Greg McDermott knew he was in a difficult spot.
The Creighton coach had lost 7-foot-1 defensive anchor Ryan Kalkbrenner to injury in the previous game. Now he was playing top-seeded Kansas 40 hours later with a thin bench while needing a completely new defensive gameplan.
“We had to come up with something,” McDermott said.
When diving deeper into Kansas’ 79-72 NCAA Tournament round of 32 victory over ninth-seeded Creighton, then, it’s important to start with this first:
McDermott’s wild, outside-the-box chicanery worked for the first six minutes as his Bluejays built a lead. It wouldn’t hold for the entire game, though.
And that was because of one person in particular: KU guard Remy Martin.
“If you look at the stat sheet, there’s one thing that jumps out at you today,” McDermott said, “and he was a big difference in this game.”
Perhaps the most significant moment came back in the first half, when McDermott’s plan became clear and KU’s response was shaky at best.
McDermott had played KU and forward David McCormack at Allen Fieldhouse last season, and it wasn’t too much fun then, even with plenty of big men at his disposal. Now armed with a seven-deep rotation, McDermott had to figure out how to potentially keep the Jayhawks from getting it to McCormack while also figuring out a way to keep his defenders out of foul trouble.
“We wanted to kind of pick somebody that we felt we could help off of,” McDermott said. “And I’m not a huge analytics guy, but we chose (Dajuan) Harris.”
KU’s starting point guard didn’t handle it perfectly either.
McDermott placed 6-foot-7 forward Ryan Hawkins on Harris, then told him to stay in the middle to clog things up. That would take away McCormack’s touches, but it also had the potential to cut off potential driving angles for Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun.
Harris, to his credit, saw the strange defense on KU’s first possession but didn’t take advantage, missing a floater off the backboard for the Jayhawks’ first shot.
So it was a critical juncture when Martin checked in for KU at the 14:13 mark. Would he fare any better against the junk defense than Harris?
Some 16 seconds later, KU had its answer.
Coach Bill Self tried a set play that didn’t work well because Hawkins muddied things up inside. The ball made it back to Martin, who set his feet and clipped off a deep-but-open three-pointer fresh off the sideline.
Hawkins’ head immediately snapped to Creighton’s bench. The defensive blueprint had worked before … but was it going to work on this dude?
The answer turned out to be no.
“Obviously, it was his night,” Creighton guard Trey Alexander said of Martin. “We kind of had it set up as a personnel game to where we could help off of him a little bit. When you have a good player like that and he gets going … when you see any player in college, when you see the ball fall a couple times and you get in your rhythm, it’s kind of hard to stop you.”
McDermott had decided before the game that when Martin checked in, Creighton would try to stick with its “don’t guard KU’s point guard” principles with Hawkins.
“Obviously a mistake on my part,” McDermott said.
Martin was too good — and also different from his KU teammates in a much-needed way.
The Jayhawks have mostly veteran players under Self who have been through an NCAA Tournament with him before. For the second straight contest, though, they played like an oh-so-tight favorite early while often overthinking moments and plays.
It’s why Martin provides the best of both worlds for KU at this vital juncture. He’s been with Self long enough to understand what he values, but has been somewhere else long enough to not act jittery in this season-defining moment.
While it’s often challenging to appreciate big-picture player progress, Martin also deserves credit for coming a long way since joining Self’s program last summer.
McDermott could speak to that well. He faced Martin two years ago at Arizona State, with Creighton coming away with a 67-60 road victory over the Sun Devils.
The player McDermott saw on film this week was different from the one he’d scouted before.
“His engagement defensively compared to how he defended at Arizona State and the unselfish nature of the way he’s playing is totally different than the guy we played against when he was at Arizona State,” McDermott said. “Obviously, Coach Self and his staff have done a great job of getting him to understand how he can best help this team.”
It wasn’t perfect for Martin at Dickies Arena. He forced up a few shots in the second half, and there are still times when teammates must work hard to cover up for the shortcomings he has defensively.
When McDermott had a plan to exploit a KU weakness, though, it only worked until Martin checked in and hoisted up a shot on his first possession.
And that attempt summarized KU’s March Madness journey thus far pretty well.
Self typically doesn’t like his guys to heave up shots on their first possession from the bench. Instead, he’d prefer they work themselves into the game, easing into the flow by first doing a few simpler things.
So this is what it looks like when there’s some give-and-take, with coach and player compromising a bit for the other.
Self watched as his point guard ventured away from the coach’s usual comfort zone. Martin, for his part, displayed some self-restraint in other areas while increasing his focus on defense and thinking team-first.
Before heading to his team’s final press conference this season, McDermott said he talked to his coaching staff about the Martin they’d seen Saturday.
”His growth and improvement from the guy that was at Arizona State to the guy that’s playing now,” McDermott said, “is night and day.”
Martin was the difference for KU. He led the Jayhawks with 20 points, scored efficiently and brought energy and spirit to lift KU’s offense when things were tough Saturday.
When Self spoke after the game about his team having another level it can get to, he’s referring to that last point. Self loves winning with precise execution offensively and clever scheme-based advantages, and KU pulled off little of that during this particular triumph.
Yet, his team still won. It wasn’t plays that were most important, but players instead.
And Martin’s impact took just 16 seconds to show itself, as he snapped heads and dismantled once-successful schemes.
A dude now playing like he’s had a full season with Self at KU — and a lifetime before that where he developed fearlessness that’s serving him just as well.