College Basketball Nation: Grant Gibbs

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When Grant Gibbs lost four to six weeks of his final season at Creighton, it wasn’t just bad news for the Bluejays, or a sad break for a 24-year-old senior who is a senior precisely because he has so frequently been injured. It was also -- or at least it appeared to be -- very bad news for senior Doug McDermott.

After Sunday’s 35-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist, 13-of-24-from-the-field clinic in Creighton’s win over Xavier, let's just go ahead and issue a correction:

[+] EnlargeGrant Gibbs
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsIt seemed as if the injury to Creighton's Grant Gibbs would complicate teammate Doug McDermott's player of the year candidacy. But the Bluejays adjusted well against Xavier.
Never mind.

Not that the concern wasn’t well-founded. The two-time All-American has always drawn the lion's share of the Bluejays' headlines, and rightfully so: He is one of the best and most thrilling offensive players in recent decades. The last time any college basketball player scored like this -- this often, and this efficiently -- his name was Kevin Durant.

But few realize just how important Gibbs has been to that three-year run of success. As Gibbs himself pointed out to SI.com’s Luke Winn in November, McDermott maintains his crazy combination of efficiency and usage in large part because he "often scores while holding the ball for less than a second." Since McDermott’s breakout sophomore season, the majority of his possessions have taken place on the low block. This season, per Synergy data, nearly 28 percent of his trips end in post-ups. And when McDermott posts up, he doesn’t back dudes down for six seconds like, say, Anthony Mason. ("Compare Doug McDermott to Anthony Mason" achievement unlocked.) He pivots and seals and works over either shoulder, depending on where the defender has left himself exposed, often before that defender even knows what's happening. It is immediate and intuitive.

If McDermott is defended well, he'll fade off his back foot, or he'll kick and repost or slide to the wing. But most of the time, he's posting up, and for the past two seasons no player has been better at slinging low pinpoint bounce passes to exactly the place McDermott needs them than has Gibbs.

It was fair to ask whether Gibbs' sudden absence -- to say nothing of the sprained shoulder McDermott suffered in the same game -- would lessen the ease with which the forward racked up his patented buckets. Creighton's sublime offense hinges on McDermott's ability to score frequently and efficiently at the same time, and Creighton's overall chances hinge on its offense. For McDermott, the individual stakes were clear. What if Gibbs' absence diminished his status as the front-runner for national player of the year? What if it cost him his chance to score 3,000 points -- a historic feat only a handful of college basketball players have ever achieved?

Never mind all that. Sunday's by-the-book outburst against a good Xavier group is a one-game sample, sure, but it was also a pretty clear statement: Both the Bluejays and their generational star are versatile enough on the offensive end to thrive without Gibbs, at least for the time being. In the process, McDermott leapt from 36th to 28th on the all-time scoring list, passing Jimmer Fredette, Joe Dumars, Don MacLean, Mark Macon and Calbert Cheaney.

The Bluejays will be fine. McDermott will be fine. So get your Google Alerts aligned, and get your Twitter saved searches on point. The chase for 3,000 is officially on.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

Iowa 84, Ohio State 74: The Hawkeyes finally finish. "Last season's Iowa squad would not have won Sunday's game at Ohio State because it would not have finished. The 2012-13 Hawkeyes were a frustrating bunch. Although clearly boasting a strong roster, they didn't know how to win big games, how to finish them. The latter is all that matters in college basketball. … That’s why No. 20 Iowa’s 84-74 win at No. 3 Ohio State was such a meaningful victory for the program. Sure, it's the team's first true signature win of the season. And even though it's early in the conference season, the win puts the Hawkeyes in solid position for Big Ten contention. Beyond that, however, Iowa proved it could finish a marquee game on the road. That's the most significant lesson of this moment for Iowa basketball." — Myron Medcalf, ESPN.com

Knee injuries sideline Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie, Pitt’s Durand Johnson. In the big scheme of things, a road loss to a rebuilding Washington team in Pac-12 play is no big deal. Far more important to Colorado is whether guard Dinwiddie, who had to be carried off the court in the first half after a gruesome-looking knee injury Sunday, will be able to return this season. "My gut says it's not good," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "But we'll see." The loss would for Colorado would be immense; no player has been more important to the Buffaloes' rebirth under Boyle. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh already knows the sad truth about emerging sixth man Johnson: He's out for the season with a torn ACL.

Oregon just keeps losing. During its 13-0 start, the inverse of that headline -- "Oregon just keeps winning" -- appeared in this exact location. Heady days, those. In a matter of two weeks, the Ducks have dropped three straight games, the latest of which (Thursday’s 96-83 loss to Cal and Sunday’s 82-80 loss to Stanford) both came on their home floor. The Ducks are still among the nation's best offenses, but they allow more than 1.03 points per possession, and it's killing them. (Oh, and don’t look now, but Stanford has recent wins at UConn and Oregon, and is looking more like a tournament team by the day.)

STAT OF THE WEEK: What happens when bad North Carolina offense meets ruthless Syracuse defense? A 57-45 loss that yielded two remarkable statistics: (1) The Orange won despite shooting just 35 percent. (2) The Tar Heels scored fewer points than any UNC team since 1997. The last time a North Carolina team scored fewer than 45 points in a game was a 1985 -- 1985! -- NCAA tournament loss to Villanova. In the words of noted North Carolinian Marty Huggins: It’s a mess.

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

(An all-Saturday slate follows here, but check back Monday morning for separate previews of two of this week's big early games.)

Saturday

Pittsburgh at Syracuse, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: Here are a few things you can expect from Pittsburgh-Syracuse: A physical rebounding battle on both ends of the floor (Pittsburgh rebounds 39.1 percent of its misses; Syracuse grabs 40.2). A lot of prodding, probing offense by the Panthers, who record an assist on nearly 64 percent of their possessions and rarely give opposing teams steals -- and are sure to lose if Syracuse can force them. And a lot of "Get ready for a Big East conference matchup oh wait" jokes on Twitter.

