Saturday, March 29, 2008


Shedding the slipper
Experienced and tested Davidson is no Cinderella
By Stewart Mandel

DETROIT -- The bracket says this was a big-time upset: The Midwest's No. 10 seed knocking off the No. 3 seed. Same thing if you went by the names on the jerseys: Wisconsin, champion of the vaunted Big Ten, losing to Davidson, champion of the Southern Conference.

From courtside, however, Friday night's Sweet 16 game looked like one thing and one thing only: A colossal mismatch in which a more athletic, better-shooting, more aggressive defensive team (Davidson) broke open a 36-36 halftime deadlock to make mincemeat of its overmatched opponent (Wisconsin), 73-56.

Perhaps the selection committee got the seeds backwards.

"You might say we're 'teeny' Davidson," said point guard Jason Richards. "But we're not going to back down from anyone."

As the only double-digit seed and 2,000-student school headed to the Elite Eight, Davidson will presumably get tagged with the "Cinderella" label in the coming days, a la George Mason two years ago. It could not be less accurate.

Yes, the Wildcats' current NCAA tourney run is quickly taking on a similar feel to those 2006 Final Four darlings -- just like Mason knocked off tourney staples Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn, Davidson has now offed Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin with top seed Kansas looming on Sunday -- there's really no comparison between the actual teams.

George Mason did not take top-10 squads North Carolina, UCLA and Duke to the wire in its non-conference season like Davidson. George Mason did not go 20-0 in its conference like Davidson. George Mason was not ranked in the Top 25 by the end of the regular season like Davidson. And with all due respect to former Patriots guards Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler, George Mason did not have a backcourt the likes of Richards and Stephen Curry.

Friday night against a Wisconsin team that came in with the nation's most efficient defense, Curry and Richards put on a show as impressive as anything seen this tourney. Curry, following up on his 40- and 30-point outputs in the first two rounds, scored another 33, while Richards delivered the eye-popping stat line of 11 points, 13 assists and zero turnovers.

"I think this is a pretty darn good backcourt," said Davidson coach Bob McKillop.

Curry, whose star has risen so high in the span of eight days that LeBron James came just to see him play (mouthing a visible "Wow" on an acrobatic reverse layup by Curry late in the game), put on another dazzling shooting display, hitting 6-of-11 three-pointers, but his most important stat may have been this one: Four steals.

Davidson blew open Friday night's game with a 21-3 second-half run that was fueled as much by defense as it was Curry's continued hot hand. Time and again, Wisconsin's guards would try to feed their big men in the post only to find them smothered by Wildcats counterparts Thomas Sander and Andrew Lovedale. Time and again, Curry or Richards would get a hand on the ball as a Badger attempted to drive the lane, and a teammate like Max Paulhus Gosselin would come up with the loose ball.

And time and again, Richards would race the other way in a matter of seconds, finding an open Curry in the corner or a streaking Sander down the lane. It looked a whole lot like watching another transition-specialist, North Carolina, another powerhouse the Wildcats faced earlier this season (losing 72-68).

"That's the type of game we play at Davidson," said Richards. "We get up and down the fast break, find shooters on the wings."

The game's most telling sequence came with 13:01 remaining and Davidson leading just 51-45. Curry stripped plodding Badgers forward Joe Krabbenhoft as he drove the lane. In a matter of seconds, he spotted up in the corner on the other end, took a pass from Richards, paused to wait for the trailing Krabbenhoft to fly past him like a stuntman jumping from a building and drained a three-pointer to put the Wildcats firmly in control.

Davidson held Wisconsin to 37 percent shooting while hitting 49.1 percent itself and caused the normally polished Badgers to finish with more turnovers (12) than assists (nine).

"We didn't have to change our basketball system because we were facing Wisconsin," said Lovedale. "We wanted to do what we did all year."

If it seems like Davidson plays unusually poised in these tourney games for a team that spent the majority of its season facing the likes of Georgia Southern and Western Carolina (during one break in the action Friday, the uber-cool Curry casually chatted up Wisconsin counterpart Michael Flowers about their respective hometowns), one need only look at their early-season schedule.

North Carolina. Duke. UCLA.

The Wildcats played all three of them and took all three to the wire. They didn't come away with any W's -- at one point, in fact, they were 4-6 -- but they came away with the confidence of knowing what the rest of us are only find out now: That they're every bit as good as some of the best teams in the country.

"We were right there 'til the end [against those foes]," said Curry. "That proved we can compete with anyone but we couldn't finish games. Now we have another shot at the big guys, and we've gotten better. We've learned to play 40 minutes."

They needed all 40 minutes to put away previous tourney foes Gonzaga and Georgetown, but Friday night's contest was unofficially over with about eight minutes left. By then, the Davidson band had broken out its favorite tune, Sweet Caroline, and the large swath of fans behind the Wildcats' bench -- nearly all of them wearing red-and-white "Witness" shirts purchased by Curry's NBA-alum father, Dell -- sang along in celebration.

Moments earlier, they'd watched Curry toy with yet another overmatched defender, hanging in the air and shoveling the ball from his knees to the hoop in the aforementioned reverse layup that brought LeBron to his feet. His team's lead had grown to 17 and would soon reach as high as 21.

"They're a great team," said Wisconsin forward Marcus Landry. "They really outworked us and out-scrapped us."

Re-read those previous words from Landry. If there's any major-conference team in the country synonymous with outworking and outscrapping people, it's Wisconsin. Yet when Curry started his now-customary second-half scoring binge (he scored 22 of his 33 after halftime) and the Wildcats rolled off a back-breaking 12-0 run, the Big Ten champs looked as helpless as ... well, a Georgia Southern or Western Carolina.

So it's probably wise at this point for hoops followers to re-think their preconceived notions about Davidson. Cinderella? Only to someone who hasn't actually watched the Wildcats play.

"Last year, you might have been accurate to say we were a Cinderella had we advanced [beyond the first round] because were a surprise," said McKillop. "We brought back five starters, we won 20 conference games, we played the heavyweights early and played them close. This team has expectations you wouldn't normally see a 'Cinderella' have."

Not to mention a pair of guards most major-conference teams can only dream about.

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