The good feeling surrounding Davidson basketball is swelling to immeasurable heights right now. Everybody is talking about how Bob McKillop is doing his best coaching job yet. National media have been catapulting on recent wins to write about how underrated a program this Davidson has and how remarkable the transition has been to the A-10. They’re writing about how this is a team that defies expectations – every single article mentions that this was a team picked 12th in the conference preseason.
But it’s time to forget expectations and legacy and start appreciating them as a basketball team right now. Today’s win against La Salle in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Tournament was not pretty. But the beauty of this win – marked by senior captain Tyler Kalinoski’s buzzer-beater – was in how ugly it was. It was a win that highlighted this team’s strengths, but pointed out its flaws too. In the end, it was Davidson’s ruthlessness in the final minutes that made the difference.
The cynics will say this game showed Davidson’s over-reliance on the three-ball, especially in the second half. but I don’t think that is an issue. It felt like the Wildcats shot the ball poorly, yet they made 14 threes on 40% shooting from deep. They weren’t forced threes – they were all good looks in rhythm with the offense. But don’t forget Barham’s early buckets that kept the game close, or that when given the option to shoot a three on the final possession, Kalinoski drove the ball to the hoop. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking this team is one-dimensional offensively. Anyone who says that clearly hasn’t watched a McKillop offense very closely.
Nonetheless, one of the best aspects of Jack Gibbs, Brian Sullivan and Kalinoski shooting so many threes is that Davidson is never out of the game, not even down 18 in a high-pressure environment like this or down double digits with only six minutes left. The tri-captains are always one or two made shots from catching fire and turning momentum around. For me, aside from the last couple minutes, the biggest sequence in today’s game came right at the end of the first half, when Sullivan made back-to-back triples to cut the lead to single-digits at halftime. Davidson had been getting killed, but those shots gave the ‘Cats life and hope.
What I admire most about this team is the way they elevate their play in the final minutes. That sounds cliche, but think back to all the times Davidson has made plays down the stretch. There were made free-throws against UMass in the first road win. Down 6 with 14 seconds left at George Mason, Oskar Michelsen and Sullivan made threes to send it into OT, where Davidson won without Gibbs and a fouled-out Kalinoski. Down 10 in the first half at GW, and needing one final stop to seal the deal, Davidson got it. There was Gibbs’s contested three at URI to get a one-point lead with 13 seconds left and great ensuing defense. And even in the loss to St. Bonaventure, a perfectly executed play led to a Peyton Aldridge three that gave Davidson a one-point lead with 3 seconds left.
That leads us to today, when Coach Bob McKillop trusted his team enough in the final seconds not to call a timeout. He knew his players would make the right choices and trust the system they are so committed to. It doesn’t matter who gets the shot, because there are no heroes. This time it was Kalinoski, but tomorrow it could just as easily be Sullivan or Gibbs getting the call. How many teams have so many options at the end of a game? And how many teams come through as often as Davidson has this year? I can tell you the answer is nobody. That will prove to be useful in the coming games.
Not to be lost either is Davidson’s defense in the final minutes. Everyone stepped up and guarded. I am continually impressed by how much this team has improved on the defensive end. Sure, the first 36 minutes were ugly, but in the final four, they were locked in.
The night before the team left for Brooklyn, I sat down for an interview with Barham (be on the lookout for related content in Wednesday’s Davidsonian). He talked about how everyone is in complete control in the final minutes. It doesn’t matter how the rest of the game has gone, if you get a shot in the final minute on this team, you’re going to have the confidence to take it.
But it wasn’t all good in Brooklyn today. Davidson got crushed on the boards. Steve Zack had 24 points and 15 rebounds for the Explorers at the center position. In the first half, the Wildcats had no answer for him defensively. It may seem obvious to say Davidson will struggle if they have to face a premier center. But it’s a fact. Barham may be able to guard almost everyone on the court, but he won’t be able to handle a Frank Kaminsky or a Bobby Portis if it comes to that.
Andrew McAuliffe provided some good minutes defensively as a backup big, but he offers next to nothing offensively (in 18 minutes, he didn’t attempt a shot) and extended minutes from him hurt what Davidson does offensively. With him on the floor in the second half, La Salle backed off him and caused issues spacing-wise for Davidson’s normally seamless offense. That was partly the cause for the excess number of threes taken.
Today officially felt like March. The madness has arrived. But one thing we can all be sure about is that amidst the madness, Davidson will be as cool as the other side of the pillow. Nothing can faze this team. I am glad VCU beat Richmond because I think Richmond would have posed a much tougher matchup. Shake Smart had no answers 8 days ago when these sides met in Davidson, but expect a closer game this time with Treveon Graham more involved. With another shootaround to get used to the Barclays Center rims, I think Davidson will get another win. But it should be a good one. And hey, at least I won’t have to watch this one while in class.