By Pat Forde
Twenty-three seconds left in the Wildcats' 23rd SoCon win without a loss.
On his way off the floor, senior center Thomas Sander affectionately rubbed his hand across McKillop's perfectly combed silver hair. Without smiling, McKillop quickly reached up and smoothed his 'do back into place.
It was a revealing glimpse into what helps make McKillop one of the most successful coaches in college basketball. He allows no mess in his life. Not in the way he looks, not in the way he coaches.
"I think sloppiness is a disease," McKillop said. "When you don't set a screen right, when you don't execute a play properly, when you're not in position on defense, that's sloppiness. When you leave your tape on the floor in the locker room, that's sloppiness.
"I try to represent the un-sloppy way as much as I can."
What could be any less sloppy than a perfect record? Buttoned-down Davidson completed the fifth unbeaten SoCon slate since 1960 -- a 20-0 regular season, plus three wire-to-wire wins here in the conference tournament. The Wildcats never trailed in 120 minutes of this event, controlling everything as they have all season.
It's part of a formidable Davidson run: three straight SoCon tournament titles and 46 league wins in its last 47 games. It has been fueled by a McKillopian fastidiousness: no glaring breakdowns, no frayed edges, no frayed nerves.
No sloppy basketball.
But as much as the scores made it look easy -- the Wildcats won here by margins of 33, 30 and 16 points -- the final 40 minutes against massive underdog Elon was a struggle. Not sloppy, mind you, but not pristine, either.
And that's the way it is in Mid-Major Land. In the leagues where there's usually only one bid -- and only one way to get it -- you don't reach the Big Dance without breaking a sweat at least once. It's simply hard to do.
Ask Gonzaga, South Alabama, Virginia Commonwealth, Robert Morris and UNC Asheville. They all won their league regular-season titles but have been beaten in their league tournaments. Through Monday night, the Championship Week breakdown is 50-50 for top seeds earning the automatic bid.
"When you're the favorite, everyone's out to get you," said savvy senior point guard Jason Richards. "It's everyone's last chance to win that conference tournament."
So when little old Elon -- the SoCon seventh seed, a 14-18 impostor that lost to Tusculum back in December -- clawed within five points a couple times in the second half, you could sense some pressure building on the shoulders of the favorites.
"Our guys thought we had to win by 30 tonight," McKillop said. "That's the biggest mistake we could make. When we didn't put them away, it was almost like a letdown. I continually said in the huddle, 'We're in the lead. We're in control.'"
Even with its superior talent -- beginning but not ending with America's best shooter, Stephen Curry -- Davidson probably needed the reassurance. Just as the weight of trying to go undefeated seemed to wear down the New England Patriots, it was a factor on a smaller scale with the Wildcats.
"As a coach, this is the most challenging, taxing, trying but exhilarating challenge you could have," said McKillop, a New York native. "This is the Cyclone at Coney Island, the Wild Mouse at Coney Island, the Funhouse, all at once. And the parachute jump thrown in.
"Having gone through a 20-0 conference ledger basically put our guys on edge from maybe the last seven weeks of the season. There were some who thought that was a walk in the park, 20-0. That was expected. Our guys dealt with that expectation."
Now Davidson must deal with a new expectation, as one of the trendy upset picks in the NCAA tournament. This is where McKillop's aggressive early scheduling could be a major advantage.
The Wildcats played an insane nonconference schedule that included North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, North Carolina State, Charlotte and Western Michigan. (Oh, Davidson also threw in a preseason scrimmage with Texas for good measure.) The result was a 4-6 nonconference record, and speculation that the Wildcats would have to win the automatic bid to be in.
Now that they've done that, they can summon confidence from their close losses to the Tar Heels (four points), Blue Devils (six) and Bruins (12).
"Sometimes you don't learn lessons from winning," McKillop said. "You learn from losing. Great people get up from the mat. … We got knocked to the mat with no apology."
Then they got back up and eventually forgot how to lose. Last time it happened: Dec. 21. They'll take the nation's longest winning streak into the NCAAs, where SoCon coaches believe they'll be a very tough out.
"They've tested themselves, had an opportunity to play a variety of competition," said Elon coach Ernie Nestor. "I think that will bode very well for them. They had some early losses and that set them back, but they're a very confident basketball team. They could advance to the Sweet 16.
"They're the best basketball team we've played this year, and we played Virginia Tech, VCU and Georgia. Davidson is more difficult because they guard a lot better than people think. Their defense is extremely underrated."
As Wofford coach Mike Young told the Charleston Post and Courier: "With the right seed -- a 10 or an 11 or a 12 -- they can do what George Mason did two years ago in the NCAA tournament. I'm absolutely convinced. They're big enough. They handle it well enough. And it would be rare against anybody, with the exception of a few top-ranked teams, for them not to have the best player on the floor."
That, of course, would be Curry, now the two-time MVP of this tournament in his two years as a collegian. Even when he didn't have a great night shooting the ball (8 of 18 from the field, 5 of 13 from 3-point range), he managed a game-high 23 points. He's simply impossible to lock up for a full 40 minutes.
The son of former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry has pro potential of his own, but he has said he'll definitely be back at Davidson next season. He'll get a chance to play point guard then, which should be his pro position.
How many games there are between Curry's shooting guard career and his transition to the point remain to be seen. Last season, Davidson came close to a first-round upset of Maryland but faded at the end. This time around, don't bet against the Wildcats.
"We played a pretty good 34-minute game [against Maryland]," Curry said. "If we can build on that and play 40 minutes, I think we can pull one out."
Pull one out in the NCAAs, and Bob McKillop won't even mind if his players mess up his hair. Well, maybe he wouldn't mind too much.