By JOHN BRANCH
Published: March 1, 2008
DAVIDSON, N.C. — Among the unusual facets of Davidson College, besides a basketball team with the nation’s longest winning streak, is a low-slung building amid the stately ones made of red bricks and white columns.
The Lula Bell Houston Laundry is where the 1,700 Davidson students can drop off their dirty clothes, to be cleaned and folded at no charge. Last week, the center did 815 bundles of laundry weighing 7,913 pounds — nearly four tons — so that the students could focus on other things.
“You drop it off, and two days later it’s folded in a big paper bag for you, in a bundle,” said Stephen Curry, the team’s silk-shooting sophomore guard. “It’s pretty nice.”
Davidson has its quirks. An honor code allows students to schedule their own final exams, and tests are taken without proctors. Davidson recently eliminated student loans, relying instead on grants and work-study programs, so that no student graduates with debt. The campus sits in a cocoon of a village 15 miles north of sprawling Charlotte, far closer in feel to North Carolina’s fictitious Mayberry.
But the most surprising aspect of Davidson may be the basketball team, led by Bob McKillop, a 57-year-old from Queens who has quietly rebuilt a once-proud program at one of the most elite liberal arts colleges in the country.
Basketball polls have the Wildcats at the edge of the top 25, but the 2008 U.S. News & World Report rankings placed Davidson ninth on the list of top liberal-arts colleges, a list devoid of other Division I basketball powers.
Davidson can brag of 23 Rhodes scholars, but it has not produced a single N.B.A. All-Star. That has not kept McKillop from believing, 19 seasons into his tenure, that Davidson can reclaim the elite basketball status it had 40 years ago under Lefty Driesell.
Behind Curry, the son of the former N.B.A. star Dell Curry, and an assembly of perfectly cast role players, the Wildcats (22-6) have won 18 games in a row. They are 19-0 in the Southern Conference heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale at second-place Georgia Southern.
If any team in the country is positioned to play the spoiler at this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, it is this one — if Davidson makes the 65-team bracket.
The Ratings Percentage Index seems to hold more sway than records or rankings, and Davidson was at No. 61 in the most recent R.P.I., just inside the tournament’s proverbial bubble. It tried to combat its weak conference schedule with difficult nonconference games.
“They gave Carolina all they could take, they gave Duke a good game, and they had U.C.L.A. down 18 points in the first half,” said Kenneth Norton, 79, who has provided haircuts in Davidson since he was 14 and who summed up this season from behind his chair at Raefords Barber Shop.
Davidson could not complete the early-season upsets, losing to No. 1 North Carolina, 72-68; to No. 7 Duke, 79-73; and to No. 7 U.C.L.A., 75-63. The Wildcats may have to win their conference tournament, as they did the past two years, to guarantee another chance to win their first N.C.A.A. tournament game since 1969. The Southern Conference has never received an at-large bid.
“We understand that,” McKillop said in his office, where classical music played in the background. “That’s the dynamic we have to deal with.”
McKillop might be the most unusual Davidson feature of all. The son of a New York City police officer, he played college basketball at East Carolina and Hofstra. He made a bigger name for himself as a New York high school coach, at Holy Trinity and Long Island Lutheran.
He took the job at Davidson in 1989, seeing a slingshot to bigger college programs. His team did not finish above .500 until his fifth season, and he said he felt fortunate not to have been fired.
“I was a cocky high-school coach who enjoyed great success because I had great players,” said McKillop, whose silver hair and assuring voice give him the air of a trusty news anchor. “I came here thinking I could wave a magic wand and move up the basketball ladder.”
Instead, he has pulled Davidson up the rungs gradually. McKillop has often been a candidate for jobs in the Northeast, including at St. John’s, Seton Hall and Boston College in recent years. But no one has yet pulled him from Davidson, where he and his wife, Cathy, live in a white house across from campus, with a Wildcats flag on the porch and a wreath on the door.
Two of their children graduated from Davidson. Their youngest, Brendan, is a freshman on his father’s team.
“How many Division I basketball coaches have been able to raise three children in the same house?” athletic director Jim Murphy said.
McKillop has embraced the town’s intimacy and the college’s hurdles — its small size (and fan base) and its academic standards: 88 percent of this year’s freshmen finished in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
Skip to next paragraph After a 68-55 victory against Appalachian State on Wednesday, McKillop and his coaches and players mingled with family and fans, as they always do, at the Brickhouse Tavern. Five players soon left for the campus library, where they stayed until nearly 1 a.m. McKillop is one coach without the constant worry over what his players are doing.
“I’m not suggesting that we have nerds,” McKillop said. “But I am suggesting that there is a measure of accountability and responsibility that permeates the campus.”
Davidson has more international players (six) than players from North Carolina (three) on its roster. This season’s team, however, rides largely with Curry, the slippery shooting guard from Charlotte who is averaging 25 points. Overlooked by bigger programs because of his slight frame (still growing, he is 6 feet 3 inches and 185 pounds), Curry has a quick release and a deft passing touch, which he may hone further next season as the point guard.
“I wouldn’t want my son to play for anybody else,” Dell Curry said while sitting among Wednesday’s sellout crowd of 5,838 at Davidson’s Belk Arena.
Stephen (pronounced STEFF-in) Curry and the senior Jason Richards, who leads N.C.A.A. Division I in assists a game, could be the nation’s best backcourt tandem, and probably the most underrated.
Add a bevy of midsize bangers, like Thomas Sander (from Cincinnati), Boris Meno (Paris) and Max Paulhus Gosselin (Carignan, Quebec), and the Wildcats could be a dangerous tournament team.
“You saw what we did against those big-name teams in the beginning of the season,” Richards said. “Yeah, we didn’t win, but came really close, and we kind of proved to ourselves that we can play with anyone.”
Davidson is motivated by the recent successes of small programs. Gonzaga is a basketball power. George Mason reached the Final Four two years ago. The likes of Butler, Drake and Kent State are surging this season.
But Davidson does not have to look elsewhere for inspiration. On a table in McKillop’s office are two Sports Illustrated magazines in clear vinyl sleeves. One, from 1968, cast three contenders to U.C.L.A. — North Carolina, Kentucky and Davidson; Davidson lost to the Tar Heels in the national quarterfinals. The other, from 1964, tabbed Davidson as the preseason No. 1 team. It finished 24-2 and ranked sixth, but missed the N.C.A.A. tournament because it was beaten by West Virginia in its conference final.
“Each day I walk into the office, and I keep them in my vision as a reminder that it has happened here,” McKillop said. “Now, can it happen again? The stars have to be so uniquely aligned for it to happen again.”
McKillop smiled. The stars are on the move.