Michigan at Wisconsin, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: Whether Wisconsin will still have its status as one of the nation’s four remaining unbeatens come Saturday is to be determined; the Badgers visit Indiana Tuesday night. But either way, Iowa's win at Ohio State Sunday makes Wisconsin's tight victory over the Hawkeyes last week even more impressive in retrospect, and further establishes the Badgers as a neck-and-neck Big Ten favorite alongside Michigan State.

Michigan State at Illinois, 8 p.m. ET, BTN: Speaking of Wisconsin, Illinois' 95-70 loss to the Badgers in Madison Wednesday wasn't nearly their worst result of the week. That came Sunday, when John Groce's team scored 43 points in 58 possessions at -- wait for it -- Northwestern. Yeah. That sound you just heard is every Illini fan smashing their head against their desk. But hey, what better way to recuperate than a chance to upset Michigan State in Champaign, Ill.?

Oklahoma State at Kansas, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: Last February, Oklahoma State did something no Oklahoma State team had done since 1989: win in Allen Fieldhouse. They have the chance to do it again this weekend, only this time, the win won't break an extended Kansas home winning streak, and it wouldn't come as much of a shock -- just another sign that this is the year the Big 12 may finally shake loose of the Jayhawks' iron grip for the first time in a decade.

Louisville at Connecticut, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: It's hard to decide which team needs this game more: The Connecticut team that opened American play by dropping back-to-back road games at Houston and SMU, and that plays at Memphis on Thursday night? Or the Louisville group that just fell to Memphis in its own building, and is desperately searching for some frontcourt balance to match its backcourt in the wake of Chane Behanan’s dismissal? Let’s call it a draw.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Doug McDermottEric Francis/Getty ImagesCreighton forward Doug McDermott draws a foul, and screams, against Xavier's Justin Martin in Sunday's 95-89 win over the Musketeers. Note to prospective McDermott defenders: If you find yourself in this position, you've already lost.

What we're reading while we use the cold as an excuse to bust out the Blu-Ray copy of “Fargo.” Submit links via Twitter.

  • Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn is back with another edition of his enjoyably wonky Power Rankings, where San Diego State checks in as a top-10 team and this week’s Aaron Craft hyperbole proved totally out of whack -- especially in relation to Michigan State guard Gary Harris: “Friend-o'-the-Rankings Chris Mackinder compiled Defensive Score Sheets from the Spartans' overtime win over Ohio State on Tuesday, and his charting suggests that ESPN's lovefest should have been for Gary Harris instead of Craft. Craft's loose-ball dive near the end of regulation was one of the game's signature plays, and he did force four turnovers, but by DSS' standards -- which take into account field goals and free throws allowed, as well as rebounding -- it was not a Craftacular performance. Harris, meanwhile, forced seven (!) turnovers and 4.5 misses while yielding just three points in 42 minutes, which is incredible.”
  • On Wednesday, Creighton guard Grant Gibbs made his blog debut for USA Today’s “For The Win.” His first post is as funny and well-done as you’d expect, though the timing of his injury Sunday (right after he filed this first dispatch) rearranges the perspective just so. Gibbs will blog periodically for FTW, though, when you think about it, what is a blog, really? (Don’t answer that.)
  • CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb picks Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim as his midseason coach of the year, Orange Nation reacts with a resounding “wait … huh?”
  • UNC put all of coach Roy Williams’ post-Miami-loss press conference on YouTube, and the whole thing is worth a watch -- if you’re the kind of person who likes to watch people not having fun, anyway.
  • Via r/CollegeBasketball: Vanderbilt is offering giveaways to fill the student section … for the Kentucky game. Yeah. Yikes. (Good prize, though!)

What we're reading while we avoid making literacy jokes. Submit links via Twitter.

  • With anecdotes provided by outspoken former UNC-Chapel Hill learning specialist Mary Willingham, CNN’S “Schools of Thought” series gets in on the NCAA fun:
    “Willingham's job was to help athletes who weren't quite ready academically for the work required at UNC at Chapel Hill, one of the country's top public universities. But she was shocked that one couldn't read. And then she found he was not an anomaly. Soon, she'd meet a student-athlete who couldn't read multisyllabic words … another came with this request: ‘If I could teach him to read well enough so he could read about himself in the news, because that was something really important to him,’ Willingham said. … A CNN investigation found public universities across the country where many students in the basketball and football programs could read only up to an eighth-grade level. The data obtained through open records requests also showed a staggering achievement gap between college athletes and their peers at the same institution.”
  • "I see 5,000 fans at Pauley," ESPN’s own Dick Vitale said on a conference call Wednesday, "5,000 fans at a school and team of that caliber in Southern California, that's just humiliation. I know you've got to win and produce or people aren't coming out in Hollywood, baby, with all there is to do. But are you serious? UCLA is winning, winning big and there should be excitement, enthusiasm.” Really though, you give to give folks in L.A. a pass: It has been awfully cold.
  • Creighton’s Grant Gibbs couldn’t play in the second half for the Bluejays Tuesday night, and the early worry was that he might lose the rest of his season (and thus his college career) to a knee injury. It looks now like Gibbs will be able to return, but the 4-to-6-week timeframe still presents a huge challenge in Creighton’s Big East title viability. (As I alluded to on the Spreecast this afternoon, it will also be interesting to see how Gibbs’ injury -- who is a borderline telekinetic feeder of Doug McDermott at this point -- affects McDermott’s output, if at all.)
  • My second year after college, it was so cold in Chicago that the pipes in my (old, decrepit) walkup froze. This prevented me from showering before work, and my very cool boss at the time allowed me stay home that day. I like to tell that story to boost my cold-survival credentials. Xavier forward Isaiah Philmore has got me beat.
  • Rasheed Sulaimon, once banished to the bench, is starting for Duke again.

Afternoon Links: Above the law

December, 9, 2013
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What we're reading amid what might be the first truly dead night of the season.


Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we've turned our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. Today: Is Creighton's defense good enough?

Last October, in the heart of the 2012-13 preview window, the Creighton Bluejays made for an easy diagnosis. The previous season's breakout star, All-American forward Doug McDermott, was set to return for another year, as was point guard Grant Gibbs and a host of other key contributors. The Bluejays, already one of the five or six best offenses in the country, were sure to drench opponents in points in 2012-13. The only question was their defense.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Eileen Blass/USA TODAY SportsDoug McDermott is back at Creighton to lead a loaded roster.

