By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Stephen Curry stood, poised, under the hot spotlights in the vast arena. Ringed by a thick crowd, throats already ragged and raw from six minutes of sustained screams, the sophomore phenom hesitated slightly, before lunging with the ball towards the elevated goal. Navigating through tumbling and crashing blue-clad bodies, he delivered a swooping, scooping underhanded layup surely destined for slow-motion SportsCenter repetition.
But the score -- Davidson 7, Duke 6 -- did not budge. The official raised his hand behind his head, signaling an offensive foul.
"I was just trying to get to the basket," said Curry later, after being whistled for three more virtually identical charge calls. "I'll learn from this, I'll try to pull up and shoot more in those situations."
Curry and his Davidson teammates are indeed still learning. But thanks to a surprise 29-5 campaign a season ago featuring eight underclassmen, followed by ambitious scheduling that includes neutral-floor shots against Duke, North Carolina and UCLA, Davidson's continued education is being played out on the national stage. But like Curry's bold yet ultimately failed drives to the rim, Davidson's risks have so far been met with much more danger than reward.
Ultimately, Curry -- the nation's fifth-leading point producer at 25 points per game -- couldn't do enough to hold off seventh-ranked Duke in the Blue Devils' 79-73 victory on Saturday.
And just as in a 72-68 loss to the Tar Heels was marked by poorly chosen shots and missed dunks, the six-point drop to Duke was rife with risky gambles. In addition to Curry's four offensive fouls, Davidson's big men clanked four ill-timed 3-point attempts, and hung back late on defense as Duke's Greg Paulus hit two key baskets to ice the game.
"I like taking risks," explained head coach Bob McKillop. "We risked there at the end by not going after Duke defensively and letting clock evaporate. That's a risk that I took, and our players bought in. Our players take risks with the ball. I'm not a puppeteer, we run. We don't hold it up like Princeton and make 30 passes, I want my players to be risk-takers. Steph today was a risk-taker. It just didn't work out for him."
And so far, the risky schedule hasn't worked out for Davidson. McKillop's charges are 3-3, already over halfway toward their overall 2006-07 loss total in less than a month of play. If the Wildcats are the distant and metaphorical sons of the biblical David, their first two slingshot attempts have whistled just wide of the target.
All of which might indicate that this team isn't quite ready for the high level of competition it's signed up for, that the Wildcats' brash vigor may outweigh its capacity to hang with college basketball's big boys.
It's been a historic, up-and-down, roller-coaster fortnight for the spunky Wildcats.
Two weeks ago, on the strength of that close loss against then-No. 1 ranked North Carolina, Davidson found itself ranked in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' Top 25. Not since 1969-70, when Terry Holland replaced Lefty Driesell, had the school hit the national charts.
But two days after the rankings were released, Davidson travelled to Kalamazoo, Mich., to face another buzz-worthy mid-major, a strong Western Michigan team from the Mid-American Conference. Curry scored 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting and hit five 3s (despite suffering a minor wrist injury), but the team defended its national ranking by allowing the homestanding Broncos' offense to shoot 59.1 percent. The Wildcats slunk back home to the Carolinas with a sobering 83-76 loss.
"It plays games with your mind, the Top 25," said McKillop. "The expectations, the attention that we're getting ... we had to go through that experience to understand that we can't get distracted. I use the term, 'Nothing external shall have any control over us.' Well, we let some external things that we earned have a little bit of control over us.
"A great aspect of this team is that we learn lessons from experiences, and we learned a very important lesson ... taught to us by Western Michigan, and taught to us by the landscape we found ourselves in. That game sobered us up quite a bit."
If sobering early-season nonconference losses do come back to haunt Davidson come March, there's always the old-fashioned way to get to the NCAA Tournament. Thanks to an expanded 20-game league schedule, the road to the Southern Conference auto bid began on Nov. 26 at the rarified, 3,333-foot elevation of Boone, N.C. That's where a top league rival awaited -- 2007 North Division champion and NIT entrant Appalachian State, winners of 25 games last season (including the only meeting between the two schools on Jan. 20).
