INDIANAPOLIS – Inside the Indiana Pacers’ pro shop at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, navy jerseys with gold trim featuring the names of Domantas Sabonis and Doug McDermott hang on adjacent racks.
Gonzaga and Creighton fans will see plenty of each other Sunday in a Sweet 16 matchup at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but there’s a good chance many have already bumped elbows at the Pacers’ store while shopping for Sabonis’ No. 11 jersey or one featuring McDermott’s No. 20.
Sabonis and McDermott are two of the most popular basketball figures in a state that’s always had a strong appetite for the sport. They’re also two of the most pivotal members of a Pacers team that’s in the thick of an Eastern Conference playoff race.
This weekend, though, the teammates who’ve been together for three seasons will be at odds when their colleges butt heads for a spot in the Elite Eight – something that could cause lighthearted locker room friction before Indiana’s next game, on Monday against former Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura and the Washington Wizards.
“If anything, this is the (Zags’) year,” Sabonis recently told Greek Cosmote TV, according to EuroHoops.net. “They’re doing it in Indiana, so hopefully it brings (Gonzaga) good luck.”
When asked if the 2020-21 Bulldogs were better than the 2016-17 national runner-up team, the fifth-year pro said, “As I’ve been seeing on the results and the scores, it certainly looks like that … They’re up there (among the favorites). I think it’s them, Baylor and one or two more teams.”
The Pacers return home from a two-game road trip to play the Miami Heat on Wednesday, so if permitted, Sabonis or McDermott could theoretically be spectators in Indianapolis when the Gonzaga/Creighton winner plays USC or Oregon on Tuesday in the Elite Eight at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“They’re playing the best basketball they’ve ever played,” Sabonis recently told Scott Agness of the Fieldhouse Files. “I’m so happy for Mark Few, Tommy (Lloyd), all the coaching staff. This year should be the year.”
Coming off his second NBA All-Star appearance, Sabonis has become one of the most versatile players in professional basketball, not to mention one of the most accomplished pro athletes in Indiana. The Lithuanian is one of only five players in the league averaging a double-double (20.1, 11.3) while scoring at least 20 points per game and recently won the NBA Skills Challenge at All-Star weekend in Atlanta.
Sabonis is the most decorated active Gonzaga player in the NBA. McDermott is carrying the same torch for Creighton, which has a much smaller pool, with only four Bluejays drafted since 2000. The consensus national college player of the year in 2014 and a three-time first-team All-American, McDermott is posting career-high numbers this season with the Pacers. McDermott made just 13 starts in his first eight NBA seasons, but he’s started 16 times in 2020-21 and is averaging career-high totals in points (13.4), rebounds (3.8) and assists (1.4).
During his final college season, McDermott led the country in scoring at 26.7 ppg. The North Dakota native knows the Bluejays may need that level of scoring output from at least one player on Sunday to upend a Gonzaga team that averaged 92.1 ppg during the regular season.
“I’m just excited for them. They’ve been through a lot,” McDermott said of the 2020-21 Bluejays during a postgame news conference earlier in the week. “Really excited to see those guys playing at such a high level. It’s going to be a tough game against Gonzaga. It’s going to be a really, really tough game against Gonzaga, but I’m really happy for my dad (Creighton coach Greg McDermott) and those guys.”
The elder McDermott recently made national headlines for racially insensitive comments following the team’s loss to Xavier on Feb. 27. Creighton’s 11th-year coach offered to resign from his post after making reference to a “plantation” in his postgame news conference, but ultimately he served a four-game suspension from all team activities.
“He made a mistake and what he said was wrong,” Doug McDermott said. “I know he’s disappointed in himself, but as a white man in America, I think this is a learning experience for us. It shows we have a long way to go. We’ve still got to educate ourselves, we’ve still got to listen and I know my dad’s going to become a better man from this and I hope we all can.”
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