Thursday, December 13, 2007

Thought and notes from LA

I had a "correspondent" on location in Los Angeles. He's an anonymous younger Davidson alum that offered to share his thought and observations from the UCLA game. I thought this was a great idea. Many of you would probably love to read another account of here it is, in its entirety:

Not only was I able to schedule a "business trip" to coincide with the 'Cats California campaign this weekend, but I was lucky enough to fly back to Charlotte on Saturday night with the team. Talk about a great surprise. After a stressful drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Anaheim to LAX, it was nice to be greeted at my gate by the ten tallest men in the building. If airport officials needed any light bulbs changed in the B-concourse, they missed a real opportunity.

The whole trip -- the game, sitting in the alumni section, the flight home -- I think, upgraded my Davidson family membership; I went from being one of the throngs, to one of the inner-circle. When your fan numbers dwindle -- from nearly 5,000 at the Bobcats Arena last week to just shy of 200 in Anaheim -- the few and the proud come together in a pretty big way. For the first thirteen minutes at least, we were a very unified presence in a strange and faraway land.

You may even catch me using the pronoun "we" when I talk about the 'Cats from now on. It was that kind of trip.

The weather on Saturday was terrible by Southern California standards -- seven or eight clouds in the sky with a high just below 70 degrees. To be fair, it rained eight or nine drops while the games were going on. Compared to the East Coast, though, the day was a great one. I had a bagel and coffee before the session started outside at a local Panera Bread -- no coat and in short sleeves. Southern California (aside from the violent crime, mutant traffic, general arrogance, severe socio-economic stratification, and proliferation of obnoxious UCLA fans) is really a lovely place.

My seats at the Honda Center were amazing -- five rows off the court at the free throw line. Thank you, Alumni Office! I was seated quite close to Tom Ross and was privy to his pretty general "Come on, ref!" banter for the first time. On the whole, a decent showing from the new president. He didn't quite compare to Bobby Vagt's offering to lend his eyeglasses to the officials, but it was nice to see him making the effort, nonetheless.

John Wooden sat a row back and seven or eight seats over from me. Bill Walton, a row in front and fifteen seats over. The coolest part of the celebrity watching, though, was when Walton walked by the alumni section, his head nearly banging into the lights of the Honda Center, and Tom Ross pointing to him and saying something to the effect of "He's nobody. He played for the wrong team." Right on, Tom.

I learned lots about the Wildcats this weekend -- on the court and off. On the court first:

- Most important, we can (and do) consistently run with the best in the country. We were up by as many as 18 in this game and we dominated the first half in resounding fashion -- especially the first fifteen minutes. Our fans made a ruckus in the Honda Center that peeved a lot of the Bruin faithful. The blue-clad were so out of sorts early on that they erupted when the Davidson lead was finally cut to ten. To ten. When UCLA is pleased with a double-digit deficit, the natural order has been upset.

- The kool-aid tastes incredible: Jason Richards and Steph Curry officially form one of the best backcourts in the country. I'd trust Steph to do almost anything with the basketball -- handle it, shoot it, turn it into wine -- because he constantly proves himself reliable. He hits impossible shots and can make things happen even in the face of incredible defensive pressure. He's still forcing the long ball -- and I think his charging struggles against Duke made him a little reluctant to cut the lane up against UCLA (or maybe he was coached out of it) -- but his ability to score from anywhere is a sight to behold.

- But, without Richards to bring the ball up, Steph stalls. He seems to get forced into an awkward brand of street ball complete with contrived stutter steps, head fakes, and ball-hogging. It's clear to me that he's far more effective as a true two guard. I'm afraid I'll be pretty nostalgic for Richards next year when (presumably) Steph takes over for him at the point.

- Boris Meno should never get the ball unless he's moving directly to the basket. I'm sure he's a sweet kid, but dribbling miscues and abysmal passing make him a six-foot eight-inch liability. I heard a couple of alums -- in jest, but still lamentably -- discussing whether or not Meno was point-shaving. "Who can be that bad?" was the essence of their conversation. A bit of overstatement, certainly, but the sentiment is one I shared on Saturday. I say give Lovedale the start -- he's far more athletic and his move to the hoop has improved significantly since last season.