Thirteen months later, the story remains the same.

McDermott eschewed the draft in favor of his senior 2013-14 season, in which he has a chance to become the first three-time All-American since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale. Gibbs was granted a slightly miraculous sixth year of eligibility, so he returns as well.

The Bluejays still have a host of veteran supporting pieces positioned to execute with maximum offensive efficiency, which they of course already did last season. But still, there is that nagging question: Can Creighton get stops?

It is less of a question than it was last October. Indeed, the Bluejays markedly improved on the defensive end last season, turning a defense that allowed over a point per trip to opponents in 2011-12 into one that held offenses to just .96. The Bluejays kept their key characteristics intact -- they still protected their own glass and eschewed steals in exchange for fewer fouls -- but improved on each.

And still, in the end, it got them exactly as far as they went in 2011-12: the second round of the NCAA tournament. No further.

To be fair, compared to the 1.2 points per possession yielded to North Carolina in March of 2012, the Bluejays' second-round tournament loss in 2013 wasn't a product of bad defense (Creighton held Duke to just 66 points on 64 possessions) so much as bad offense (they scored just 50 of their own). And besides, the NCAA tournament is a crazy place; there is only so much analytical value in those individual results. But the point remains: Creighton will be a very good offensive team this season; so good it will be hard to find much room to improve. (Maybe if McDermott and Ethan Wragge shoot 55 percent from 3 or something, which actually doesn't sound that ridiculous.) But it could still defend better. Not only is leading shot-blocker Gregory Echenique gone, but the Bluejays are moving to the new Big East and facing a much tougher night-to-night conference slate therein.

There is good news: Even if the Bluejays don't change a lick this season, they're going to be good. Gibbs and McDermott are old hands now; they can post, kick, re-post and score in REM sleep. This offense is still going to be excellent, and excellent to watch. But whether Creighton can get to that proverbial next level -- whether it can present itself as a legitimate national title contender befitting of the peerless work of its star -- will still have to come on the defensive end.


It’s definitely not a stretch to envision Creighton conquering the new edition of the Big East in the league’s first year of operation.

Doug McDermott, a certain preseason All-American and legit NBA prospect, is back for his senior season. He averaged 23.2 ppg and 7.7 rpg last year, and he made 49 percent of his 3-point attempts.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesDoug McDermott returns to Creighton as a top candidate for national player of the year, but questions linger about the Bluejays' inside game.
Grant Gibbs will get a sixth year of eligibility. Ethan Wragge will be a senior.

Georgetown, if fully healthy, could pose a threat to Creighton. But Hoyas standout Greg Whittington might miss the entire season.
While Marquette could enter the year as the league’s favorite, following last season’s run to the Elite Eight, the Bluejays are clearly legit contenders for the conference crown in 2013-14.

But they must overcome one major question mark: What will the Bluejays do inside?

Without veteran big man Gregory Echenique, the program proceeds without a player who anchored the post for last season’s squad. It’s an obvious issue for a program that still has more strengths than weaknesses, Creighton coach Greg McDermott told ESPN.com on Thursday.

“It’s a huge void on the defensive end of the floor,” he said. “We didn’t ever double with Gregory. … Gregory was so good at defending the block one on one, and [he] was able, for the most part, to keep himself out of foul trouble and make it difficult for opponents to score over the top of him. So that’s an adjustment for us. We’re going to have to be more creative because we don’t have that physical size and strength at that position that we had a year ago. We’re going to be playing a few more inexperienced guys. We’ll have to be creative with how we defend the post. But there’s no question we’re going to miss Gregory.”

The Bluejays could man the interior by committee this season. Junior Will Artino is a 6-foot-11 center who will be asked to contribute more than the 7.9 mpg he gave the program last year. Second-year man Geoffrey Groselle will help, too. And Wragge is also versatile enough to contribute inside.

And McDermott said he hopes his son will be a more effective scorer around the basket this season, too.

“I just made a cut-tape for Doug about a week ago of Kevin McHale so Doug could watch some of his footwork and the things that he does and the shot-fakes that he used around the basket and the baskets he was able to score without ever leaving the floor,” he said.

This Creighton team clearly has depth and plenty of talent. But the Bluejays’ post presence, or lack thereof, could determine its level of success this season.

Bracket reveal: Wooden Legacy

July, 17, 2013
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Editor's note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Wooden Legacy.

When and where: Nov. 28-29 at Titan Gym in Fullerton, Calif.; Dec. 1 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Initial thoughts: What used to be the 76 Classic and the Anaheim Classic has produced a field the Wizard would approve of. This field crisscrosses the country for teams, mixes in high-profile name brands with others on the rise and features a player that Wooden would certainly adore -- Creighton’s Doug McDermott. The interesting part about the field? No one is a given. The top draw teams -- Marquette, Creighton, San Diego State and Miami -- all have holes to fill, some more than others, but all have the potential to become very good by season’s end.

[+] EnlargeCarson
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsPoint guard Jahii Carson used his speed to shine last season at Arizona State.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: Creighton-Arizona State. The Bluejays got some unexpected good news this offseason when the NCAA granted guard Grant Gibbs an extra year of eligibility. He’s not the same type of player that Jahii Carson is -- with the luxury of playing setup man thanks to McDermott whereas Carson is more a one-man wrecking crew -- but he’s every bit as important. Herb Sendek’s squad keeps nosing at the bar. Can the Sun Devils get an early breakthrough with a win here?

Potential matchup I’d like to see: Marquette-Miami, a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 matchup. Let’s be honest. A lot of people want to know if the Hurricanes of last season were merely a flash in the pan or if Jim Larranaga has something brewing in South Florida. This would be a good gauge. Unlike Miami, Marquette has plenty of talent back and is adding more to the fold in the form of JaJuan Johnson. Plus, when was the last time it was smart to count out the Golden Eagles?

