'Incredible' Creighton puts it all together
“That was incredible.”
That was the first thing Creighton coach Greg McDermott said after the best win in Bluejays history, the first part of his first answer to the first TV question he was asked. McDermott quickly moved to pass around the praise -- how hot forward Ethan Wragge had been at the start of the game, how impressed he was with his team’s defense. But for a split second, as he exhaled, the man who has seen this Creighton team play more offensive possessions than anyone in the world, the man who built it in the first place, went wide-eyed. As if he could barely fathom it himself.
It was the only reasonable reaction. What Creighton’s offense did to No. 4 Villanova in Monday night’s 96-68 win in Philadelphia was so comprehensive and ruthless and beautiful, even those intimately familiar with the best offensive team in the country -- one led by the best offensive college basketball player in recent memory -- were forced to stop and rub their eyes. Even for those unfortunate hoops nerds with dozens of Creighton’s games on the DVR, Monday was a lucid dream you fight to occupy. It was basketball nirvana.
And for the unfamiliar? Call it a drastic, mind-blowing, historic notice of an otherwise straightforward fact: Creighton’s success is so much more than Doug McDermott.
That notice went out from the opening tip Monday night, and that’s no convenient sportswriter hyperbole. After two quick Villanova misses in the first 20 seconds, Wragge made his first 3-pointer of the evening. Forty-two seconds later, he made another. Then Jahenns Manigat, then McDermott, then Wragge again, at which point three breathless minutes had elapsed. Creighton led 15-5. Jay Wright took a timeout.
It didn’t help: Wragge splashed four more 3s -- each one deeper and more audacious than the last -- in the next three minutes, extending Creighton’s lead to 27-8. By the 9:35 mark, when Creighton had made 73 percent of its 3s, the numbers began to stretch credulity. The Bluejays scored 35 points in 16 possessions. With less than eight minutes to go in the half, they led 40-17. Stunned Villanova fans began to sarcastically cheer misses. What else could they do?
Soon, there were more misses to cheer. Late in the first half, Creighton fell into a sudden slump. The Wildcats scored 11 unanswered points and then got a succession of 3s from Ryan Arcidiacono, James Bell and Darrun Hilliard . . . and closed Creighton’s halftime lead to 13. That they weren’t closer was crazy in itself, almost as crazy as this: Wright’s vaunted defense, one of the best in the country this season, had allowed 54 points in one half on its home floor and wasn’t yet out of the game.
Those hopes lasted exactly as long as the halftime show. Where Wragge’s singular explosion had made the first half possible, the entire Bluejays attack came out to play in the second -- the ball whipping from side to side, shots coming in perfect rhythm and McDermott posting and drawing double-teams as Wildcats defenders flailed at late closeouts.
With 14 minutes to play, Wragge hit his ninth and final 3-pointer of the night, tying Kyle Korver's school record, an insane stat that says as much about Korver as it does Wragge. From 13:12 to 10:29, McDermott led one of the best three-minute offensive stretches these eyes have ever seen, a 14-point mortar shelling that made the score 84-47.
That the Bluejays failed to score 100 points by the final whistle, remarkable though it may be, ranks as one of Monday’s more mundane arcana. There are so many more: the 60 percent mark behind the arc. The Big East-record-breaking 21 3s. The 90-ish percent effective field goal rate they flirted with for most of the first 30 minutes. The 90 points that tied Villanova’s largest-ever yield at Wells Fargo Center, and the 33 minutes, 25 seconds it took them to get there. The 23-point night (on 13 shots) that moved McDermott past David Robinson to No. 22 on the all-time scoring list. The 2-25 mark all time against top-five teams. The 51 years since the program’s previous win over a team ranked this high (1963, No. 4 Arizona State).
That senior point guard Grant Gibbs, still nursing an injury, wasn’t even on the floor. That it happened just two days after an ugly 4-of-19 3-point night in a blowout loss to Providence. That all of the above came against one of this season’s best defenses, one that specializes in keeping opponents from winning the battle of the 3-point line.
It was, without qualification, the best win in Bluejays basketball history.
And, yes, it was a primer. Those just now turning their attention to college basketball have heard plenty about this McDermott kid at Creighton, and hey, isn’t he supposed to be pretty good? And lo: He is! But on Monday night, those folks got a radical and thrilling introduction to what makes the Bluejays so collectively vital. As good as McDermott is, the combined perimeter skill of Manigat, Austin Chatman and (most of all) Wragge is what makes Creighton, by far, the nation’s best offense.
Wragge is practically a basketball unicorn: a poorly bearded 6-foot-8 forward who makes nearly half of his 3s and who, in 154 attempts this season, has taken exactly six -- six -- two-point shots. His burst of 3s Monday was shocking in its volume; after all, he almost single-handedly buried the No. 4 team in the country in the first five minutes of the game. But for those familiar with Wragge’s skill set, Monday was merely the best possible outcome for the best 3-point shooter in the country, and then some.
Is this the best this Creighton team will ever play? Yes -- but that is no more an insult than saying “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Nirvana’s best song. For three years, Creighton has been working toward an offensive ideal, a perfect attack -- every screen a productive one, every flare crisp, every pass on point, every shot in rhythm. Most teams never get there. The few that do rarely last more than a few minutes.
Whatever happens in the months ahead, we'll always have Monday -- when Greg McDermott and his incredible son and the incredible bearded sharpshooter and the incredible offense got there. Two days after a dreary loss, Creighton unveiled its masterpiece.
"Incredible" doesn’t quite do it justice.