- I talked with Bob McKillop for the first time in my life this weekend. Between my odd squeaks and nervous ticking (let's face it, the man is disarmingly Adonis-like), I managed to vomit forth some poorly constructed statement about the team making six-foot, seventeen-inch Kevin Love a veritable non-issue despite his national hype. Without thinking, all Bob said in response was, "Thomas Sander" -- as if my statement was ridiculous and hadn't I heard of the guy who's been shutting down opposing big men all year long? While you'd certainly love to see Sander produce more consistently on the glass and on the offensive end, his knack for corralling the nation's best beasts is becoming legend.

- Having seen us play UNC, Duke, and UCLA in person this year, all top-ten squads, I have to say that Duke impressed me the most -- and I say that from a pit of unfettered hatred for that man and his program. UNC as a consensus #1 is also a bit absurd to me. Sure, they've got the record and the flash to back it up, but for my money, Duke plays a smarter brand of basketball with a more balanced shooting and passing attack. The ACC in conference will be interesting at the top this year.

Now to the gossipy drivel a la Us Weekly from my time with the 'Cats. I was, after all, in LA last week, so paparazzi behavior seems appropriate:

- The team, inexplicably, had three first-class seats for the first leg of the red-eye home -- from LA to Phoenix. Care to guess who got to take advantage of the bump up? If you guessed Bob McKillop, his wife, and Athletic Director Jim Murphy, you'd be wrong; those three rode back in coach with us common folk. Nope, the answer is three of the larger fellows: Boris Meno, Thomas Sander and Andrew Lovedale. Not sure the pecking order there. I would almost say "those who played well, ride well" but then I saw Boris taking his seat up front and that theory was shot.

- Watching Dan Nelms walk down the aisle of a Boeing 747 is comical. He essentially has to fold himself in half to fit. Dan and first-year teammate Aaron Bond also didn't get the memo that carry-on items go under the seat in front of you, not the one behind. Though, when your legs are that long, foot space is understandably hard to come by.

- Airplane reading lists: Boris Meno is currently picking his way through The Bourne Identity. Bob McKillop selected the Sports page of the Saturday LA Times as he sipped his club soda. Jim Murphy is tackling a John Grisham. Steph Curry and Bryant Barr, however, decided to forego reading in favor of a little quality time with their PSPs.

- John Wooden is really old.

All in all, despite the loss, the trip was a good one. We led a previous #1 for the entire first half of play, and not in fluky fashion. We got there with solid three-point shooting, successful backdoor cuts, and a commitment to pressurized half-court defense.

The atmosphere in the Honda Center was great, especially considering the distance from our home floor. To hold an arena full of UCLA fans near-silent for almost a half was a great feeling.

And, for the record, I don’t buy into Kyle Whelliston's ESPN article from last week. Asking "What's wrong with the 'Cats?" when they lose games like this misses the mark entirely. The reason we play the top teams, the reason we fly cross-country during the lead-up to final exams, the reason we stretch ourselves like we did this weekend, is to sharpen our tools for the conference and tournament seasons. Like it or not, the only way we're assured an NCAA berth is by winning the conference tournament. Sure, knocking off a Carolina or a Duke helps our RPI, maybe gets us a national ranking and a shot at an at-large bid, but ultimately we're preparing for the meat of the season and beyond. We're preparing to play in March; and preparing to win in March.

All the early upsets in the world don't make for a successful season. It would certainly be nice to find the word "Davidson" somewhere in the AP or ESPN polls, but that can't be our end game.

So, no. We didn't walk off the plane in Charlotte early Sunday morning with a victory over UCLA in tow. But we are better for the experience. We've played the very best under the very worst of conditions; we've squared off against a former # 1 on what was essentially their home floor. And we led. Big. I'm lucky to have seen what we can do in person.

Despite a 3-5 start, I'm pretty hopeful.

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