(Written for today’s NCAA Tournament Preview edition of The Davidsonian. I will be traveling to the NCAA Tournament tomorrow morning to cover Davidson and the other games in Seattle. For updates, check the site and follow me on Twitter @Klaus_Faust)
Before the season ever began, Coach Bob McKillop was singing the praises of his new captains, guards Tyler Kalinoski ’15, Brian Sullivan ’16 and Jack Gibbs ’17 and the work they had done in keeping the team on task in the offseason. But despite lofty expectations from their coach – though certainly not from the national media – it’s safe to say any and all expectations within the program were broken by the trio this year.
“We’re built around those three guys,” fellow starter Jordan Barham ’16 said of the three guards, “All three of them are such good all-around basketball players. There’s not one thing you can really take away [as a defense]. Teams in the A-10 will try to run them off the three-point line and they’ll go by their guys and get to the rim. You’ll try to go off a ball screen, and they’ll hit a three.”
The offense starts with the three captains, who were each named to all-conference teams last week. They’ve been at the forefront of everything Davidson has done, always directing play on the court and making winning plays.
Kalinoski has mainly played off the ball, excelling in his senior year on the offensive end on his way to being named Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Playing almost every minute, he was in double-figures in scoring every single conference game. But where he has made his mark has been with his composure and his ability to ignite second-half runs with his shooting and his defense. He’s shooting above 43% from deep and has knocked down shot after shot on his way to average 17 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 4.1 assists.
Sullivan’s season didn’t start the way he wanted shooting the ball from deep. But amidst those struggles came a better defender and a better passer. He became so much more than just a three-point shooter because he had to contribute elsewhere. So by the time he found his stroke, he was a much more complete player. When Gibbs went down with an injury, it was Sullivan who took over at the point, and his play helped ignite Davidson’s 10-game win streak to close out conference play.
Despite a knee injury that sidelined him for seven games during conference play, Gibbs is having a sensational leap scoring wise as the primary point guard, highlighted by a 37 point effort at UCF. It’s as if he’s gained half a step from a year ago. In transition, he has been lethal, seemingly always picking the right option. And his shooting percentages have increased dramatically, up from 32% a year ago to 44% this year from deep.
Davidson’s offense was peaking right when Gibbs went down before the Dayton game. But with Sullivan sliding over and Kalinoski taking on more ball-handling duties, the Wildcats didn’t lose a beat.
“I think Brian and Ty especially, with Jack being down, really made a concerted effort to keep guys accountable and lead by example and by the way they were playing,” Barham said. “I think everyone just bought in. Jack, being on the sidelines coaching people up, really helped. The three of those guys are so key to this team in so many different aspects even aside from their play on the court.”
Spacing wise, having all three of them on the court at the same time, which McKillop does most of the time, gives opponents nightmares. They can’t focus on one or two of them, because the other will go off. Teams have tried zones, they’ve tried man, but the games when opponents have shut down all three have been few and far between.
Their threat on the perimeter gives the offense many more options in the halfcourt in Davidson’s motion and screen heavy offense. Because defenders must remain tight on the guards coming off screens, it leaves them susceptible to back-cuts and drives from Barham, who in particular has benefitted from the attention the guards receive on the perimeter. Most shooters don’t like to screen, but these guys do that too.
As a team, Davidson ranks 8th in the nation in offense efficiency behind the three guards, up from 35th a year ago. Sure, the team is shooting slightly better this year, but the main difference has been impeccable ball control. Last year, Davidson ranked 64th nationally in turnover percentage. This year, they are second, behind only Wisconsin.
All three of this trio have stepped up to hit shots that kept the Wildcats’ season alive. Think back to a trip to George Mason, when Gibbs was out, when Sullivan sent the game to overtime with a contested three, just seconds after Oskar Michelsen ’18 had made one to cut the deficit to three. Or on the road at URI, when Gibbs hit a go-ahead step-back three in the corner to give the Wildcats the lead after a rough night of shooting. Or in the A-10 quarterfinal, after making a couple big triples down the stretch, Kalinoski had the presence of mind to drive to the hoop and lay in a winning basket as time expired against La Salle.
Had they missed those shots, those would have been costly losses. But these three have proven game after game that they have the utmost confidence in themselves and in their teammates. That is what you want from captains. You want stars on the court who can lead by example with consistently superb play. But you also want those who want their teammates to succeed, setting them up on the court with assists and off the court with steadfast commitment and leadership.
It is rare to see the three-guard system work so effectively in college basketball. But Kalinoski, Sullivan and Gibbs have found ways to complement each other in every fashion. Together, they’ve been the engine behind Davidson’s remarkable season.