Team Personality: Poised to make the rest believers.
Heading into the 2006-2007 season, the Davidson Wildcats were picked to finish fourth in their half of the Southern Conference by the league’s coaches. As of February 16th, the ‘Cats stand 13-1 in conference play, enjoy a three-game advantage in the South Division, and lead App. State in the overall conference standings by one and a half games.
Also prior to the season, ESPN bestowed a ‘C-minus’ ranking upon Davidson’s backcourt. How’s that working out for the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports? Well, first-year shooting guard Stephen Curry is second in the nation in scoring among freshman (behind only Kevin Durant), averaging 20.2 points per game. Junior point Jason Richards, meanwhile, is second in the entire nation in assists.
Coach Bob McKillop graduated seven seniors from his 2005-2006 Southern Conference Championship team, so few outside of Davidson, North Carolina gave his club much of chance this year.
But why not? One of the smallest schools in Division-I, Davidson rarely has the same kind of talent as teams with whom they compete. Yet Bob McKillop consistently puts a winning product on the court. The Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament in 1998, 2002, and 2006, and went 16-0 in the SoCon in 2005.
Like McKillop-coached teams of the past, these ‘Cats win with poise. Although they will try to run with every single opponent on the schedule, the Wildcats rely on their disciplined style of basketball. They are smart, unselfish, and almost never get out-hustled or out-worked.
That’s why these upstarts have caused all those who discounted them in November now hailing them as a mid-major to be feared in March.
November 25 at Duke L (75-47)
December 18 at Chattanooga (92-80)
February 3 vs. UNC-Greensboro W (75-65)
Biggest Games: Two Southern Conference teams have separated themselves from the pack, and both are getting recognized on the national stage. Davidson, with a 13-1 conference record, is still hovering close to the bubble watch, while Appalachian State owned an incredibly high RPI ranking until a recent home loss to Elon derailed their at-large hopes.
The collision between the two SoCon frontrunners lived up to its billing, as the Mountaineers marched into Davidson’s Belk Arena and came away with an 81-74 victory. It was a lot closer than that, however, as the Wildcats cut the lead to one with under a minute left before Appalachian pulled away on free throws.
Now that the Wildcats are safely through a tough road matchup with College of Charleston, they should be able to cruise through the remaining regular season schedule, so the biggest game left would be a potential Southern Conference Championship appearance. Obviously the SoCon final would be huge regardless of the opponent, but a Davidson-App. State title bout would capture no small dose of national attention.
Has to be on the Floor: Jason Richards. He is the only true point guard on the roster, so the Wildcat offense changes drastically when Richards is on the bench. Curry, much better suited for the shooting guard slot, has to slide over to the point and run the show instead of focusing entirely on filling up the hoop both from long range and by slashing through the lane.
With Richards at the helm feeding Curry and low-post presences Boris Meno and Thomas Sander, Davidson’s offense is a force to be reckoned with. Richards is dishing out 7.7 dimes per game; that’s a lot—almost too much—to leave on the bench, even for a short period of time.
Last Shot: Stephen Curry. Like his father, Dell, before him, Curry can flat out shoot the basketball, and he is not afraid to do so. The freshman phenom has already forked up 220 three-pointers this season, making 89 of them. That’s good for an impressive 40.5% clip and his 89 long-distance dial-ups already have Davidson’s previous freshman record showing up as a speck in Curry’s rearview mirror.
Having a sweet stroke does not necessarily translate into getting the job done late in the game, but Curry has already established himself as a prime-time player. While he looks like a freshman—or does he even look like a freshman?—Curry brings to the table a game that is mature beyond its years. He is not afraid to take the key shot or step to the free-throw line in pressure situations.
At Chattanooga, Curry thwarted a late Mocs’ run with a timely three-point onslaught. When the ‘Cats found themselves in a struggle with visiting UNCG early in the second half, Curry drained a three, picked off a pass on Greensboro’s ensuing possession, and then marched back down the court and drove a dagger into the Spartans with a step-back triple. At College of Charleston just a few days ago, Curry silenced a raucous Cougar crowd by pouring in 21 of his 24 points after halftime.
