Friday, March 07, 2008

PMM's thoughts: Wednesday before Charleston

Modern History for the Feral Faithful: Reflections on the Past, Visions of the Future, and Euphoria Now

Visiones vero quas vidi, non eas in somnis, nec dormiens, nec inphrenesi, nec corporeis oculis aut auribus exterioris hominis, nec in abditis locis percepi, sed eas vigilans et circumspecta in pura mente, oculis et auribus interioris hominis, in apertis locis, secundum voluntatem Dei accepi. Quod quomoodo sit, carnali homini perquirere difficile est.

But the visions that I saw, not in dreams, nor sleeping, nor in a frenzy, nor with bodily eyes or ears of an outward person, nor in hidden places did I see them, but awake and alert with a clear mind, with eyes and ears of an inward person, in open places, according to the will of God I received them. As to how it may be, it is hard for a fleshly person to investigate.
--Hildegard of Bingen

Again, the Davidson Wildcats find themselves before the threshold of excellence. But so far from crossing it are we. Those in the Feral Faithful know too well the delicate footing we have on this precipice of Southern Conference perfection, sense too well the presence of death. Contemplating the recent past, let us enjoy the present and embrace the future.

Just seven years into his tenure as head coach, Bob McKillop and Davidson boasted the fourth highest number of regular season wins in the nation following a 14-0 regular season conference sweep, and 25 wins in all. The 1996-97 team posted most wins since Lefty Driessell’s 1968-69 team won 27 games. Establishing an ignorant precedent in reviewing the amplitude of such an accomplishment, the NCAA Selection Committee was nonplussed and, following the Davidson’s premature Southern Conference Tournament departure, relegated the team to the depths of the NIT.

Davidson extended a 13-2 conference record in 1997-98 with three wins in the Conference tournament for Coach McKillop’s first NCAA tournament bid. Despite being just down I-85 at the Georgia Dome, in an ominous Friday the 13th tip-off, the ‘Cats were quickly and unceremoniously swept off the dance floor by Michigan, 80-61.

Four years later, the Wildcats returned to the NCAA tournament in 2002 after a season that marked the Wildcats’ first win over the North Carolina Tarheels in decades, among other impressive victories. The team went 11-5 in the Southern Conference before taking that championship. After a career game for the Prague Prodigy Martin Ides and late game heroics by Pete Anderer, the ‘Cats fell just short to Ohio State, 69-64.

The 2004-05 season was another reminder that regardless of Southern Conference dominance, a hiccup in the Southern Conference Tournament gives the Selection Committee a perfect excuse to reward Goliath and shun Davidson. Echoing 1996-97, the ‘Cats went undefeated in regular season conference play, this time winning 16 games but lost to UNC-Greensboro in the semi-finals of the conference tournament.

In the fall of 2005, the ‘Cats began the season with a foul taste in their mouths. After conference perfection in 2004-2005, the Wildcats went deep into the NIT with wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Missouri State, effectively amounting to the dubious achievement of making out with one’s own sister. So while the ’06-07 ‘Cats had some invaluable experience, in the locker room there was a palpable lust for a hot date come March. The Wildcats raided the conference schedule for a 10-5 record, then pillaged the Southern Conference Tournament Finals in a 30 point win over UT-Chattanooga. Again, the team faced Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. Again it was a Davidson big man, Ian Johnson, putting on a career performance against OSU. Again, the effort was admirable but not enough to avoid a 70-62 loss in the #2 seed Buckeyes’ backyard in Dayton, Ohio.

The Wildcats returned in 2006-2007 with a season that showed Bob McKillop no longer recruits blue chip mid-major players, he spawns All-Americans. The roster included not a single scholarship senior. Team Captains Jason Richards and Thomas Sander had not been regular starters the year before. The Wildcats were picked to finish 5th in their Division. But when a baby-faced 18 year old came off the bench in the team’s second game of the season and posted 32 points against Michigan, the greatest back-court in the nation was born. Davidson went on with just one loss in Conference play, and still harboring the bitter NIT nightmares of 2004-05, repeated as Southern Conference Tournament champs. In McKillop’s best NCAA showing to date, the ’Cats just missed advancing past Maryland in a contest where Curry dropped 30 in the face of D.J. Strawberry who three months later was drafted by the Phoenix Suns.

In the time Boris Meno, Thomas Sander, and Jason Richards have been on the Davidson roster, the Wildcats have won 61 regular season Southern Conference games, and lost just 6. Of their 6 losses as seniors tri-captains, 3 have been to teams ranked in the top five in the country going into the last week of the regular season (and presumably destined make up 3 of the 4 #1 NCAA Tournament seeds). And despite draconian increases in conference games on the schedule (15, 18, and now 20 mandatory games) because of apathetic athletic directors elsewhere in the Southern Conference, the Class of ‘08 has reigned supreme.

This cursory review of the last ten years in the McKillop era indicates that when Davidson makes the tournament, they unequivocally represent the league as the best Southern Conference team. Conversely, and so frustrating for our Feral Nation, when Davidson is overwhelmingly the best team in the Conference, they do not always make the tournament.

Yet despite this oftentimes troubling position we find ourselves in vis a vis the Conference and the Selection Committee, this team is arguably different from any Davidson team we have seen. No team in Division-I has ever won 20 conference games in a season, and it is likely no team will cap perfection as admirably as the Wildcats did in the past week.

The games against Appalachian State on Senior Night and at inhospitable Georgia Southern show how much the team’s leaders have matured. They certainly show why fringe elements like the Boris Meno Fan Club were once so inspired to draft its charter four years ago. Playing in front of his mother for the first time in his collegiate career, Boris demonstrated that he has never lost focus despite losing his starting role. Undoubtedly, this sort of unselfish behavior typifies the greatest aspects of college sport, and distinguishes NCAA basketball from its professional counterpart. We see in Boris the love of the game personified; as even the most casual observer will note, Boris’s charm has endeared him to the student body.

The tri-captains’ efforts the past two months have shown that Charleston will be hosting a truly different monster this weekend. After the one-point loss at N.C. State in December, the college basketball world effectively ended the affair with these ’Cats. After a short Haagen-Dazs pity-party, the Wildcats turned into the scorned ex-girlfriend who dyes her hair, and joins a new gym quickly dropping twenty pounds before buying a red ’67 Carmengia and hitting the town. All of the sudden, it’s time for the annual spring blowout party and you see her there, talking to Doug Gottlieb and some sports editor at the New York Times, showing off a new pair of Blahniks with legs which, silkier than a Curry jumper, just four months ago had you begging for buttermilk.

Davidson basketball history certainly offers an explanation for why Championship Week is a unnerving time. But Davidson history has arguably never witnessed a team with such experienced veterans who keep finding new ways to blow teams out but always with an air of vindictiveness. January and February will be remembered as the month when the seniors lit a flame under their younger teammates; this identifiable leadership-by-example will no doubt resonate throughout the remaining Curry Era. The coming weekend should be a time for the ‘Cats to fine tune the fundamentals Coach McKillop has engrained in them and fortify the confidence they ought rightly exude going into March.

To convey the bliss this year has created for the Feral Faithful is as difficult a task as it is to explain away the visions we perceive of the team going deep into the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps, the feeling is most similar to that extraordinary but familiar sensation Richard Juhlin describes in tasting excellent Champagnes: the mind races forward into honed, euphoric thought, but the legs become sluggish, unable to follow, and the drinker is left momentarily paralyzed in place and time to focus on this brilliant, glorious instant.


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