Saturday, March 29, 2008

From The Bulletin

America's Newest Darlings
By: Brendan F. Quinn, The Bulletin

Detroit - It's rare that an NCAA tournament finds its lasting image before the Final Four even tips off.

But nearly a full week before the last three games of the college basketball season, it is clear that no one is going to take the spotlight from Davidson College - a tiny liberal arts school with an endearing disposition and one bona fide superstar.

Following Friday night's rousing 73-56 victory over third-seeded Wisconsin, the 10th-seeded Wildcats stand one giant step away from reaching the Final Four. A win over big, bad Kansas stands in their way, like a blue and red brick wall sitting between Detroit and San Antonio. But win or lose, when all is said and done, the story of the charming school from North Carolina might rank as one of the best in college basketball's long history of Cinderellas.

Their tale is a joyous combination of "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Hoosiers" wrapped into one picture-perfect package.

There is the new-born celebrity in Stephen Curry, the son of former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry, who has thrown the Wildcats on his back with three 30-point performances in the NCAA tournament. With a baby face and a flair for the dramatic, the sophomore has taken America by storm.

Then there is the coach, Bob McKillop, a Bronx native who thought that Davidson would be a springboard to bigger and better things when he arrived in 1989. Nineteen years later, the 57-year-old is oh so glad he never left.

Finally, there is the school itself. Located 30 miles outside of Charlotte, Davidson is a highly selective private school of 1,700 students. The college rests its dazzling academic reputation on a strict honor code and allows its students to take unproctored exams whenever and wherever they choose. While most schools in the Field of 65 count their number of Sweet 16 appearances, Davidson boasts its 23 Rhodes Scholars.

Which makes all of this that much more special. The Wildcats are no fluke. They are legitimate Final Four contenders and have yet to blink when standing toe-to-toe with the big boys.

"I told the team (Thursday) night that I have never felt confidence in a group like the confidence I feel in them," said McKillop, who led Davidson to four tournament appearances prior to this season. "And if you have witnessed from day one the many opportunities they've had to surrender to a variety of temptations, be it expectations, be it the great schedule we had early (losses to Duke, North Carolina and UCLA), be it falling on our faces early on (losses to Western Michigan and Charlotte), be it an undefeated season (in the Southern Conference), be it having to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. ...They have faced every imaginable obstacle."

As the seconds ticked off the clock at Ford Field on Friday night, everyone wearing red sported expressions of disbelief - the Davidson fans, the Wisconsin players and fans - well, everyone except the Davidson players themselves.

The Wildcats celebrated, but at no point did it seem as if they thought they had pulled off another monster upset. This is the same team that had just registered its third straight win over a ranked opponent after entering the tournament without a win over a Top 25 team in the last 30 years. Instead of jumping on top of one another, the Wildcats turned to salute their faithful fans that traveled long and far to be with them. Earlier in the week, the school's Board of Trustees made an extraordinary offer to provide free bus fares, game tickets and hotel rooms to all students willing to sit through the 11-hour ride to Detroit.

"The sense of intimacy that exists on our campus is unparalleled in NCAA Division I basketball," McKillop said prior to the Wisconsin game. "You hear all about the free laundry (yes, free laundry is offered to all Davidson students). But when the Board of Trustees votes in a meeting on Tuesday to go into their personal pockets and put out the money so that every student can go to this game...that reaches a level that's unprecedented. I'm stunned by it, thrilled by it."

So many students jumped at the opportunity that the school couldn't secure enough buses to transport about two-thirds of the student body 650 miles. Ultimately, seven buses brought 350 students to the 72,000-seat stadium.

Though their noise vanished in the air of mammoth Ford Field, the Davidson fans were singing, dancing and cheering from beginning to end. As the game went on, fans from Kansas and Villanova, whose game tipped off in the nightcap, couldn't help but take up the Wildcats' cause.

One would imagine that the same thing occurred in front of televisions from coast to coast.

"We are thankful for every fan out there not wearing Davidson across their chest and cheering when we make a bucket or a steal," said junior forward Max Paulhus Gosselin. "We can only say thank you. ...They just want to feel like they want to be part of the story and it's amazing."

While everyone in the country now has a soft spot for the Wildcats, it is Curry who is truly reaching iconic status. He blitzed seventh-seeded Gonzaga with 40 points in a first-round win and then dropped 30 on second-seeded Georgetown two days later.

There are few things that tell you that you've truly "made it." But when LeBron James sits two rows behind your bench yelling, "Pour it on 'em, Steph, pour it on 'em. They can't stop you," - you know you're there.

As is his nature, Curry chalks the attention up to the name on the front his jersey, not the back.

"It just goes to show what we're doing at Davidson," he said afterwards. "It's just really cool to have a guy like LeBron James, one of the best players in the NBA right now, coming out and supporting Davidson."

While Curry is the headliner, the Wildcats are led by point guard Jason Richards. As the school's all-time leader in assists, the senior is the conductor of Davidson's crisp motion offense that usually sets upwards of three or four screens to get Curry open.

"It's definitely a big win for Davidson," Richards said after toppling Wisconsin. "To make it to the Elite Eight, that's something that hasn't been done for a while, since Lefty (Driesell) was here."

Back in 1968 and 1969, it was Driesell who placed Davidson on a national stage with a pair of appearances in the regional finals. Now it's Curry, McKillop and the rest of the Wildcats penning one of the most breathtaking stories in college hoops history.

Hopefully, a win over Kansas is just one of a few more chapters to be written.

No one wants this story end.

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