Crunchtime Crutch: Instant offense from the guards and depth in the front court. Richards always looks to pass, but he can score in bunches when he deems it necessary. For example, with Davidson leading UNC-Greensboro by just two points with 12 minutes left in the game, the point guard scored seven points in 56 seconds to break the game open. Of course when the Wildcats really need points, coach Bob McKillop will simply let Curry go to work.
Although depth is a liability at the guard positions, it is an asset in the front court. Sophomore Andrew Lovedale eats valuable minutes in the paint. He ensures that the fatigue factor will never bite Sander or Meno, but that’s not all Lovedale is good for. He is a monster on the glass and often surprises by putting some points on the board. With these three bodies down low, the Wildcats consistently wear other teams down late in games.
Straw That Stirs the Drink: Thomas Sander. The 6’8’’, 220-pound power forward has emerged as a crucial second scoring threat behind Curry. While Richards and Boris Meno also average double figures in points, Richards is a pass-first point guard and Meno’s value really lies in his shot-blocking presence on the other end of the floor and his rebounding ability. The Wildcats need Sander to score.
And he has. This season, Sander’s new-found ability to knock down the open jumper has accompanied his hard-nosed style of play in the paint to make him a serious offensive force. His range now extends all the way to the three-point line, where is he shooting 36 percent. Last year Sander attempted just one triple (he made it). He’s already connected on 24 from long distance in his junior campaign.
It often looks like the spectacular Curry is carrying this team on his shoulders and single-handedly producing wins. But it has been a lot easier for the freshman because, in part, of Thomas Sander. Sander’s consistent production on the offensive end of the floor prevents opposing defenses from zeroing in on Curry, lest they wish to get burned elsewhere. With Richards creating opportunities for not one, but two prolific scorers, this is a tough offense to contain.
Impact Newcomer: Curry. The Wildcats graduated seven seniors from their 2005-2006 Southern Conference Championship team, and four of five starters. A total of 59.4 points per game were lost. That’s 77 percent of Davidson’s scoring from last season.
Enter Stephen Curry. Overlooked by most major college coaches, who fumbled the recruiting process by letting his diminutive frame scare them away, the 6’0’’ guard is quickly seizing national attention. Curry will also get plenty of attention from the Southern Conference when awards are handed out at season’s end. He’s already locked up SoCon Freshman of the Year, and his case is as good as any for the conference’s outright Player of the Year.
Potential Pitfall: Youth and backcourt foul trouble. Richards has been logging a ton of minutes at point guard, because quite frankly the ‘Cats need him there pretty much at all times. Davidson is just not the same team when Richards is on the bench. In order for the Wildcats to repeat as Southern Conference Champions and potentially pull an NCAA Tournament upset, Richards—and Curry, for that matter—must stay out of foul trouble.
The ‘Cats have been playing the entire season in a way that masks just how young they really are. McKillop starts one freshman, one sophomore, and three juniors, and has just two seniors on the roster, none of whom see the court prior to garbage time. While the guys on last year’s squad gained some valuable experience in winning the SoCon Tournament and battling Ohio State to the wire in the first round of the NCAAs, that does not change the fact that this is still one the youngest teams in the conference. It remains to be seen how these ‘Cats will handle the pressure of early March, but up to this point nothing would suggest that they can’t or won’t get the job done.
How to reach the NCAA Tournament: Davidson will remain on the bubble as long as they win out in the regular season and roll through the first two games of the conference tournament en route to the Southern Conference Championship. Most likely, however, the ‘Cats will have to win that final game and secure the automatic bid, as they did last year.
The conference is enjoying a much higher rating this season, and the winner (if it’s App. State or Davidson) is in line for a 12 seed. That said, the SoCon still appears to be a one-bid league. If the Wildcats get bounced in the tourney, they’ll be headed to the NIT (as long as they hold on for the regular season title), where the ‘Cats would have a good shot at reaching Madison Square Garden. In no way, however, is that on their minds right now.
– Rick Dimon