The Finalist

As he plays his last season at Creighton, Doug McDermott joins a dying breed of legendary seniors in college basketball

It was the spring of 2010, and all the talk around college basketball circles was a graduating high school player from Ames, Iowa named Harrison Barnes. A small forward with a scorer’s mentality, Barnes was rated by most sites as the top high school recruit entering college in 2010 for more than a year. By the time he was ready to commit to a school, after being heavily recruited by the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Iowa State, and UCLA, Barnes was already pegged by NBA draft gurus as not only a one-and-done player, but the top pick in the 2011 Draft. His awkward press conference on November 13, 2009, in which he announced his commitment to North Carolina after skyping Roy Williams on a projection screen, was aired live on ESPN.

With his long-anticipated commitment now out of the way and Tar Heels fans following his every dribble, Barnes finished his senior season at Ames High School, where the Little Cyclones made unmatched history. In a state heavily devoted to its local basketball ties, Ames High School won 53 straight games with Barnes (who averaged 26 points and 10 rebounds) as the best player, winning two consecutive state titles in 2009 and 2010. The second championship final won by Ames was attended by more than 13,000 people. As he moved on to Chapel Hill, Barnes had sealed his legacy in Ames as the school’s all-time leading scorer and leader of two undefeated seasons. But just like many dominant high school teams throughout history, Barnes did not do it all by himself. He was coached by local legend Vance Downs, who had also coached former alumnus Fred Hoiberg to a state title back in 1991, and was the knockout blow in a talented one-two punch. The other star player for Ames High School alongside Barnes was a tall forward named Doug McDermott.

Born in Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1992, Doug was the second boy for Greg McDermott. Greg had coached at various schools in the Midwest before winding up as the head coach at Iowa State. At 6’8” and 225 pounds, it was clear that Doug would most likely pursue a basketball career like his father did, but he had to prove himself from the beginning. Starting at the high school level, Doug was taken many times for granted. Throughout his high school days, McDermott was never considered the best player (or, to some, even the third best player) on his own team. As a junior, he came off the bench most nights despite being their second best scorer. While the media was in a dizzy tracking the progress of the highly touted Barnes, McDermott’s notoriety passed most of them by with nary a mention. In the second state championship victory over S.E. Polk, Barnes and McDermott together combined for 40 of their team’s 47 points. Once he was a senior on a Little Cyclones team that was making history, McDermott’s role as Barnes’ sidekick was receiving more and more praise locally even though still did not have him ranked in the top 150 come signing day.

Doug McDermott and his teammate Harrison Barnes at Ames High School. Barnes was the top recruit in the country while McDermott went largely unnoticed.
Doug McDermott and his teammate Harrison Barnes at Ames High School. Barnes was the top recruit in the country while McDermott went largely unnoticed.

McDermott had originally declared to play at his father’s alma mater in the Missouri Valley Conference, the University of Northern Iowa. But it was in April of 2010 that a major shake-up directly impacted the family. Greg McDermott, under increasing pressure at Iowa State after four mediocre seasons, left Ames and agreed to become the next head coach at Creighton University, where longtime coach Dana Altman had recently left to go to Oregon. McDermott had already had miles of success coaching at Northern Iowa from 2000 to 2006. Even though he angered many Iowa State fans with his sudden exit, he found a safe landing spot for his coaching duties. Greg would leave the state of Iowa, where he had grown up, played, and coached for the previous decade, for Omaha, NE and the son jumped at the chance to take this new journey with his dad. He backed out of his commitment to Northern Iowa to sign with Creighton, a rivaling school in the M.V.C.

There was not much pomp and circumstance surrounding the impending arrival of Greg as coach and Doug as player at Creighton. Greg had proven himself countless times at the mid-major level, but was considered by many writers as damaged goods after his failures at Iowa State. Many also thought he would have trouble following in the footsteps of Altman, who had brought the Bluejays to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in his 16 seasons coaching there. On top of that, the school was losing its three best scorers and rebounders from a team that had not reached the NCAA’s in the previous three seasons. The first season for the McDermott’s at Creighton was a slight adjustment as they went 19-14 before losing in the finals of the C.B.I. Championship to, ironically, Dana Altman’s Oregon team. But it was in this first season that Doug McDermott immediately came to prominence for the Bluejays. As a freshman, he was the team’s leader in scoring and rebounding with a 52.5% field goal percentage and a 40.5% three-point field goal percentage. In one game against Bradley, he snagged 17 rebounds. He was selected to the first team on the All-M.V.C. squad, his first of many accolades to come. He gained even more publicity nationally when he competed for Team USA in the Under-19 F.I.B.A. Championships and was one of their best players.

