Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sports Illustrated article

Curry-led Davidson has the ingredients to be the next mid-major surprise

DAVIDSON, N.C. (AP) -Bob McKillop walked into the locker room moments after Davidson's loss to Maryland in the NCAA tournament and saw his dejected players trying to figure out how they let a second-half lead slip away.

As heartbroken as McKillop was, the coach was struck by the image. They didn't look like the usual mid-major conference champion, just happy to be first-round fodder.

"They had an extraordinary season, but there was no sense of contentment with having been there and playing well,'' McKillop said. "To me, that ignited a new flame within them to become even better than they were last year.''

All five starters from that tear-filled locker room are back, including Stephen Curry, the high-scoring shooting guard who keeps getting taller, and Jason Richards, his golfing buddy and the point guard who always seems to get him the ball at the right time.

The anticipation of a breakthrough season has left this small private school 20 miles north of Charlotte buzzing about basketball at a level that hasn't been seen since the 1960s, when Lefty Driesell twice led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. And with a schedule that includes North Carolina, UCLA, Duke and North Carolina State, Davidson isn't shying away from anybody.

In an era when the small schools are knocking off the big boys with great regularity, the Wildcats think it's their turn.

"I think we're very talented,'' Curry said. "We're going to play like we deserve that kind of credit.''

Davidson went 29-5 last season behind Curry, the son of former NBA 3-point specialist Dell Curry. The shooting guard averaged 21.5 points and made an NCAA Division I freshman record 122 3-pointers.

Yet Curry wouldn't be at Davidson if Virginia Tech, his father's alma mater, offered him a scholarship. The Hokies were among the big schools that passed on Curry because of his size.

McKillop could only smile as Curry continued to grow. He was 5-foot-11 when he signed with Davidson. He sprouted to 6-1 by the time practice started last year. He was recently measured at 6-3 and his doctor told him he's got another two inches to go.

"He walks into the office sometimes and he just looks bigger,'' McKillop said.

Needing only an instant to get off his shot, Curry scored 32 points in his first college game, at Michigan. He finished the season with 30 in the loss to Maryland, but got tired down the stretch and missed five of his last six shots.

He spent the summer working on his strength and conditioning, and gained experience as a member of the U.S. under-19 team that finished second to host Serbia in world championships.

"I know I can compete with whoever is guarding me and whoever we're playing against,'' Curry said.

Curry has become inseparable from Richards. The senior, who was second in the nation with 249 assists last season, started watching Curry when he was still playing high school basketball. Competitive golfers who shoot in the low 80s, Richards has won five of their past six stroke-play matches.

"As soon as he stepped on campus, we kind of had a special bond, on the court and off,'' Richards said.

The entire frontcourt returns from a team that won 25 of its last 27 games. But at 6-8, leading rebounder Boris Meno is the tallest of a group that includes Thomas Sander and Max Paulhus Gosselin. Maryland eventually exploited that lack of height in the tournament when they rallied from an eight-point second-half deficit.

It remains a concern, with North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough one of the many big men they'll face with their brutal schedule.

McKillop, entering his 19th season, wanted to challenge his players. He's also been demanding in preseason practices as the up-tempo Wildcats try to become the next breakthrough team, the goal of every school at their level since George Mason's run to the Final Four in 2006.

McKillop has eyed Gonzaga, Southern Illinois and Butler as the programs to emulate.

"They've proved consistently that they've been able to keep their head above water,'' he said. "The margin for error is ever so slight at the mid-major and low-major level.''

Students recently camped out for North Carolina tickets, reminiscent of the days when Driesell built the Wildcats into one of the nation's best programs.

"You know about the history. It's talked about a lot,'' Richards said. "It's different because they were one of the powerhouses back in the '60s. But we think we can play with anybody.''

The air of confidence and determination has been around this team since that heartbreaking day last March, when the No. 13 seed came so close to advancing in the NCAA tournament.

"We see that it's possible,'' Richards said. "Other teams have done it before. Why can't it be us this year?''

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