- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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The NCAA giveth and the NCAA taketh away, and good luck trying to figure out the difference.
Trying to divine the reasons the NCAA's eligibility appeals arbiters do anything can be maddening; for every needlessly harsh adjudication, there's one that manages to be both pleasurably lenient and undeniably confusing. Such was the case Tuesday, when Creighton guard Grant Gibbs learned he would indeed be eligible for a sixth year of college hoops competition -- via a surprising, relieving voicemail Creighton sports information guru Rob Anderson had the foresight to catch on film just before being tackled:
The hearty hugs and high-fives are totally warranted, and not just because everyone in Creighton hoops seems to genuinely adore their veteran point guard. Gibbs is that important on the court, too.
The Bluejays' rise in the past two seasons has been built almost entirely on offense. In 2011-12, they finished the season ranked fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency; in 2012-13, they finished ninth. Much of the credit for this explosion has been given to Doug McDermott, and rightfully so: McDermott's pure, efficient scoring ability is matched by few players in recent college hoops history. In 2013-14, McDermott has a chance to be the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing to earn three-straight first-team All-American honors. Last season, McDermott shot 57 percent from two, 49 percent from 3 and 87.5 percent from the free throw line; he finished with an obscene 121.3 offensive rating while using 31.7 percent of his team's possessions and taking 34.8 percent of its shots. That kind of volume is not supposed to pair so nicely with that kind of efficiency. McDermott has made it his calling card, and the Bluejays have blown up accordingly.
But he hasn't done it alone. Gibbs has been Creighton's second-best player the past two seasons, or at least its second most important, while also remaining one of its most underrated. This is mostly because what Gibbs does doesn't translate into gaudy counting statistics: In 2012-13, Gibbs averaged 8.5 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.1 rebounds per game. Nice, versatile, but hardly eye-popping.
It's the second category where he truly excels. Even the advanced analytics, like Gibbs' 34.3 percent assist rate, doesn't quite capture his greatest specific strength: the entry pass. Gibbs has long since mastered the entry pass you learned from your childhood basketball camp instructors. He whips low, sliding bounces into the post to either hand, essentially on command; there are few players in the country better at reading the shape of an opposing post defender and leading his target in the opposite direction.
Post entry might seem like an obscure skill to focus on, but Gibbs' gift just so happens to align beautifully with McDermott's. Nearly 34 percent of McDermott's offensive possessions came on post-ups last season, according to Synergy scouting data. McDermott typically works quickly, turning over one of his two shoulders, sealing his defender behind him, and finishing at the rim (or over his shoulder with a baby hook, or with a fading jumper, or headfaking his defender into oblivion, or ... pretty much any other quick post move you can think of, honestly). Counting up the number of easy buckets resulting from a perfect Gibbs entry into a perfect McDermott seal in the past two seasons is not something we could manage in an afternoon, but rest assured: It's a lot.
Gibbs is crucial in other ways, too, of course. He created 1.118 points points per trip as the primary ballhandler on pick and roll situations last season and 1.35 when he finished those pick and rolls with a pass. He deftly uses angles to overcome his lack of speed, he defends his position credibly (at least relative to the defense-averse Bluejays), he chips in defensive boards and, to break out the hoary sports cliches, he sets the tone. There are few more obvious leaders in the sport.
Gibbs began his collegiate career at Gonzaga, where he redshirted his freshman season with a torn labrum. When he transferred to Creighton, his one-year holdover period was spent recovering from knee surgery. When Creighton's intentions to appeal the NCAA for a sixth year were announced, it was unclear whether the eligibility office would consider those two seasons the equivalent of medical redshirts -- whether it would show a flexibility, albeit in different circumstances, it ultimately withheld from Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis.
The answer, as we learned on Tuesday, is yes. It's huge for the immediate future of the program Greg McDermott -- who just four years ago left Iowa State and found Creighton, and his barely recruited late-blooming son, as his career lifeboats -- now leads into the Big East. It's central to the Bluejays' chances of making one last deep tournament push. And, most exciting of all, it's an extension of one of the best one-two offensive punches in recent college hoops memory. The Creighton Connection rolls on after all.