As a sophomore at Creighton in the 2011-12 season, Doug McDermott’s numbers blew up as he made the leap to an elite collegiate player. He averaged nearly 23 points per game, good for third in the country, and more than 8 rebounds per game. He shot at an absolutely blistering 60.1% from the field while taking 14.5 shots per game, by far the most among the percentage leaders that season. He made mince meat out of Bradley again, scoring a career-high 44 points. While the Bluejays did not win the Valley regular season title, Creighton did win the conference tournament and was an easy choice for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years with a 28-5 record. After winning the M.V.C. Player of the Year award as a sophomore, Doug received the distinguished honor of being selected as a first team All-American alongside eventual draft picks like Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger, and Draymond Green. Creighton squeaked by in their first round game against Alabama, their first tournament win in 10 years. Then they had to play top-seeded North Carolina, which included his former high school teammate Harrson Barnes. McDermott scored 20 points, but his team lost badly to the Tar Heels 87-73 (This is also known by UNC faithful as the game where Kendall Marshall broke his wrist and basically dashed their title hopes).

Doug has a moment with his father Greg McDermott, head coach of the Creighton Bluejays.
Doug has a moment with his father Greg McDermott, head coach of the Creighton Bluejays.

By the time he reached his junior year, Doug McDermott had gone from a barely-mentioned prospect to a surefire contender for the Naismith Award at a mid-major conference. Doug had also mastered the often-difficult balancing act of separating family life with Dad from his playing days with Coach. There have certainly been some moments of tough love for the two, however, made evident by an incident during a timeout in a bad loss to Wichita State in 2012 where Coach gave his star player a nasty tongue-lashing. Greg McDermott admitted that tempers got the best of both of them, but also joked that he got the worst end of the whole deal because he had to go home to Doug’s vengeful mom. Although not everything has gone perfectly for the McDermott’s at Creighton, their work together has brought about oodles of success for the school the likes of which they haven’t seen in many years and may never see again. One of the main reasons behind Creighton being invited to join the new Big East Conference last year was its extremely high attendance average at the CenturyLink Center, where they are ranked among the tops in the country alongside North Carolina and Kentucky. Last month, their win over Georgetown set a school record with 18,859 spectators. Without the presence of McDermott’s growing legend bringing in the Omaha fans night after night, none of that would have been possible.

In the 2012-13 season, McDermott as a junior would write the final chapter in what had brewed into an elite rivalry between Creighton and Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State Shockers in the Valley. It was against the Shockers, during a lopsided road loss in 2012, that Doug and Greg had their infamous on-court argument. It was later announced as Creighton’s last season in the M.V.C. before joining the Big East, and the Bluejays went out in style. As attendance continued to rise at the CenturyLink Center, McDermott’s scoring average rose with it at 23.2 points per game. Creighton under Greg McDermott had been groomed into a lethal scoring attack for the past few seasons (ranked by Ken Pomeroy as one of the ten most efficient scoring teams in the past two seasons), and Doug was the engine that drove that attack. After dropping five games in conference play, including another close road loss to Wichita State, Creighton rallied down the stretch to turn their regular season finale against the Shockers into a regular season championship game. It was then that father and son got a measure of revenge on Wichita State, as McDermott lit them up for 41 points and 6 boards for a 91-80 win. They followed that up with another conference tournament championship win over Wichita State, once again 68-65. The next time Wichita State would lose a game after Creighton beat them twice in a row was against Louisville in the Final Four.

Creighton was back in the NCAA Tournament, winning in the Round of 64 over Cincinnati thanks to McDermott’s 27 points and 11 rebounds. But it was in the following round that the school fell hard to another ACC powerhouse, the Duke Blue Devils. McDermott did have 21 points, but was a paltry 4 for 16 and fouled out as Duke eliminated Creighton with a 66-50 win. Doug squarely took responsibility for the loss, but when it came to avenging that failure in his senior season, he had some options to consider. He was selected to the All-American first team for the second year in a row, and just like last season, all four of the other players on that list (Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo, Kelly Olynyk, and Otto Porter) left college early for the NBA Draft. McDermott was not considered a slam dunk for the NBA, but many projected him as a first round talent if he decided to forego his senior year. In fact, when Doug asked his coach what he should do, Greg told his best player that the opportunity was there to go pro. Doug’s father was graciously telling his son that he was ready for the next level, but the final decision was solely his to make. Eventually, as the early entries were being declared, Doug McDermott made a final declaration of his own: He was coming back for one last hurrah at Creighton. When asked why he skipped the NBA millions when he had already been a two-time All-American in college, McDermott simply said, “You cannot put a price tag on a senior year.”

