Creighton’s situation as it heads into the new Big East looks a lot rosier today than it did a couple of months ago.
The Bluejays were facing the prospect of playing a more demanding conference schedule without last season’s top three scorers — Doug McDermott, Gregory Echenique and Grant Gibbs.
Then McDermott decided in late April that he would delay professional basketball for a year and return to Creighton for his senior season. Tuesday, Gibbs learned that the NCAA had granted him a waiver that gives him a sixth season of eligibility.
Suddenly, Creighton is seeing its name thrown around the Internet as possibly the early favorite in the new conference’s first basketball race.
“I have no idea,” Gibbs said when asked about that speculation. “We know that things are going to be extremely tough with the caliber of teams we’ll be playing and all the things that come with moving into a new conference.
“I do feel like we have a lot coming back, and we’re going to push to try to be successful.”
The pieces returning include four starters from a team that won 28 games and played into the third round of the NCAA tournament. McDermott is a two-time consensus first-team All-American, while Gibbs has led the team in assists the past two seasons as well as being the team’s off-court leader.
Echenique’s graduation presents challenges in the middle, especially on defense, but the Bluejays appear to have a team capable of challenging for the top spot, if not winning it all, in the new Big East. That wasn’t the case two months ago.
“It’s been a good summer,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “There was a time in April that I didn’t know if Doug wasn’t coming back and I hadn’t thought about the possibility of Grant coming back. To have them back on the team is exciting.
“We’re also excited about the guys in the program that have worked hard and developed, the two junior-college players we’re bringing in to help in the guard court and the three freshmen. But there’s no question having Grant in the locker and on the court will help this transition to the Big East.”
Tuesday’s announcement was unexpected in that McDermott, Gibbs and just about everyone else at Creighton familiar with Gibbs’ case labeled the possibility that he’d receive a favorable ruling from the NCAA as a long shot.
Gibbs played his first two seasons at Gonzaga but sat out his true freshman season with a shoulder injury. He came back to play the next season but injured his knee, limiting his effectiveness the second half of the season.
He underwent surgery after the season, then decided to transfer. He attempted to rehab the injury but had to undergo a second knee procedure that kept him from practicing most of the 2010-11 season. Even though he had to sit that season out as a transfer, Creighton contended that because of the injury he wouldn’t have been able to play even if he had remained at Gonzaga.
“It’s just good to see the NCAA rule in favor of the student-athlete,” McDermott said. “We tend to hear the stories where they don’t, and those are the ones that get a lot of national attention.
“This is kind of a feel-good story where they did right by the student-athlete.”
Creighton submitted Gibbs’ paperwork in early May.
“As time dragged on, they told me it was probably a good thing,” Gibbs said. “I kind of had the feeling that we could give it a go. I’m still a little surprised, but I figured there was a shot.”
Even though his playing status was in limbo, Gibbs continued to work out. He said he feels he’s in decent physical shape, and has been encouraged by how his knee has felt.
“I’m basically on the same schedule I was last summer,” he said. “Physically, I’m feeling as good as I did then.”
Gibbs’ phone blew up with messages of congratulations from teammates and friends after word leaked out late Tuesday morning that he had received the favorable news. One of the messages came from Doug McDermott, who was in Istanbul, Turkey, on his way to the World University Games in Russia.
“We exchanged some inside jokes, and he obviously said congrats and that we’re getting the band back together,” Gibbs said. “He’s excited about that.”
Getting a chance to play in the new Big East is huge, Gibbs said, but just part of the excitement he’s feeling.
“Part of it is that I really only played two years,” Gibbs said. “I played sparingly at Gonzaga that one year. I’ve been in college a long time, and that part of it is wearing.
“Getting a chance to play four years like everyone does is something I wanted to do. I’m lucky enough to get the chance.”
Creighton learned of the NCAA’s decision in a voice mail left on the phone of Brandy Menaugh, Creighton’s compliance director. She raced over to McDermott’s office to tell him the news, interrupting a meeting the coach was conducting.
Gibbs then learned the news when McDermott brought him to Menaugh’s office to listen to the voice message.
“That was cool,” McDermott said. “Grant’s got an interesting personality. He’s kind of a jokester, and I was going to try to pull something on him.
“But I probably couldn’t wipe the smile off my face long enough to pull it over on him. It was exciting news and a fun way to spend a Tuesday morning.”