The Mountaineers were ready for the early-season showdown, and so were thousands of screaming students and the Holmes Center support staff. When the starting lineups were introduced, No. 30 for the visitors was announced as "Steven" Curry, an intentional goof on his preferred pronunciation of STEFF-in.
"After they announced him as 'Steven,' I just wanted to get him the ball," said senior forward Thomas Sander later. "I could see the fire in his eyes."
Indeed, Curry made absolutely sure the arena announcer repeated his name as much as possible. Three seconds after the opening tip, the sophomore star scored on a quick layup, then nailed his first four 3-point attempts in quick succession. As his points accumulated, so did the Wildcats' lead. In a 71-60 Davidson win, Curry shot 14-for-27 from the floor with nine made 3s, setting the one-game scoring record in App State's building and finishing with a career high of 38. He also smashed the 32-point personal standard he'd set against Michigan in his second-ever collegiate game.
But Curry shrugged off the deliberate name-switch as motivation for the finest performance of his young career, a night that helped the Wildcats open their conference season 1-0.
"All my life, it's been like that," Curry said, smiling broadly. "Nobody gets it right."
Away from the cozy and intimate gyms of the SoCon it has long been accustomed to, Davidson spent Saturday afternoon once again living out Atlantic Coast Conference fantasies. The lower seating bowl, alive with color, stood two-thirds red and one-third Duke blue. But it wasn't the crimson of the NC State Wolfpack. No, the 11,000-strong crowd was dominated by Wildcat faithful. Most of the cross-state Cameron Crazies had to settle for seats in the distant, upper reaches of the canyon.
And Davidson was treated to the real live NBA atmosphere in the downtown Charlotte Bobcats Arena, just 20 miles south of its campus. There were rotating spotlights, loud rap music and heroic intros for the Wildcats ("STEFF-innnn CURRR-y!"), while the names of Duke players were infused with just the slightest hint of nasal disdain. The school's logo, a hopelessly outdated charcoal drawing of a cat head, was flashed in gigantic scale on the overhead scoreboard during a media timeout as a young Duke fan suffered the ultimate humiliation: having to don a Wildcat shirt over his J.J. Redick jersey for the oversize-uniform contest (he lost). Close plays -- the ones that were called to Davidson's disadvantage, at least -- were shown over and over again, in excruciating, boo-eliciting slow motion.
But in the end, it was a victory for the road team, one that's well-seasoned to playing in pro-grade environments.
"I think Davidson would do very well," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski when asked how the Wildcats might stack up if they really were in the ACC. "But one of the things about [the ACC] is that it wears on you, there are no nights off. And so you have to have endurance ... more so than in any other conference. That's what I've learned in my 28 years. That's why it's a great conference."
The high, yet guarded, praise was little consolation for the vanquished, though -- Davidson, now just another .500 team -- once again lacked enough endurance to prevail in their second of two faux-home shots against the Atlantic Coast Conference. A road date at NC State looms on Dec. 21, but for now the Wildcats are 0-2 against the ACC.
"I don't like this feeling at all," said Curry, who finished with 20 points despite playing most of the second half with four fouls. "We've been right there with [Duke and Carolina]. But it's a good learning experience to get us ready for conference season and for postseason play when we get there. The more opportunities we have to play top-ranked teams like Duke ... we're going to keep going out and playing hard, and we'll see what happens."
And the Wildcats' head coach has no regrets about the bold and heady risk he took this summer, compiling the kind of Tobacco Road-centric schedule not seen in the SoCon since the Blue Devils and Tar Heels were members themselves, before they splintered off in 1953 and helped start a conference destined to be the nation's top league.
"The ones that have invested the most," said McKillop, channeling Vince Lombardi. "They are the last to surrender."