McDermott celebrates with the fans after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.  CreditL Matt Miller/The World-Herald
McDermott celebrates with the fans after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. CreditL Matt Miller/The World-Herald

When Doug formally announced that he was going to be a four-year player who was likely to set all-time records in 2014, college basketball writers were giddy with the endless number of milestones that he could potentially reach. Those predictions certainly are on pace to coming true judging by how the 2013-14 season has begun for him. In their first year taking a step up in competition in the Big East, Creighton is currently 19-4 and one game behind Villanova for first place in the newly formed conference. Although the opposition has gotten tougher, Doug McDermott has gotten even better, averaging a career-best 25.3 points per game and leading his team in rebounding once more. He has scored 30 or more points in a game eight times already and has gone double-digits in rebounds four times. His shooting touch has been impeccable for years, and this year it is in culmination mode. He is knocking on the door of shooting 50% from the field, over 40% from three, and over 90% from the free throw line, the first time a college player would accomplish that in fifteen years. Even the harshest of critics are nearly unanimous in their evaluations that McDermott is a lock to win the Naismith Player of the Year award and the Wooden Award this season.

Doug has been on a legendary pace ever since he stepped on a college court, and that pace, even for the greatest of all-time, is nearing its end with plenty of landmarks to go with it. His performance at home against St. John’s two weeks ago was a calling card for McDermott’s greatness, as he sank a game-winning three-pointer with seconds to go to carry the Blue Jays to a thrilling 63-60 win. McDermott scored more than half of his team’s points with 39. He is already the all-time leading scorer in the history of Creighton University, well past distinguished Bluejays like Kyle Korver and Benoit Benajmin. He is likely to be selected as a consensus first-team All-American for the third season in a row. The only players who have ever done before him were Patrick Ewing, Wayman Tisdale, Ralph Sampson, David Thompson, Bill Walton, Pete Maravich, Lew Alcindor, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson, and Tom Gola (All but one of these players are members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame). That fact alone should tell you what type of sacred territory Doug McDermott will probably reach in his final collegiate year, but there is more.

 As of publication, he currently sits at 2,798 points with more than seven games left to play, including the Big East and NCAA Tournaments. McDermott is on pace by the end of his college career to reach the ultra-rare 3,000 point mark.  This has only been done by seven other players: Maravich, Freeman Williams, Lionel Simmons, the late Alphonso Ford, Hary “Machine Gun” Kelly, Keydren “KeeKee” Clark, and Hersey Hawkins. Clark at Saint Peter’s was the most recent player to join the 3,000 club in 2006, but McDermott has a great chance of being the next member. As he racks up point after point, it has almost become a delight to read the list of names McDermott has surpassed this season in his quest to win Creighton a Big East championship and, potentially, a national championship. You are reminded quickly of how unlikely it is in the one-and-done era to watch players like David Robinson, Reggie Lewis, Allan Houston, Tyler Hansbrough, and Danny Manning play all four years (or three years, due to the fact that freshmen weren’t allowed to play on varsity teams until 1972).

Georgetown's Patrick Ewing and Virginia's Ralph Sampson do battle in the paint. Ewing and Sampson are two of the last three players to be three-time All-Americans.
Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Virginia’s Ralph Sampson do battle in the paint. Ewing and Sampson are two of the last three players to be three-time All-Americans.

As recently as the early 1980’s, when early entry into the NBA draft was normally frowned upon, college basketball indulged in greatness thanks to the longstanding tradition that great players became familiar faces that were likely to play all the way until they graduated. That was made evident in the late 1960’s when college hoops saw an onslaught of spectacular individual scorers as the centerpiece of their programs. Such names included Maravich, Alcindor, Dan Issel at Kentucky, Rick Mount at Purdue, Calvin Murphy at Niagara, Wes Unseld at Louisville, Jimmy Walker at Providence, and Elvin Hayes at Houston. They were precluded in college by legends like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Bill Bradley, Gail Goodrich, and Bill Russell. The fact that freshman had to wait their turn to make the varsity team made players like Alcindor and Walton even hungrier to improve in practice and show their excellence alongside the horns of school fight songs for as long as possible. Heck, even NBA legends like Michael Jordan in the early 80’s and Shaquille O’Neal in the early 90’s stayed in school for three years, which seems unthinkable today. When Tim Duncan stayed for all four years at Wake Forest, NBA scouts were not proud of his commitment, but annoyed because they had to wait until 1997 to potentially draft him.

We have grown into a basketball culture that is gaudily thankful for even the slightest of amateur dedication, such as when Marcus Smart bypassed the NBA Draft last summer to come back for his sophomore year at Oklahoma State. Yes, we are at a point where we have to glorify talented college players for sticking around past their freshman season, which is laughable on paper. By the time you are a junior or senior in college, it comes no longer with a badge of honor but a murmuring stigma that you only stayed because pro scouts did not think you were ready yet. If you are a senior in college, it is no longer about what you wound up becoming in college but what went wrong with all that potential. The sense of accomplishment for staying in school seems to have been abandoned for the sake of what lies in wait at the next level. Look no further than at Duke University, where Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick have been used unfairly as examples for great four-year players who eventually got their comeuppance in the NBA. It is not all for naught when it comes to playing all the way until there are no more games left to play, but it has become a minority in a game where it was once an overwhelming majority. In the past four years, the only two NBA lottery picks that graduated from school that summer were Damian Lillard at Weber State and Jimmer Fredette at BYU.

