By Lenox Rawlings
Maybe somewhere within spitting distance of ice floes on the Detroit River, a little girl stares at the stars and dreams of Cinderella.
That’s fine with the Davidson Wildcats, those well-prepared students from six countries who have become America’s overnight basketball sensations. Call them unselfish. Call them undaunted. Call them unreal.
Just don’t call them Cinderella.
The first time Stephen Curry heard the misapplied label last week, he frowned and glanced down. He’s too polite to throw a cliché back in a cliché vendor’s face, but Curry reflexively shook his head.
“If that’s what they say,” he replied, a hint of exasperation hanging on the soft last syllable. “We know we can play with anybody.”
Around since 1908
They can, and they have. They hassled North Carolina, Duke and UCLA before the unbeaten run through the Southern Conference, and they opened the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 23. In the first two rounds, Davidson rallied from 11 down against No. 24 Gonzaga and from 17 down against No. 8 Georgetown.
The Wildcats fulfill the romantic tournament stereotype: bright-eyed achievers who didn’t fit the physical templates of big-time union shops and headed to an ivy-draped campus of 1,700 students, where they mastered a precise coach’s intricate system and learned, through trial and painful error, that genuine teams must trust their stuff no matter how dark the hour.
Unlike most one-night wonders, Davidson earned basketball credentials long ago. The Wildcats played their first games in 1908-09, three years before famous alumnus and one-year wonder Woodrow Wilson (he transferred to Princeton) was elected president.
Davidson joined the Southern Conference in 1936, when the Big Four schools and three other future ACC members belonged to the 16-team league. Nothing much happened until Davidson hired Duke grad Lefty Driesell, who recruited All-Americas Fred Hetzel and Dick Snyder.
The Wildcats became a force during Driesell’s third season, 1962-63, and two seasons later opened the schedule as Sports Illustrated’s No. 1 team. They lost the second game, at St. Joseph’s, but reeled off 23 consecutive wins, many in the raucous confines of tiny Johnston Gym, which had almost as many windowpanes as seats (2,500). West Virginia shattered everything in the conference semifinals, however.
Hetzel (and his career scoring average of 25.7) graduated, but the Wildcats survived West Virginia in 1966 and made the NCAA field, losing in the East semifinals to Syracuse. A second Driesell recruiting surge attracted Mike Maloy and other inside stalwarts. The team marched into the East title game in 1967-68 and 1968-69, but Carolina slammed the door both times.
With the score tied and time evaporating in 1969, Charlie Scott controlled the ball at Maryland’s Cole Field House. Scott, who had committed verbally to Driesell and then dumped him for Dean Smith, dribbled inside the foul circle, rose high above the defender and swished an 18-foot jumper. Driesell never coached another Davidson game, joining the ACC and vowing to make Maryland “the UCLA of the East.”
Along came McKillop
Davidson had glorious moments under former player Terry Holland, who soon left for Virginia, and the late Bobby Hussey, but the school receded into the crowded background until Bob McKillop galloped into town in 1989. McKillop, a New Yorker who had played for East Carolina and Hofstra, built a five-time state prep champion at Long Island Lutheran.
With the McKillop foundation firm, Davidson reached the NCAA Tournament in 1998, losing to Michigan, and 2002, losing by five points to Ohio State. In 1996 and 2005, the Wildcats roared through the league undefeated but slipped in the league tournament.
In 2006, they took a four-point halftime lead over second-seeded Ohio State before falling 70-62. Last March, they jumped eight points ahead of fourth-seeded Maryland early in the second half but unraveled 82-70.
This team won its 24th consecutive game Sunday. It succeeded where others didn’t partly through the maturity of shared experience, partly because of extraordinary backcourt talents Curry and Jason Richards. Sophomore Curry averaged 25.1 points a game before scoring 40 against Gonzaga and 30 against Georgetown, a defensive lion that had held opponents to the nation’s lowest shooting percentage.
As reporters and TV networks swarm around Curry like the Georgetown defense, he disarms everyone with a quick flick of the verbal wrist. He emphasizes that Richards saved the team in two crucial first halves, that Richards is the team leader, that other teammates screened defenders and sacrificed their egos so he could shoot. When Curry appeared on the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption Monday, he concluded the interview by holding a mug shot of Richards in front of his face and playfully acting out the role of an overlooked star.
Senior Thomas Sander, a 6-8 expert at setting those picks and defending taller post players, has run out of admiring adjectives for Curry.
“I’m speechless about the kid,” Sander said. “There’s no more else you can say. He’s such a great kid. He deserves all the success he’s had. He puts us in positions to win the game, and everybody wants the ball in his hands at the end of the game.”
Curry, Richards can ignite
Point guard Richards, a senior from outside Chicago, led Division I in assists and led the Wildcats through the force of his upbeat personality. Sander calls Richards a unique character who will do anything to make tense teammates laugh.
Richards’ philosophy: “Have fun. Smile at them. You can’t be stressed in a situation like this - big arena, big-time games, big comebacks. You’ve got to stay loose. If you don’t stay loose, you’ll tighten up and play not to lose.”
Although more tightly wound, McKillop subscribes to the theory. But then, he subscribes to quite a few theories developed over many contemplative years.
“This is a very, very special group in that they’re accustomed to winning, and when you’re accustomed to winning, it’s a fire that rages,” he said. “Steph is a torch on one end. Jason Richards is the torch on the other end. It’s interesting that when you’ve got a torch and that fire burns, it also keeps that torch burning. So your two catalysts, their torches are constantly being replenished by the fire that they established.”
Davidson will need those torches this weekend. Wisconsin and Kansas have lots of fire extinguishers, and large horses.