Creighton Eager To Prove It Belongs

Creighton's Grant Gibbs fields questions from the media on Saturday about his now-infamous wink.

Creighton’s Grant Gibbs fields questions from the media on Saturday about his now-infamous wink.

In North Carolina, Creighton is probably most commonly associated with UNC point guard Kendall Marshall’s season-ending wrist injury that came late in the Tar Heels’ relatively easy second-round win over the Bluejays last year in Greensboro.

Ethan Wragge, who committed the hard foul, might be a more well-known name around Chapel Hill than Creighton star Doug McDermott. As you might imagine, there was some vitriol directed his way.

Naturally, Wragge was still asked about it yesterday during media availability. “I mean, I thought I was making a basketball play,” Wragge said. “We were behind and he kind of had an open lay-up. I was not going to give him a lay-up at that point in the game and let him extend their lead. It was tough how he fell on his wrist.”

The way you view that play – and even that UNC-Creighton game – depends largely on your perspective. In the Triangle, we obsess over all things ACC and more specifically, all things Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.

The play itself didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. Senior guard Grant Gibbs hacked at UNC forward John Henson’s injured wrist during a dead ball, prompting a reaction from Henson that got him whistled for a technical foul. Gibbs then winked at Creighton’s bench, suggesting it had been on purpose.

Creighton senior forward Gregory Echenique is a physical force down low at 6-9 and 260 pounds (which seems low). And he sent a message to UNC’s Tyler Zeller early in last year’s game that he wasn’t messing around.

It was somewhat of a surprise to UNC and casual college basketball fans to see a Creighton team with such a great offense and a mediocre defense to suddenly look like the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. But under third-year head coach Greg McDermott, Creighton is trying to build an identity on not backing down from anyone, regardless of league. The Bluejays are actually 9-1 against BCS-conference teams in the last two seasons, the only loss to UNC.

So for Creighton, last year was a missed opportunity. But Gibbs said that the team learned a valuable lesson during last year’s UNC game, and it’s one they’ve used this year as they find themselves facing a similar opportunity.

“I think we realized that we had to get better defensively as a unit if we were going to get back to that opportunity and hopefully take advantage and to our credit, we have,” Gibbs said. “I think we’re a lot more sound defensively than we were last year. We’ve won some games this year because of our defense. Obviously, we’re going to hang our hat on what we can do offensively, but we had to bring our defense up to get back to this opportunity.”

Creighton has done that. The Bluejays are 71st in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, and it’s over 100 spots better than they were a year ago (178th). In McDermott’s first year as head coach, the Bluejays were 175th. So this is a pretty significant jump. And it’s Creighton’s best defensive efficiency ranking since 2008.

Last year, Creighton let UNC shoot nearly 51% from the floor and post an offensive efficiency of 119.0, one of UNC’s best of the season. Creighton has allowed 119 or higher five times this season (and is 2-3 in those games), but Duke has been at 119 or higher in offensive efficiency in 24 of 33 games. So, yeah.

And part of that improvement has come from an increased toughness. Even though Creighton didn’t beat UNC a year ago, it certainly made sure UNC didn’t forget who it had played. And that has nothing to do with the Wragge play. Gibbs was able to goad Henson into getting in his face, while Echenique played as physical a game against Zeller as anyone had all year.

“I don’t think it’s so much a focus that ‘hey, we’ve got to go out there and show that we’re tough’ or anything like that. I think that’s just kind of our style of play a little bit,” Gibbs said.

“That’s always what we try to do and obviously our plan was a little different because the team that North Carolina had that year was different than what Duke has, different style,” Echenique said. “But the toughness aspect, I think it always has to be there.”

Gibbs has not been practicing his wink: “I don’t practice that. It just happens,” he said dryly, with a sly smile. Everything he said seemed to have the hint of a wink to it, and a local beat writer said that Gibbs is essentially Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver.

When Gibbs heard that, he responded simply, “Well, there you go.”

Gibbs probably has no idea who that is, but it’s a pretty apt description: mischievous, yet charming. Annoying. Pesky. Up to no good. After all, he was probably the biggest villain of that UNC game with his wrist-chop on Henson and wink afterwards. Yet somehow, Wragge is the one that ends up being vilified. Haskell stays out of trouble. Again.

Gibbs prides himself on being that guy for the Bluejays, though. “I’m not the most athletically gifted guy, so I’ve got to use my mind and do what I can to get an advantage. So I’ve been known for such acts through the years a little bit.”

When asked if he might try to stomp on Ryan Kelly’s injured foot, he responded as dryly as one might expect. “I don’t know,” he said, feigning thoughtfulness. “I haven’t thought about that a lot. We’ll see.”

After he, McDermott and Echenique got back to the locker room after speaking to the media in an interview room, Gibbs immediately started doing a Coach K impression for his teammates. (And darned if it wasn’t actually spot-on.)

Turns out, Coach K – who had been asked a number of questions about this site’s Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast – pulled the three aside on his way out of the interview room and let them know that he did respect them. He had just been asked an inordinate amount of questions about Florida Gulf Coast.

“He didn’t want us to think that they were underestimating us or anything,” Gibbs said. “I said we should’ve ran with it when we got in there and been like, ‘Coach K’s not giving us any credit. Did you hear his press conference?’ Nobody ran with me on that.”

Gibbs has a bit of Duke Guy in him – the savvy, scrappy white guy who likes to get under his opponent’s skin. His game is as much psychological as it is physical, and in fact Gibbs is overcoming some of his physical limitations (particularly after a number of injuries) to be as effective as he’s been.

So it’s not a huge shock that he grew up with some appreciation for Duke. “I think it was a respect thing more than anything, even growing up, how well-coached they were. I think there was a part of me that like guys like (J.J.) Redick…that people hated and them fueling off that. I definitely respect them,” he said.

And Creighton knows it has to establish that it is ready to play from the opening tip. The Bluejays actually got out to a good start against UNC a year ago and was down by just eight points at halftime. But UNC went on a 9-0 run early in the second half to go up by 19, and that was basically that. It was all it took to put the game essentially out of reach.

This year, when Duke goes on runs, it’s generally very bad news for its opponent. And Creighton knows it can’t let that happen. “We’re going to go out there and throw out the first punch,” Wragge said. “We don’t want to be caught on our heels, especially the way Duke plays. If they get out fast and get on a run, then we could be playing from behind and we don’t want to do that.”

Creighton has the fearless part down. Creighton is still working on the defense part, although Duke presents several unique challenges on that front. Now, Creighton is eager to prove it belongs among the nation’s best, regardless of conference. And they can’t let the Duke name influence how they play.

“We know that they’re very talented – great team, great program, but at the end of the day, we can’t really buy too much into it,” Echenique said. “We’ve just got to know that we’re just playing for the same thing they are and we deserve to be here just as much as they do, so we’ve just got to bring it.”

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