Five players to watch

Doug McDermott, Creighton: McDermott is the single best walk-on in college basketball, accepting that role after Gibbs was granted an extra year. Already a two-time All-American, he gave the sport a boost when he opted to return for his senior year. Now we all get to enjoy it.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: He may be the best player many people haven’t heard of. The Pac-12 co-freshman of the year, Carson is a dynamic point guard who can score and dish with equal efficiency. A good showing would be like an overdue debut for the Sun Devil.

Davante Gardner, Marquette: The Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year was rock solid last season but will be expected to do even more this year now that Vander Blue is gone. He’s more than capable, as he’s proved in the past.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State: Now that Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley are gone, it’s Thames’ turn. He played much of last season with a bad back and still managed to be an adept floor manager. But the challenge is greater without Franklin and Tapley to feed.

Maurice Creek, George Washington: The hard-luck senior spent the better part of his Indiana career rehabbing various injuries. For his final run, he decided to go close to home, transferring to GW, where -- since he already graduated -- he can play immediately. Once a red-hot recruit, if he can finally stay healthy and realize his potential, it could be big for the Colonials.

Title-game prediction: Creighton over Marquette.

This could be a preview of the first new Big East title game. Either the Bluejays, with McDermott back in the fold, or the Golden Eagles, hot off their Elite Eight run, ought to be favored to win the conference.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Marquette over Creighton
Jeff Goodman: Creighton over Marquette
Andy Katz: Creighton over Marquette
Jason King: Marquette over Creighton
Myron Medcalf: Marquette over Creighton
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.
Last week, when Creighton star Doug McDermott announced he would return for his senior season, I tweeted the following:

Please excuse the self-referencing tweet, but it is not a brag. Indeed, it was supposed to be a joke. I didn't think there was any chance Grant Gibbs could find a sixth year of eligibility lurking somewhere in his NCAA ledger. Sad as it was, I figured dude's career was over.

Turns out that might not be the case. Gibbs has actually had a rather complex career. He spent two seasons at Gonzaga before transferring to Creighton, but the first year at Gonzaga, a redshirt year, coincided with an injury that would have kept him off the floor anyway. And when he sat out the customary transfer year at Creighton, he also had knee surgery. So, as Gibbs told the Omaha World-Herald, Creighton may yet try to find him one more year of play somewhere in the NCAA's ever-byzantine and occasionally flexible eligibility rules.

Gibbs said Creighton has begun a process that might end with him getting a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA. The school has sent Gibbs’ records to a law firm that specializes in dealing with NCAA issues. “If they indicate it’s worth it,” Gibbs said, “we’ll probably pursue it.”

Of course, it's a long shot, longer than most. I can't remember an instance (in recent history, at least) where a player's early-career injuries caused the NCAA to allow him to keep playing after his five-year clock had run its course. The NCAA has shown some willingness to be flexible in general, but typically borne of complicated extenuating circumstances. And such appeals usually involve medical redshirts taken in a fifth year, for example.

Still, as Gibbs says, there is a chance. Maybe we haven't seen the last perfect Gibbs-to-McDermott spinning bounce pass after all.

3-point shot: Cardinal need momentum

December, 18, 2012
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1. This is a huge week for Stanford. The Cardinal are looking for momentum as they start Pac-12 play since they failed to pick up quality wins in games against Missouri and Minnesota in the Battle 4 Atlantis and since they lost a home game to Belmont. The Cardinal are at NC State Tuesday and at Northwestern Friday. Stanford, which won the NIT, is 7-3. "Our effort and defense has been consistent," said Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins. "It has allowed us to be very competitive. We need to improve our field percentage (39.8 for 294th overall in Division I)." The Cardinal can’t afford to leave everything to Pac-12 play. The resume needs something from the pre-conference slate.

2. Creighton’s Doug McDermott has been sensational so far this season, averaging 23.7 points a game and scoring more than 30 in consecutive games against Akron and at Cal. But this isn’t a one-man team. Creighton coach Greg McDermott said guard Grant Gibbs (6.3 apg, 0.9 tpg) has had “a floor game that is off the charts. Austin Chatman has filled in well at point guard (4.3 apg, 2.1 tpg). Gregory Echenique has improved inside. I’m just fortunate to have a group of guys that understand what they can and can’t do. Sounds easy but it’s not in this day and age.’’

3. Butler coach Brad Stevens said he thought BU president James Denko’s statement about the school’s possible interest in leaving the A-10 to join the Big East Catholic seven as being “a proactive way to answer what we’ve all been asked a lot in the past few days.’’ Danko made it clear that Butler will look out for Butler wherever that lands the Bulldogs. There wasn’t a commitment to the A-10 in the statement, just a guarantee the Bulldogs will continue to do what is right for the school.
Unlike shooting or rebounding or point guard play or the variety of other specific basketball skills we’ve been highlighting in our Best of the Best lists throughout this week, the category of “most important” is far trickier to quantify. It depends not only on a player’s contributions, but on the team around him and where the two dynamics meet in the middle. There is also a constant temptation to conflate “most important” with “best” or “most valuable,” and those arguments (hello, baseball) always make my head hurt.

My editors asked me to name the 10 players most important to their teams in the country, and that’s precisely what I’m going to try to do. But I also attempted to avoid the rabbit hole that is individual talent at the mid-major level. Instead, I tried to narrow the criteria down to players most important to their teams’ chances of winning a national title, or making a deep tournament run, or maintaining some level of national relevance. Let’s give it a shot:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Canaan
AP Photo/Dave Martin, FileWith much of last season's cast gone, Isaiah Canaan is even more key to Murray State this season.
1. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: Last season, Canaan was hands down the best and most important player on a team that went 31–2, leading his team in minutes, points, assists, offensive rating (122.2), 3-point field goal percentage (45.6) and a wide swath of other statistical categories. He dominated the ball, scored at will and facilitated to boot. He was really, really good.

And that was on a team that included seniors Donte Poole, Ivan Aska and Jewuan Long, on a team that already was beginning to bring along guard Zay Jackson as Canaan’s new backcourt partner. The first three players are gone to graduation; Jackson is missing the entire season after pleading guilty to wanton endangerment for running over two people with his car in a Walmart parking lot. (True story.) So Canaan, already crucial to his team’s success a year ago, becomes the primary returner on a squad that still very much maintains conference-title and NCAA tournament aspirations. No one player in the country will mean more to his team this season.

