Shatel: McDermott likes Jays’ athleticism, chemistry

If his Jays are healthy, Greg McDermott says, they can go big or take a Golden State approach and go smaller and quicker with more shooters.

Greg McDermott had barked enough instruction. So he stood off to the side, letting his coach on the floor, point guard Mo Watson, take over at practice.

When your point guard can command the room, that’s a good place for a coach.

When you’re surrounded by one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful practice facilities in basketball — pro or college — that’s a good place for a coach.

When most pundits pick your team to finish third in the Big East — behind defending national champ Villanova and Final Four-caliber Xavier — that’s a good place for a coach.

Six years later, McDermott is in that place, making good on his second chance.

Six years. Do we have to go back to that scene in Ames, Iowa?

Yes. Because it’s tied to where the Creighton head coach is today.

It was on April 26, 2010, that McDermott closed a door and opened another. On the day he left Big 12 Iowa State for Missouri Valley Creighton, the media came to Mac’s house in Ames. He did a press conference on his driveway.

Why was he leaving? The writing was on the driveway concrete. McDermott was 59-68 in four years at Iowa State, with 14 or 15 wins each season. The Cyclones expect to win, and win big — that was one of the things that lured McDermott there from Northern Iowa. This was a place where you could win a national championship.

Mid-major coaches who take the step up generally get one shot at the big-boy level. So many fail because they aren’t ready to recruit in the fast lane — or their system or culture does not compute at a level where players lug egos and baggage to campus.

McDermott came to CU with a reputation as a coach who couldn’t recruit to the big time, but it was a bad rap. McDermott recruited several players who went to the NBA, including Wesley Johnson. Keeping them in Ames, or getting them to produce, was another story.

After putting his Big East-ready team through a three-hour practice on Friday, McDermott told that story.

“We had six guys who played in the NBA, so we had the talent,” he said. “I’m not sure the chemistry was ever right. I learned a lot from my experience at Iowa State. I made some mistakes.”

Such as?

“Recruiting,” he said. “Our roster was decimated two weeks after I took the job. It went from 11 scholarship players to four. I probably filled some of those too quickly, probably should have taken more time.

“You’re coming from Northern Iowa. You just went to three NCAA tournaments. You’re not content to sit on a partial roster for a year and see what happens. You’re looking at guys you think can do a good enough job to get on top of the Big 12. I probably should have taken a more thorough examination.

“We ended up getting some good players, but we never got the chemistry right or the culture we wanted. You live and learn.”

Culture. It’s plastered on a wall in the practice gym. McDermott is all about culture, his culture: good kids working and playing hard toward team goals.

When he left Ames, McDermott knew he couldn’t repair the fractured culture. Creighton would give him a chance to start anew and rebuild his reputation. But would he ever get another shot at the big time?

Yes. At Creighton.

The move to the Big East gave him that second chance. But during the euphoria of the move, even Creighton fans wondered: could their coach recruit to the big time? Could a coach with deep Midwestern roots and values swim with the East Coast sharks?

Look around the championship center.

Watson is one of the top point guards in college basketball. Newcomer Marcus Foster, a rock-solid 6-foot-3, 210, has big-time talent. Justin Patton, the 7-foot freshman from Omaha North, is athletic and ready to blossom. Kobe Paras, a 6-6 freshman from Los Angeles, oozes game and athleticism.

When you see all the size, length and speed out there, one thought comes to mind: this looks like a major college basketball team.

How did they get here? It’s been a perfect storm of timing, commitment and a couple of breaks.

McDermott said in today’s world of social media, it’s crucial for a coach to get off to a good start the first three years. If you stumble, he said, the negativity on social media from fans can become a coach’s biggest hurdle.

In some ways, Creighton’s first year in the Big East was another starting point for McDermott. But this time the coach had some things going for him.

One was his son Doug deciding to come back for his senior year — one in which he was a consensus All-American and national player of the year and led the Jays to a second-place finish in the Big East.

It was a team recruited to play in the Missouri Valley, but it gave CU immediate street cred on the East Coast.

Second, the Jays’ coach had a 10-year contract from a boss who believed in him — and then gave him a practice center that is the envy of the Big East and many other parts of college hoops.

That breathing room afforded McDermott and his staff time to go after players who fit the — drum roll — culture. They’ve recruited not only for talent but also chemistry.

There’s time to take promising players in need of development, such as Patton and Khyri Thomas.

When you’re building, you need breaks, too. Paras, a highly recruited player in L.A., was cut loose this summer by UCLA. Some reports indicated Paras didn’t meet UCLA academic requirements, but others suggested coach Steve Alford had too many on scholarship and needed a cut. Either way, CU is glad to have the hard-working Paras.

Then there’s Foster. The Texan committed to K-State over CU without taking a visit. He was one of the Big 12’s best players as a freshman, then had a down year two seasons ago and was dismissed by coach Bruce Weber for violating team rules.

Creighton had pursued Foster hard in high school and had a relationship with him and his family, so CU became a natural landing spot. Whatever issues he had with Weber, McDermott said Foster has been great and has worked hard and fits into the culture.

Foster has hit it off with Watson, a transfer from Boston U., whose personality and leadership are contagious. So there’s that culture taking effect.

On paper, it has a chance to be the top backcourt in the Big East. These are players Mac couldn’t have gotten in the Valley. Same coach.

Well, not exactly. He’s an older, wiser coach. Willing to change his style, if not the culture. Mac has Creighton trying to become the Golden State of the Big East, running, gunning, lots of possessions, letting it fly. In a league that still likes to pound and grind, it’s a way for CU to win.

But you need players to win. Big East players. Look around the championship center. They are here.

“Athletically, it is (a Big East roster),” McDermott said. “We’re longer, more athletic. If we get healthy, we’re going to be one of the deeper teams, where we can throw a lineup out there with pretty good size or a lineup that’s the Golden State model, quicker with a lot of guys who can shoot the basketball.

“It will be fun to play with that and see where it takes us.”

McDermott went to Creighton and wound up in the Big East, where you can win the NCAA title and teams shoot for the Final Four. In some ways, he’s been here before.

But this time he’s more prepared, and off to a better start. It will be fun to see where this story goes. It shouldn’t end on a driveway.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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