. The school is located in Omaha, which sits on the Missouri River, the border between Nebraska and Iowa. You can see Iowa from the CenturyLink Center, where Creighton plays their home games. No one was surprised when he won there …
… when it was a member of the Missouri Valley.
What wasn’t so obvious was whether or not that success could be sustained once McDermott ran out of All-American offspring.
Well, it has, to the point that he was the object of Ohio State’s affection in June, when they were looking to find a replacement for Thad Matta.
McDermott may have reinvented who he is as a basketball coach, but he’s still the same midwest country boy he was growing up in Cascade, Iowa.
“I’m 53 years old,” he said. “I really like my life. I like pulling into my driveway at night when I get home and I like pulling into work in the morning. I like the people I work with. There was really nothing missing in my life.”
“I’ve never made decisions in my life based on money. I’ve made moves because I thought it was a good move professionally or for our family, and had I chose to leave, it strictly would have been more dollars involved. I don’t think that’s the right reason to make a decision.”