2. Cody Zeller, Indiana: Zeller, the AP Preseason Player of the Year, obviously is important. He is the unifying force on a team that desperately needed exactly what he provided as a freshman: interior scoring, rebounding, strength, efficiency, you name it. He led the Hoosiers in field goal attempts by a wide margin, and Indiana fans could frequently be heard complaining that Zeller wasn’t getting enough touches. Truth is, they probably were right. Before he arrived, with similar personnel, Indiana won 12 games. Afterward, they went 27–9. He doesn’t get credit for all 15 wins of that improvement -- other players got better, too -- but there’s no question his impact was immense. You know all this already.

Here’s the twist, though: All offseason, we’ve been praising the Hoosiers’ depth, and there’s no question Tom Crean has a wealth of pieces at his disposal. But right now, aside from Zeller, the frontcourt is looking a little slim. Forward Derek Elston (better as a 15-foot jump-shooter anyway) is injured, and the eligibility statuses of freshman Hanner Mosquera-Perea (a wide-shouldered rebounding force) and Peter Jurkin (a 7-foot center) are both up in the air. Zeller already has much riding on his shoulders, and more help was supposed to be on the way. If it isn’t, Zeller’s task becomes even more daunting.

3. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Last season, there were two players in the country who used at least 28 percent of their team’s available possessions and posted offensive ratings (a measure of individual player efficiency) above 120. The first was Damian Lillard, who did this for the Portland Trail Blazers the other night. The other: Doug McDermott. He shot 63.2 percent from inside the arc (on 400 shots) and 48.6 percent outside (on 111), and he rebounded well on both ends for good measure. Creighton has guys who can play. Grant Gibbs is a sublime entry passer, Jahenns Manigat is coming on strong and Ethan Wragge can shoot it. But there’s no getting around the fact that McDermott’s incredible inside-out offensive versatility was the main reason his team boasted the fifth-most efficient offense in the country last season, per KenPom.com. Seeing as Creighton’s defense was so lackluster, the Bluejays very much needed that offense. Even assuming they improve somewhat on the defensive end this season, they’ll still need to score like crazy in 2012-13. That’s where McDermott comes in.

4. Peyton Siva, Louisville: Every time we talk about the huge talents returning at Louisville, we talk about how good the defense is going to be. This is for good reason: It was the best in the country last season, good enough to get the No. 4-seeded Cardinals to the Final Four. It will keep them in excellent shape in the season to come. It’s bankable like that. Then, after we sing the defensive hosannas, we get around to talking about how so-so Louisville’s offense was, and how if the Cardinals are truly a national title contender they have to find ways to score.

Siva is the most crucial piece in this discussion. The UL senior point guard is 5-foot-11 and quick as lightning; the problem is that he just isn’t very efficient. He shot 24.6 percent from 3 in 2011-12. He turned the ball over on nearly a third of his possessions (29.3 percent). According to Synergy scouting data, Louisville uses Siva more frequently than any other player to initiate pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key, a play type it favors as a team, but he is merely average in his execution. Why? Because defenses don’t have to respect his jumper. They play under the screen, the play dies and Louisville goes to Plan B.

To me, if Louisville is going to turn its offense to something more coherent, Siva is the key. Without a more efficient performance at the point guard spot, the Cardinals will still be a brutally tough out. But they won’t reach their full potential.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrow
Mark Zerof/US PresswireNC State transfer Ryan Harrow takes the reins of a talented, but again young, Kentucky squad.
5. Ryan Harrow, Kentucky: The NC State transfer is getting his moment in the John Calipari point-guard spotlight this season, a vaunted role typically reserved for NBA lottery picks. That spotlight can be harsh -- never more so than from Calipari himself -- but there are good reasons for Calipari’s insistence on point guard excellence. For one, his dribble-drive offensive system (which he has used variously in recent seasons, and might return to more in 2012-13) thrives on point guard play more than most.

The second reason? Harrow, who spent last season on the bench after a freshman campaign in Raleigh, is in many ways a veteran in Kentucky’s latest amalgamation of highly talented but still raw freshmen. His ability to run an effective offense, while dealing with players still getting used to each other and the college level at the same time, will be key to Kentucky’s success this season.

6. Trey Burke, Michigan: Burke has something of a similar challenge to Harrow’s, but one accentuated by what could be a major adjustment at the offensive end. Last season, Burke sprang onto the scene at the helm of an archetypal John Beilein-style "spread the floor and fire away" 3-point-shooting team. The team’s three most efficient shooters are gone, replaced by touted freshmen (Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary) unlike anything Beilein has had the luxury of landing during his tenure in Ann Arbor. Now, Michigan’s best lineup will look more conventional, with big, athletic, bruising players.

This could be a boon on defense, but it will require a shift on offense; it seems almost unfathomable the Wolverines will shoot nearly as many 3s this season. At the middle of it all will be Burke, a preseason All-American who will see his distribution and leadership abilities fully put to the test.

7. Adonis Thomas, Memphis: It was tempting to put point guard Joe Jackson in this spot. The same could be said for center Tarik Black. Jackson has still yet to harness his immense talent in a totally cohesive way; Black can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble. But I decided to go with Thomas. Why? For one, he’ll be stepping into former Tiger Will Barton’s shoes, and there was no mistaking Barton was the best player on a pretty underrated 2011-12 Memphis team. But Thomas could arguably be even better, at least on the offensive end; by all accounts, the 6-6 small forward has been utterly lacing long-range shots all offseason. That versatility would make Thomas, who played power forward until his injury last season, an utter nightmare to guard and could introduce a new dynamism to a Memphis offense that was already pretty good in the first place. I’m really intrigued.

