A little more than a decade ago — when ESPN’s BracketBusters was not only a thing, but a Thing – Sporting News magazine sent me to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to do a story on what it was like to prepare for such a game. It was 16 degrees when I arrived at Northern Iowa. I mean, 16 degrees below zero. Getting to know Greg McDermott made it worth the flirtation with frostbite.
McDermott allowed me inside his program for a few days, and I got to meet the Panthers’ collection of first-rate assistant coaches (current UNI coach Ben Jacobson, notably) and basketball players (including Erik Crawford, now one of Ben’s assistants). And I quickly recognized McDermott has an extraordinary understanding of the game, particularly at the offensive end of the court.
And still I wonder: Is this the best Ohio State can do?
ESPN reported late Wednesday that Ohio State had offered its head coaching job to McDermott, 52, who has been head coach at Creighton since 2010 and taken the Bluejays to four NCAA Tournaments in that period. He owns a career record of 445-276, including 103-121 in Division I conference competition (Missouri Valley, Big 12, Big East).
It isn’t clear whether McDermott has been the only coach Smith pursued after parting ways with Thad Matta on Monday, this coming three months after the Buckeyes concluded a second consecutive season without an NCAA Tournament bid. We know that according to the Columbus Dispatch that Smith did have a conversation with assistant coach Chris Jent, a star player for the Buckeyes in the early 90s.
But sources close to some of the top potential candidates indicated Tuesday to SN there’d been no activity in their direction.
McDermott has lived pretty much his entire life in Big Ten country: born in Cascade, Iowa, played at UNI, coached in North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. But this is not someone who has spent a great deal of his career recruiting and establishing a presence in Ohio, Michigan or Indiana.
More to the point, this is someone who has been a Division I head coach for 16 seasons and never led a team to the Sweet 16. McDermott’s won/loss record shows that the only three seasons in which he did not lose double-figure games in a season were the three years his son, Doug, was a Creighton All-American.
Chris Mack of Xavier, Mick Cronin of Cincinnati and Chris Holtmann of Butler all have been in the Sweet 16 this decade, and all are directly in Ohio State’s recruiting neighborhood. Mack has been to the second weekend of the tournament four times in eight seasons as a head coach, including an Elite Eight run this season. Cronin is one of six coaches who’ve made the past seven NCAA Tournaments — the others are Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self and Mark Few. Holtmann took over Butler in a difficult circumstance in October 2014 and has made the NCAA Tournament in all three years with the Bulldogs, advancing each time and reaching the Sweet 16 this past March.
When McDermott tried to step up from UNI to Iowa State not long after I’d met him, the results were not stellar: four consecutive losing seasons, a winning percentage of .281 in conference games.
His UNI teams had played extremely sophisticated schemes, particularly at the offensive end, that vexed opposing defenses. He was unable to translate that approach to the Big 12, and his final three Cyclones teams were 4-12 in conference play.
Three years after he was hired by Creighton, McDermott nicely managed Creighton’s significant step up in class from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big East — although Doug’s decision to return to play his senior season in 2013-14 mitigated the danger somewhat.
Greg McDermott then rebuilt the team following Doug’s senior season toward what might have been a spectacular 2016-17 season.
However, with Creighton owning a 17-1 record and ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll, star point guard Maurice Watson injured his knee in a road victory at Xavier and the Jays went 8-9 the rest of the way. If Watson had not been lost for the year, it’s possible we’d be looking at this offer differently. A little, at least.