Grant Gibbs and Jake Odum provide an intriguing undercard to Saturday's main event between Creighton and Indiana State.
Around the Missouri Valley Conference, Gibbs and Odum might be the ultimate love-hate guys. Indiana State fans love having Odum on their side, but opponents hate playing against him, and not just because he has talent to beat them.
“He's probably not a bad guy off the court, but when he's on it, he can be a pest,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said. “He gets involved. He always has the ball in his hands. He gets under your skin.”
Ditto for Gibbs. He gets no love at the nine other arenas around the league, but Creighton fans adore him. He plays hard, he plays hurt and he produces.
“He does the little things,” Wragge said.
And he does them with panache. There was “the wink” against North Carolina last season. He has been known to find himself in the midst of a heated situation. He's not afraid to slip in a word or two of “encouragement” to an opponent to try to cause a lapse of concentration.
He plays within the rules, but he's not afraid to push the envelope.
Asked if he relishes the role of being an Eddie Haskell in Creighton basketball shorts, Giibbs chuckled and replied, “A little bit. It's kind of grown with the way I play. I guess I'd rather embrace it than fight it.”
What Gibbs' teammates embrace is the variety of talents he brings to the court. His passing skills are extraordinary. His court vision is 20-20 at all times. He's not known as a great scorer, but he can hurt you if you don't pay attention to him.
Illinois State learned that Wednesday night as the Redbirds did everything they could to try to neutralize All-American Doug McDermott and Gregory Enchenique inside. They played off Gibbs, daring him to shoot.
He did, finishing the 79-72 victory with 16 points to go along with seven assists.
“He knew when to take a shot and when to be patient,” McDermott said. “After Illinois State started adjusting to him in the second half, he focused on making passes.
“I've never played with a smarter player than Grant. It's so big to have a guy that is pretty much a coach playing with you on every possession.”
Gibbs comes into Saturday's 2:05 p.m. game against the Sycamores at CenturyLink Center leading the Valley in assists with 83. His 5.5-to-1 assists-to-turnovers ratio puts him among the national leaders, and he's chipping in 7.1 points per game while shooting almost 50 percent from the field.
Odum has started all but three of Indiana State's 80 games since he stepped onto campus in 2010. He's ranked among the Valley leaders in assists and steals in each of his three seasons. Before this season, Odum could, like Gibbs, afford to be a judicious scorer as the Sycamores had other options.
He's had to step up that part of his game with the loss of four starters from a season ago. He leads Indiana State with a 14.8 average that ranks fifth in the league, and he ranks third on his team with a 4.8 rebounding average.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott sees a lot of similarities between Odum and Gibbs.
“They make plays,” McDermott said. “When the ball is in their hands, they're capable of making a play for themselves, and they have such unbelievable vision that they can hurt you when you make a mistake.
“I thought Jake was a good leader as a freshman when he took his team to the NCAA tournament, and he had to fight through some injuries last season. This year, he's got his team playing at a high level.”
Indiana State enters Saturday's game having won four of five to improve to 9-4. The Sycamores' wins came against Mississippi and Miami (Fla.) in a tournament in Hawaii and Illinois State and Northern Iowa to start conference play.
Illinois State was picked to finish second in the Valley's preseason poll, while Northern Iowa was third. The Sycamores? They were picked seventh.
“We're playing better, maybe close to where I hoped we'd be at this point,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “there weren't a lot of people talking about us early in the season.
“Now that we're playing better, we're getting talked about a little bit, but it's still early. Hopefully we can show that we can hang with teams like Creighton and Wichita State and maybe put ourselves at the top of that next tier behind them.”
The No. 16 Bluejays have won seven straight to improve to 13-1. Only one of their wins has come by fewer than 10 points. But what really impresses Lansing is the number 169.
That is Creighton's combined shooting percentages from the field, 3-point range and the foul line.
“Rick Majerus used to say if a guy could get to 180 — 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point and 90 percent from the line — you had yourself a great shooter,” Lansing said. “Heck, Creighton shoots 169 as a team. That's ridiculous.
“They're the best team we've played or will play this season. We just hope they miss some shots and we can hang in there with them.”
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