8. Lorenzo Brown, NC State: C.J. Leslie is the obvious pick here, but I think we kind of know what we’re going to get with him. He’s athletic, he’s one of the best in the country at catching on the block or elbow and diving to either side of the rim, and he should be locked in from start to finish this season. Maybe that’s presumptuous, but I’m taking Leslie’s productivity as a given. (OK, it’s definitely presumptuous. Make me look smart, C.J.) Brown, on the other hand, feels more crucial because, like some of the other PGs on this list, it is his job to make the whole Wolfpack thing work. That includes integrating Rodney Purvis; playing better defense at the point of attack; and keeping Leslie involved and finding sharpshooter Scott Wood on the wing. If Brown has a top season, NC State might indeed be worthy of that lofty, tourney-run-infused No. 6 preseason ranking. If not, the “overrated” refrain will ring out early and often.

9. Phil Pressey, Missouri: Senior guard Michael Dixon’s indefinite suspension probably won’t last too long, but that’s hardly the only reason Pressey deserves a nod here. Along with Dixon -- who is more of a catch-and-shoot player than Pressey, a gifted ball handler, penetrator and creator -- Missouri’s backcourt has kind of a crazy/thrilling challenge on its hands in 2012-13. The Tigers have to replace the losses of Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Marcus Denmon with four transfers: Keion Bell (from Pepperdine), Jabari Brown (from Oregon), Alex Oriakhi (from Connecticut) and Earnest Ross (from Auburn). Those players have all been on campus for a while, and it’s not exactly like figuring out guys you just picked up in an open run ... but compared to the rest of the country, it’s not all that far off, either.

10. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: It will be easy, in the coming months and years, to forget just how good North Carolina’s 2011-12 frontcourt was. That’s what happens when you have gigantic expectations and bow out of the NCAA tournament short of the Final Four. But let it be known: Tyler Zeller and John Henson (and, oh yeah, Harrison Barnes) were really good. Not only did they control the paint and score easily on the offensive end, but they were fast enough to race down the floor in Roy Williams’ up-tempo system, getting easy buckets on offense and turning UNC’s interior defense into its overall team strength.

Given all that, McAdoo has a ton riding on him in 2012-13. He was a highly touted recruit who probably could have been a lottery pick last season, but he chose to avoid that route (word to Marvin Williams) and come back to prove himself on the college stage. Carolina returns some promising wings (P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald) and brings in a really interesting frosh at point guard (Iowa native Marcus Paige), but McAdoo will be in charge of the low block. If he lives up to his heady NBA potential, look out. If not, UNC will labor. It’s that simple.

Three Big Things: Creighton

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
10:45
AM ET
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Creighton.

1. Yesterday's Three Big Things covered the Duke Blue Devils. In case you didn't read it, or are addicted to Reddit and prefer summaries on anything longer than 150 words, your TL;DR on the Dukies was pretty straightforward: The 2011-12 Blue Devils scored the ball at a high rate, but -- uncharacteristically for Coach K teams -- were merely so-so on defense. That imbalance held them back from being truly elite and made them vulnerable to their eventual (if still shocking) first-round upset at the hands of Lehigh.

But as offense-defense efficiency imbalances go, Duke had nothing on Creighton.

The Bluejays were the fifth-most efficient offensive team in the country last season. Yep. True story. Only Missouri, Kentucky, Florida and Indiana (in that order) put the ball in the basket in a more efficient manner than did Greg McDermott's team. And that, being a Pomeroy adjusted efficiency ranking, is, you know, adjusted. It wasn't a product of a soft non-conference schedule, or a forgiving Missouri Valley Conference (which wasn't the case anyway). The Bluejays were that good.

2. The complete offensive explosion of forward Doug McDermott had much to do with the Bluejays' scorching offensive work. After a good freshman season, McDermott went nuts, well, brace yourself for numbers: He averaged 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on 48.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 63.2 percent shooting inside it. His effective field goal percentage (65.4) and true shooting percentage (67.8) were the sixth- and third-best in the country, respectively. McDermott took (get this) 33.3 percent of his team's available shots, but that didn't hurt his efficiency one lick: He still put up a 123.5 offensive rating, second-best (behind Weber State's Damian Lillard) of any player in the country with a usage rate higher than 28 percent.

[+] EnlargeGrant Gibbs
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireThe passing of Grant Gibbs, right, was crucial in feeding Creighton scoring machine Doug McDermott.
He was, in a word, crazy good. All right, that's two words. Whatever. You get the point. (The point is that Doug McDermott gets buckets. You did get that, right?)

Which is not to say McDermott didn't have his fair share of help on the offensive end. Guard Grant Gibbs, besides having excellent taste in Ghostface Killah verses, frequently worked inside-out with McDermott when McDermott posted and isolated and re-posted on the block. As Luke Winn pointed out during the MVC tournament in March, Gibbs' sublime bounce-passing from the wing helped McDermott get easy looks, in the process earning Gibbs the highest assist rate (27.4 percent) on his team. Big-bodied forward Gregory Echenique was a force on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, and point guard Antoine Young kept everything in sync from the point guard spot.

Young is the only Creighton regular not returning this 2012-13 season. Even if McDermott can't keep his insane scoring pace -- and I think he can, even if it is a lot to ask -- there's little reason reason to expect this offense to do anything but dominate. There will be points. Lots and lots of points.

3. The only problem with everything I just wrote: None of it has much to do with the defensive end. And that side of the floor will determine -- perhaps more for the Bluejays than for any other highly touted team this season -- what the Bluejays are eventually able to accomplish.

Because Creighton wasn't like Duke; it wasn't merely defensively mediocre. The Bluejays were actually ... kind of bad. They ranked No. 178 in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency; on average, they yielded more than a point per trip over the entire season. They allowed opposing teams to average 49.7 percent effective shooting, good for 204th in the country. They were one of the very worst teams in the country (seriously: they ranked No. 343) in their rate of turnovers forced, and weren't much better blocking shots or ripping steals or defending teams beyond the arc.

There was some good news here. Greg McDermott's squad protected its own glass very well, and it traded a lack of turnovers for a lack of fouls.

But at the end of the day, the positives of Creighton's defense were outweighed by the negatives. For a team so very elite on the offensive end, the defense didn't even come close.