It is likely that the next name on that list (or, at least in the first round) will be McDermott, another prolific scorer from a small school, who is making a habit out of decorative possibilities this year. Those who would normally debase McDermott as a stodgy white guy who lacks in upper body strength may be proven quite wrong in the near future. When NBA players practiced against a college select team during Team USA tryouts this past summer, coaches and scouts alike were raving that McDermott was by far the most impressive college player in the gym. Personally, I consider him to be a well-mixed combination of Adrian Dantley and Brent Barry, a player who has sneaky athleticism but relies on smooth post play and deadly accurate shooting to create mismatches. His pump fakes and up-and-under maneuvers off the backboard give you a sweet reminder of players like Dantley and Kevin McHale. In a league where three-point shooting is coveted more than it has ever been, McDermott seems like a perfect fit as a stretch four who can rebound underneath and leak out for open threes.

Pete Maravich remains the all-time leader in scoring in college basketball. Like Doug McDermott, Maravich was coached by his father until he graduated.
Pete Maravich remains the all-time leader in scoring in college basketball. Like Doug McDermott, Maravich was coached by his father until he graduated.

McDermott’s story is even more unique than a lot of these other legendary seniors because of the fact that he has been coached for all four years by his dad. There have been plenty of father-son combinations that have gone on in college basketball over the years, including this year with Bryce Alford playing for Steve at UCLA and Cullen Neal playing for Craig at New Mexico. It goes all the way back to the advent of the college game itself when Phog Allen coached his son Bobby in 1939 and 1940. Some of these instances have involved legendary coaches coaching sons who were mediocre or walk-ons, like Bobby and Pat Knight, while some have involved not-so-great coaches who roped in their talented sons, like Wade and Allan Houston at Tennessee. Sometimes the player and coach are nearly on equal footing in terms of their impacts on the team, like when Lon Kruger and his son Kevin led UNLV to the Sweet Sixteen or when Dick Bennett coached his son Tony at Wisconsin-Green Bay in the early 90’s. The most famous example of dad coaching boy would have to be at LSU when Pistol Pete, still the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history at 3,667 career points, was coached by his father Press. Pete’s father told him after offering him a scholarship to LSU, “If you don’t sign this, don’t ever come to my house again.” There was no such threat from Greg when Doug signed on to play for him, but the benefits for bringing Doug in have been nearly as rewarding for Creighton as they were for Pete and Press at LSU.

The one thing that seems to haunt the two, however, is the fact that they have fallen short in the Round of 32 on two occasions together in the NCAA Tournament. They would both like to go a decent bit further this season. But deep inside, despite the well wishes of the McDermott family to see their son play in an NBA game, Doug and Greg both knew that in order for the Creighton Bluejays to reach true greatness, they had to do it this season, Doug’s final one, and they had to do it together. So many times you hear at the tables of NBA Draft shows, as a player gets picked and dons his team cap, sometimes through tears, that they have finally seen their dreams come true. For Doug McDermott, I would like to think that his dream as a basketball player is continuing to come true this season as he nears the end of his college basketball career being coached by the man whom he has looked up to all his life. I keep remembering that one of the players Doug reached out to when he was thinking about leaving Creighton to go to the NBA was his former Ames High School teammate, Harrison Barnes. I am not even sure what Barnes said to McDermott, but I found a weird symmetry to the whole thing.

While McDermott went by mostly unheralded in high school and followed his father to Creighton to build his legacy, Barnes, if he were able to meet massive expectations,  presumably had his legacy already etched out for him at North Carolina. Unfortunately for Barnes, it did not end that way. He played on good teams in North Carolina, but Barnes himself was an underwhelming player. A lot of hype without too many accolades to go with it. When UNC was eliminated by Kansas in 2012, Barnes was more than ready to sign with an agent and build his brand in the NBA, which he is still struggling to accomplish. Here was the most decorated high school phenom in many moons in Harrison Barnes making a loud sound that signified nothing in college, while his teammate McDermott fought for everything he earned from start to finish and is now reaping in the rewards of that hard work. Certainly the NBA will come calling for those lucky few in college that are good enough to make it there, but the beauty of being a senior is that there is an absolute and honorable endgame. Whether that end to the voyage be heartbreaking or glorious seems to matter not as much as the fact that player went all the way until there were no games left to play to make the most of their tenure. That alone gives college players like Doug McDermott something that is often bypassed but simply cannot be bought or passed down: A sense of belonging and completion.