The NCAA tournament is here, and the UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns have drawn a doozy of an opponent for their opening game: Creighton’s Doug McDermott, one of the top scorers in college basketball history.
OMAHA, Neb. — The end is near. Creighton coach Greg McDermott knows it. So does his son.
Doug McDermott wants it to come in a blaze of glory, in Arlington, Texas, on April 6. Although he tries to block out such thoughts, the 6-foot-8 Creighton forward knows it could come as early as Friday when his team opens NCAA tournament play against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“The goal is to get this team further than any Creighton team has ever been,’’ Doug McDermott said. “Anything short of that will probably be a disappointment. I’m just going to take it one game at a time and play my heart out.’’
Creighton has had three Sweet 16 teams, but each of those teams reached that level back in the days when the NCAA tournament was a much cozier affair. No band of Bluejays has played past the opening weekend of the tournament since it expanded in the mid-1970s.
Creighton won a game in each of the past two tournaments. Another victory would have pushed the Bluejays into the second weekend of the tournament. They came up short each time, losing to North Carolina in 2012 and to Duke last season.
Many Creighton fans figured that when Doug McDermott walked off the court in Philadelphia last March, he’d played his final game as a Bluejay.
Count his father among the group.
The coach figured his son would leave school a year early and move on to the NBA. Doug McDermott was being projected as a first-round draft pick. More than once last spring, Greg McDermott encouraged his son to take the money and run.
But Doug McDermott’s heart told him to come back for his senior season. Now, with the end in sight, his father reflects on what his son’s decision means to him.
“I’ve been blessed to coach him 33 more times this year than I thought I might,’’ Greg McDermott said. “I’m not worrying about the last one because this year has been so much fun. It’s been such a privilege as a father to be on the sideline and watch what Doug has done.
“He arguably had more expectation on him than perhaps any player in the country, and he’s answered every critic in the world with his play and his team’s play. I’ve been blessed to be able to do that, and when it’s over, I’m going to smile more than have any sadness whatsoever.’’
All Doug McDermott has done this season is lead the country in scoring, become just the eighth player in Division I history to score 3,000 points and emerge as the leading candidate to sweep college basketball’s player of the year awards. He’s been able to do it against better competition as Creighton moved from the mid-major Missouri Valley Conference to the reconstituted Big East, where McDermott faced bigger and stronger athletes on a nightly basis.
McDermott had earned consensus first-team All-America honors as a sophomore and junior, but some observers doubted he could be as productive in the Big East. All McDermott did this season was average 26.9 points per game — more than three points per game more than he had a season ago.
His play had rival coaches running out of adjectives to describe his virtuoso on-court performances.
Georgetown coach John Thompson III chuckled at a suggestion that his Hoyas did as good a job of defending McDermott as any team around. McDermott scored 14 points in a 78-63 win over the Hoyas in Omaha, then had 22 points in the Bluejays’ 75-63 loss to the Hoyas in early March.
“He’s impossible to guard because he can score from every position on the court,’’ Thompson said. “Just as important is the level of energy he plays with. He’s perpetual motion. He gets 6 to 8 points a game just on his effort. It’s impossible to stop him. You just have to hope that he misses, and he doesn’t do that very often.’’
Villanova coach Jay Wright might have best described the essence of McDermott’s play. McDermott put up 23 points in a mid-January win that brought Creighton some national acclaim, thanks in part to teammate Ethan Wragge’s sharpshooting ways. Wragge made his first seven 3-point shots and finished with nine in the 96-68 win.
McDermott went off for 39 points in the 101-80 victory over the Wildcats on Feb. 16. Wright watched McDermott make 13 of 17 shots from the field, including 4 of 6 3-point attempts, in a performance that allowed him to move past Larry Bird on the all-time scoring chart.
“I think he is as complete a player — and I do not use that term loosely — with size as I’ve ever seen,’’ Wright said. “At 6-8, 6-9, there’s nothing he can’t do. He can take you off the dribble, he guards — he’s tough as hell guarding — he defends, he rebounds, he moves without the ball.
“He’s the best post player we’ve played against, and he’s the best perimeter player, and maybe one of the best passers. And he’s 6-8, 6-9. He’s as good a basketball player as I’ve seen.’’
McDermott enters the tournament having scored 3,105 points in his four seasons. The only players who have scored more are LSU’s Pete Maravich (3,667), Portland State’s Freeman Williams (3,249), La Salle’s Lionel Simmons (3,217) and Mississippi Valley State’s Alphonso Ford (3,165).
(To pass Maravich on the all-time list, McDermott would need to reach the NCAA title game and average 93.7 points per game along the way.)
A perfectionist on and off the court — his mother likes to tell the story of how Doug as a youngster would walk behind his father while he was mowing the grass to make sure he was cutting in straight lines — McDermott’s desire to improve burns red-hot.
As a freshman, McDermott did most of his scoring near the basket. He started showing off a lethal 3-point stroke as a sophomore. He augmented that by working on his midrange game as a junior.
“It’s really incredible that someone that has achieved the level he’s achieved at has been able to continue to add things to his game,’’ McDermott’s father said. “That’s difficult to do when you’re on top. Sometimes the subtle changes don’t really show up in your game.
“In Doug’s case, he’s made noticeable improvement to his game each year.’’
And what has made his final season even more remarkable is that McDermott has accomplished it all as a walk-on. The NCAA’s decision last summer to grant guard Grant Gibbs a sixth season of eligibility put Creighton one over the scholarship limit of 13.
Greg McDermott exercised the option of paying his son’s tuition for his final season. Doug made note of that during his senior speech after his final home game, telling the crowd how his 13-year-old sister Sydney is developing into quite a basketball player and how the Creighton women’s coaches needed to offer her a scholarship.
“My parents are tired of paying tuition,’’ Doug said.
To say the least, it was money well spent.