That makes this analysis, like Duke, pretty straightforward. Creighton is bringing back the heart -- including a hyper-efficient preseason All-American scoring star -- of a team that was already good despite playing substandard defense. To meet or exceed last season's already-high standards, the Bluejays don't need to suddenly become Alabama (even if they did that briefly in the NCAA tournament). If they can maintain their offensive pace and just play better on the defensive end -- if they can lower that adjusted efficiency to, say, a point per trip -- they have a huge opportunity to improve.

And really, at the end of the day, this team's prospectus is about the NCAA tournament. This is a very good bunch; Creighton will get back with ease in 2013.

Now it's about what the Bluejays can do when they get there, when the intensity goes up and possessions seem more valuable and opponents are more athletic and one game -- one 48-hour scouting session by a highly paid coaching staff scheming to shut your vaunted offense down -- is what stands between you and advancement. You have to get stops.

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A quick look at UNC-Creighton:

Overview: North Carolina’s John Henson returned. Teammate Kendall Marshall kept going.

With the 6-foot-11 forward back in the starting lineup after missing three games with a sprained left wrist, and the not-so-one-dimensional point guard turning in his sixth straight double-digit scoring game, the top-seeded Tar Heels toppled No. 8 seed Creighton 87-73 to advance to their 31st NCAA tournament regional semifinal.

The Tar Heels led by as many as 19 in the second half, but when the Bluejays pulled to within 11 with about five minutes left, UNC's Harrison Barnes buried back-to-back 3-pointers to seal his team's trip to St. Louis.

Creighton's Doug McDermott, Barnes' former high school teammate, finished with 20 points, but the Tar Heels just had too many weapons.

Marshall (18 points, 11 assists) and Henson (13 points, 10 rebounds) finished with double-doubles. Barnes finished with 17 points. Reggie Bullock added 13 points.

Turning point: The score was tied 11-11 in the first half when Henson got the ball and Creighton’s Grant Gibbs slapped down on it, hitting Henson’s wrapped wrist in the process. Henson exchanged words with the guard, earning a technical.

His teammates responded to his anger. After the Bluejays made one of the two technical free throws, UNC pushed on a 28-12 run to take its largest lead of the half (39-24). Marshall scored nine in a row for the Tar Heels at one point during the breakaway, and the baby-blue clad spectators were as loud as any of those at the Smith Center this season.

Key player: Henson, who did all the aforementioned things wearing tape and a molded splint on his left wrist.

Key stat: The Tar Heels recorded only seven blocks in their three games without Henson. Sunday, they had nine.

Miscellaneous: One of the biggest cheers of the game came with about a minute left in the first half at Greensboro Coliseum, when UNC fans applauded Lehigh (which upset rival Duke on Friday) as it entered the building.

What’s next: Top-seeded UNC will play No. 13 seed Ohio on Friday in St. Louis in the Midwest Region semifinals.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Breaking down No. 8 seed Creighton's 58-57 victory over No. 9 Alabama at Greensboro Coliseum on Friday:

Overview: The Bluejays rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half and then survived the Crimson Tide's furious rally in the closing seconds to get their first win in the NCAA tournament since 2002.

Creighton had a chance to put the game away in the final minute, but the Bluejays went 1-for-5 on foul shots in the final 33 seconds. Alabama made it 58-57 on guard Andrew Steele's layup with 18.4 seconds to go, and then Creighton guard Josh Jones missed two foul shots with 8.7 seconds left.

Alabama set up for a last-second play with 4.7 seconds remaining, but then Tide coach Anthony Grant called timeout just after the ball was inbounded. With 2.4 seconds to go, Tide guard Trevor Releford fired a 3-pointer from the top of the key, but Jones partially blocked it at the buzzer.


Turning point: After trailing for the last five minutes of the first half and most of the second, the Bluejays made their move with less than nine minutes to go. With the Crimson Tide holding a 48-41 lead, Creighton guard Grant Gibbs threw an inbounds pass off the back of Alabama forward JaMychal Green and scored on a layup to make it 48-43 with 8:43 left. The Bluejays got back-to-back 3-pointers from Ethan Wragge and Jones to take a 51-50 lead with 5:39 remaining.

Key player: Creighton's Doug McDermott came into the game as the country's third-leading scorer with 23.2 points per game. He had to work for everything against Alabama, scoring 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting with nine rebounds and one blocked shot. His layup put the Bluejays ahead 54-50 with 3:44 remaining.

Key stat: The Bluejays had 14 assists (on 22 shots) with only seven turnovers. Creighton never really allowed Alabama's full-court press to become much of a factor in the game.

Miscellaneous: Green finished with 12 points and six rebounds in his final game at Alabama. ... Gibbs had 10 points with six rebounds and four assists. ... Creighton outscored Bama 26-18 in the paint and outscored its bench 18-6. ... Creighton's last win in the NCAA tournament came on March 15, 2002, when Terrell Taylor hit a 3-pointer with 0.2 seconds left in double overtime to defeat No. 5 seed Florida 83-82 in Chicago.


What’s next: Creighton will play the winner of top-seeded North Carolina and No. 16 Vermont on Sunday.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Breaking down the Friday afternoon games in Greensboro:

No. 9 seed Alabama (21-11) vs. No. 8 Creighton (28-5), 1:40 p.m. ET

Creighton loves to score in a hurry; the Bluejays averaged 80 points per game and scored 90 or more nine times this season.

Alabama prefers to play at a relative snail’s pace, limiting its opponents to only 58.1 points per game, fewest in the SEC and ninth-fewest in NCAA Division I.

Their contrasting styles will meet in a Midwest Region second-round game at Greensboro Coliseum.

“It’s tough for us to simulate,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “But we’re not going to change anything that we do. We’re going to shoot a bunch of 3s, we’re going to try to jam it inside, we’re going to try to fly it up and down the floor, just like we have played all year. You can’t change anything at this stage of the game.”

Why would the Bluejays change anything now? Creighton has won seven games in a row, including an 83-79 victory in overtime over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game March 4. The Bluejays rank No. 7 nationally in scoring and they’ve made 42.5 percent of their 3-pointers and 50.9 percent of their shots overall.

