Sunday, March 30, 2008

Davidson and Goliath

The most intriguing and potentially exciting game of the college basketball season is the Midwest Regional Final Sunday afternoon between #10 seed Davidson and #1 seed Kansas. Davidson is the last remaining “Cinderella” in the tournament – the other five teams still in contention for the title are UCLA (record-holder for NCAA titles and Final Fours), North Carolina (second-winningest program in college basketball history), Memphis (three straight 30-win seasons, perennially stocked with McDonald’s All-Americans, play in an NBA arena, led by former NBA coach John Calipari), Texas (nine consecutive 20-win seasons) and Davidson's opponent, the Kansas Jayhawks.

Kansas is one of the top five programs in college basketball, both currently and all-time. Year after year, Kansas brings in the top talent from all over the country. Former coach and current North Carolina coach Roy Williams is one of the best recruiters alive; his successor, current coach Bill Self, might be better. The best players on this year’s team are from Anchorage, New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Florida – star wing Brandon Rush is the only player from anywhere near Lawrence (Kansas City, MO to be exact).

It’s estimated that between five and seven players on the Jayhawks’ roster will play in the NBA. No other team in college can boast that. Unlike many of today’s NBA-ready college players though, none are freshmen. The Jayhawks’ primary rotation consists of two sophomores, two juniors, and three seniors. A younger version of this same team made the Elite 8 last year before succumbing (choking?) in a memorable regional final against UCLA.

Davidson College is a small, exclusive liberal arts college in central North Carolina with an enrollment of 1700 students. Davidson consistently ranks amongst the top 10 liberal arts schools in the country. Schools with similar profiles include Williams, Pomona, and dear old Macalester; yet somehow Davidson is able to compete at the Division-I level in 21 sports. This is certainly unheard-of, though not as unheard-of as a team from the Southern Conference wiping out Gonzaga, Georgetown, and Wisconsin in consecutive games and cruising into the NCAA’s Elite Eight.

The tale of Davidson’s stunning rise to national college basketball prominence is surprisingly straightforward. In 1989, the school hired a high school coach from Long Island named Bob McKillop to take over the struggling program. McKillop turned things around very steadily. Davidson’s records his first five years were 4-24, then 10-19, 11-17, 14-14, and 22-8 in 93-94. Between ’94 and ’06, the Wildcats have been one of the most consistent “mid-majors” in the land, made the NCAAs three times, never finished below third in the Southern Conference, but didn’t garner much national attention.

That all changed last year with the arrival of Stephen (pronounced Stefan) Curry, son of 16-year NBA veteran Dell Curry. Despite a brilliant high school career which included three conference titles, all-state honors, and 48% 3-point shooting his senior season, Stephen didn’t get many takers from the top NCAA programs. Generally it was believed his slight stature would be too much of a problem in tough conference play, and no ACC school offered a scholarship. This included Stephen’s top choice Virginia Tech, where his father played and now resides in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps Tech coach Seth Greenberg should blame this oversight rather than the NCAA selection committee’s for his team’s disappointing bubble finish.

Curry exacted a swift revenge on his doubters. He led the Southern Conference in scoring as a freshman, leading the Wildcats to its title. He was named conference freshman of the year and first team All-SoCon. He set an NCAA record for 3-pointers by a freshman and finished second in the nation in freshman scoring behind Kevin Durant. Davidson made the NCAA tournament as a 13 seed and pushed Maryland to the wire in the first round (Curry scored 30 points) before succumbing.

This season Davidson boldly scheduled games against superpowers North Carolina, Duke, and UCLA. Each was close, but each ended in a Wildcats loss. After their rough nonconference schedule, Davidson annihilated the Southern Conference, going 20-0 with only a couple close games. They were given a 10 seed for the NCAAs and a first round matchup against Gonzaga, the mid-major archetype.

Then the nation got to see the Wildcats play ball. They ousted Gonzaga behind a 40 point effort from Curry, made a huge comeback to beat 2 seed Georgetown, and blew away 3 seed Wisconsin by 17 on Friday. Curry has scored 103 points in the three games.

The rest of the team can play too. None of them have numbers approaching Curry’s - though senior point guard Jason Richards led the NCAA in assists this season – but they play great team defense, move the ball extremely efficiently, can make plays if called upon, and just don’t screw up very much. They have outplayed their last 25 opponents, and anyone that watched the systematic destructions of the last three knows how good they are. I believe they are the best double digit seed in the history of the tournament, better than the eight 10 seeds that made the Elite Eight before them (all of which lost the regional final), better even than the George Mason Final Four squad of two years ago.

There are more reasons to cheer for the Wildcats: they play an exciting, watchable, fast-paced, surprisingly smooth style; 95% of McKillop’s players have graduated since he arrived in ’89; the school’s board of trustees paid out of pocket for bus fare from Charlotte to Detroit and tickets for 275 students to attend the third and fourth round of the NCAAs; this NCAA tournament has not yet had a signature game, upset, or moment; Cinderella’s official voice, the legendary Gus Johnson, will be calling the action for CBS. All the ingredients are there for something really special.

The Davidson Wildcats are a pleasure to watch, even if they did destroy my bracket and perhaps cost me four thousand bucks. They deserve to be in the Final Four. I will be desperately rooting for them to pull off that unlikely feat on Sunday.


Anonymous Truman said...

This should be on


10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a more serious note, this should be on

12:28 PM  
Blogger nitsud05 said...

No, really, in all seriousness, this should be on

2:30 PM  
Blogger Bag said...

I have to seriously agree with the other comments about

6:55 PM  
Blogger Spencetron said...

The Gus Johnson reference was great, but he had some questionable play-by-play late in the game. He always seemed ready to explode about Stephen Curry's three pointers but this was before they clanged into the rim. Also, why did he feel it necessary to take over as referee in the second half?

8:55 PM  

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