Sophomore guard Doug McDermott, the coach’s son, ranks No. 3 nationally in scoring with 23.2 points per game and was No. 2 in the MVC with 8.2 rebounds. He knows he’ll face a stiff challenge from the Crimson Tide, who will be longer and more athletic than most opponents he faced this season.

“I’ve seen a lot of different defenses this year with double teams and guys just being more physical with me,” McDermott said. “But I think that if they’re going to put a lot of attention on me, it’s just going to open up a lot of things for [my teammates].”

The Crimson Tide recovered from a 3-6 stretch in midseason to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2006. Alabama overcame the suspensions of four players and myriad injuries to win five of its final seven games. Tide forward Tony Mitchell, the team’s second-leading scorer with 13.1 points per game, was suspended on Feb. 20 for the rest of the season. Because of the roster upheaval, the Tide used 13 starting lineups and eight in its past 11 games.

“I think that every program at some point during the year, whether it’s injuries or illnesses or something, you go through adversity,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “I think every coach you talk to says your team’s going to face adversity and [it’s about] how you handle that adversity. Sometimes that adversity can come through losing; sometimes it comes through winning. But that’s just a part of the game. Our team’s no different. I think our guys have grown and matured over the course of the season, individually and collectively.”

Who to watch:

Creighton’s McDermott: No player will get as much defensive attention as McDermott, who was named MVC Player of the Year and set a Creighton season record with 765 points. Only two other sophomores in MVC history scored 700 points in a season -- Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird. McDermott ranked second in the MVC in 3-point shooting (49.5 percent) and scored 30 points or more in six games.

Creighton’s Gregory Echenique: Creighton’s chances might come down to Echenique’s ability to hold his own against Alabama’s frontcourt of JaMychal Green and Nick Jacobs. Echenique, a junior from Guatire, Venezuela, averaged 9.8 points and 7.4 rebounds and led the MVC in blocked shots in each of the past two seasons.

Alabama’s Green: After returning to the starting lineup against Auburn on Feb. 29, Green recorded double-doubles in three of the Tide’s final four games. He had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Tide’s 66-63 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament, the 27th double-double of his career. Green, the Tide’s only senior, missed seven games because of injuries and suspensions but still averaged 14 points and 7.4 rebounds.

What to watch: Guard play. The Crimson Tide likes to turn opponents over with a full-court press and half-court traps. The Bluejays turned the ball over 405 times -- 61 more than their opponents had in 33 games -- but senior Antoine Young led the MVC in assist/turnover ratio in each of the past two seasons. Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs was also among the MVC leaders with 5.1 assists per game.

No. 16 seed Vermont (24-11) vs. No. 1 North Carolina (29-5), 4:10 p.m. ET

North Carolina probably won’t need forward John Henson to defeat Vermont. After all, No. 1 seeds are 110-0 against No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

But if the Tar Heels are going to advance beyond the tournament’s opening weekend and perhaps even to the Final Four in New Orleans, they’ll need Henson to return from a left wrist injury that caused him to miss most of the past three games.

Henson, a 6-foot-10 junior from Tampa, Fla., went through about 70 percent of the team’s practice in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Thursday morning and then most of the Tar Heels’ light workout in Greensboro. The two-time reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Henson is averaging 13.8 points and 10.1 rebounds with 94 blocked shots this season.

Henson says he’s ready to play for the first time since injuring his wrist in the early minutes of an 85-69 win over Maryland in the ACC tournament on March 9, but UNC coach Roy Williams isn’t so sure.

“We practiced [Thursday] morning,” Williams said. “John did a little more than he did [Wednesday]. We let him in some live situations. He did not shoot the ball left-handed a single time. He did not block any shots left-handed. So I’m extremely concerned about that part of it, because that’s his dominant hand in a big, big way. He did block one shot, it was right-handed, and he took one jump hook right-handed and it fell about three miles short. But he felt like if the game were to be played today, he felt like he could play. I’m not convinced.”

If Henson can’t go, UNC freshman James Michael McAdoo will probably start his third consecutive game. McAdoo struggled on offense in UNC’s 85-82 loss to Florida State in the ACC final Sunday, scoring four points on 2-for-10 shooting. But he grabbed eight rebounds with one blocked shot and four steals.

“We prepare both ways, prepared for [Henson] to play as well as not play,” UNC senior Tyler Zeller said. “We don’t know yet what’s going to happen with him, so we have had him in for some plays. We have also had James Michael in with the first team playing a lot also. We’re just trying to prepare for whatever we have and make the best of it.”

Henson, who has 272 blocked shots in 106 games at Carolina, would be a big mismatch for the Catamounts, who don’t start a player taller than 6-8.

“I don’t think it’s affecting us,” Zeller said. “We would love to have John play. He’s a fantastic player, a great rebounder, shot blocker, and he can score. So all-around he’s a fantastic player. But we also have confidence in our substitutes, and John Michael especially, we have a lot of confidence in him to be able to step up and fit in the role.”

Who to watch:

North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall: The Tar Heels point guard has 330 assists this season, an UNC and ACC single-season record. Marshall’s assist total is the fifth-highest in NCAA history -- he needs only four more to move into fourth place -- and his 9.71 assists per game were the most by a sophomore in NCAA history.

North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller: The ACC Player of the Year led the conference in field goal percentage (56.9 percent) and offensive rebounds (four per game), was second in rebounds (9.7), third in scoring (18.5 points) and sixth in free throw percentage (83.3 percent).

Vermont’s Four McGlynn: McGlynn’s real name is Patrick McGlynn IV, but he goes by “Four.” McGlynn, a freshman from York, Pa., didn’t start a game all season, but he led the Catamounts with 12 points per game. He shot 39.3 percent on 3-pointers and 88.7 percent on foul shots.

What to watch: Pace of play. The Tar Heels average 82 points per game, which is No. 2 in NCAA Division I. The Catamounts gave up 80 points only one time in 35 games, an 80-75 loss to Long Island, which was No. 3 nationally in scoring with 81.9 points per game. Vermont held 23 of its last 24 opponents to 70 points or fewer in regulation.

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