DAVIDSON Davidson enters a new era Tuesday, taking a significant step up to join one of college basketball’s new power leagues – the Atlantic 10.
And that makes Wildcats coach Bob McKillop nervous.
“There’s pressure; I feel it,” said McKillop, whose program dominated the Southern Conference for many of his 25 years at Davidson. “I saw where we’ve already been picked to finish last in a preseason poll. That’s an eye opener.”
The move to the Atlantic 10 was spearheaded by Davidson president Carol Quillen and ends Davidson’s longtime membership in the Southern Conference. The Wildcats are departing a league composed entirely of schools in the Southeast – for the more geographically diverse Atlantic 10. Although most of the 14-member A-10’s schools are in the Northeast, it also offers a Midwest presence in Dayton and Saint Louis, as well as three southern schools in Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth and, now, Davidson.
“Davidson is an ideal fit for the Atlantic 10,” A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said. “As a nationally recognized academic institution complemented by excellence in a broad-based athletic program, the Wildcats will be competitive immediately. Their success in men’s basketball is important, bringing another nationally recognized brand into the league.”
Still, because of what Davidson achieved in the Southern Conference and the national acclaim that came with it, McKillop feels the need to manage expectations.
“I understand the challenge we’re facing,” McKillop said. “I don’t know that our community of fans understands how big a jump this is. This is a big-league leap. We now face tremendous uncertainty. There’s not a magic wand that’s going to be waved overnight.”
In 74 seasons in the Southern Conference, the Wildcats won 12 league tournament championships (seven under McKillop), advancing to the NCAA tournament with an automatic berth each year. But there were also years during which Davidson dominated the league’s regular season (including going unbeaten in 2005 and 1996 and 15-1 last season) but didn’t receive an at-large NCAA bid after losing in the conference tournament.
In the Atlantic 10, Davidson joins a league that received six invitations to last season’s NCAA tournament, more than the ACC (five) and SEC (four). The Atlantic 10 had nine teams ranked in the Rating Percentage Index’s top 100 last season; at 131st, Davidson had the Southern Conference’s best RPI.
That was the rub for McKillop about the Southern Conference.
“It’s a one-bid league,” he said. “The benchmark for a successful season for us is to make the NCAA tournament. There were times when we had a good enough regular season to get in, but we had to prove ourselves all over again by winning the Southern Conference tournament to do so.”
That didn’t happen last season, when Wofford won the league tournament and was the Southern Conference’s sole representative in the NCAA tournament. Davidson, which was upset by Western Carolina in the league tournament, settled for a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.
“In the Atlantic 10, getting an at-large bid is mandated by being a middle-of-the-pack team,” McKillop said. “Our roster is a Southern Conference roster, so we have significant work to do and a significant distance to catch up. Does that make us hesitant to catch them or hurt our confidence? Not at all. We’re still going to shoot for the stars.”
McKillop thinks the program’s recruiting is already moving in that direction after beating major-conference programs for three incoming freshmen: forward Peyton Aldridge (who had an offer from Creighton), forward Nathan Ekwu (Fordham, Seton Hall) and forward Oskar Michelsen (Oregon State).
“(The A-10) has immediately given us a calling card that is attracting guys’ attention,” McKillop said. “They’re not asking us about our conference now. That used to happen even when we were recruiting kids in North Carolina. It’s already opening doors for us, particularly in the Northeast.”
Era of realignment
The kind of move Davidson is making isn’t unique in college sports these days. Conference realignment has been widespread in recent years and the Southern Conference hasn’t been immune, with Appalachian State (to the Sun Belt), Georgia Southern (Sun Belt) and Elon (Colonial Athletic Association) also leaving this summer. College of Charleston departed for the CAA a year ago. The Southern Conference has picked up Mercer, East Tennessee State and Virginia Military to counter the losses.
The Atlantic 10 recently lost Charlotte to Conference USA, Temple to the American Atlantic Conference, as well as Xavier and Butler to the Big East. George Mason joined the Atlantic 10 in 2013, and the addition of Davidson will bring the league’s membership to 14.
But Davidson’s move to the A-10 goes deeper than men’s basketball.
“It’s an opportunity on several fronts,” Quillen said. “There’s a larger footprint with the other institutions as well as the media. We’ll be exposed to more alumni, investors and supporters.”
The switch has also accelerated a capital campaign at Davidson that will improve the school’s academic and athletic facilities – the construction of a $15 million athletic center adjoining Belk Sports Complex, as well as a new “academic village” that will include new construction and renovation of existing buildings.
Quillen said money is being raised to get Davidson competitive in the Atlantic 10 as quickly as possible in all sports by increasing the athletic department budget for travel, recruiting and most important, scholarships. Based on 2013-14 RPI numbers, most of Davidson’s teams likely would have finished in the middle or near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 standings.
“The big move is around fund-raising for scholarships and not just for athletes,” Quillen said. “We have to be able to continue to keep attracting the best students here. We’re a lot of things – unsurpassed in our academics. But we also want to stay competitive in sports.”
Athletics director Jim Murphy wouldn’t say by how much his budget will grow.
“We all realize this is an investment in the future of Davidson,” Murphy said. “Thankfully, the administration and trustees acknowledge that it’s going to take more dollars for us to be successful.”
Aside from men’s basketball, Davidson has 18 other sports that are also moving to the new league. The A-10 doesn’t sponsor football or wrestling, so the Wildcats will remain in football’s nonscholarship Pioneer League and in the Southern Conference for wrestling.
Other Wildcats teams, accustomed to bus rides to conference games just a few hours away, will now routinely face longer trips and travel by plane to the Atlantic 10’s more distant campuses such as Saint Louis or St. Bonaventure in upstate New York.
“Each sport is unique in how this will affect us,” said men’s soccer coach Matt Spear. “For us, all our conference road games are going to be on Saturday nights next season, so we’re not going to have to miss class for them. It will be a little more expensive, but that’s part of it.”
Davidson’s swimming and diving program is leaving the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association (the Southern Conference doesn’t sponsor that sport) for the A-10. Field hockey (NorPac) and women’s lacrosse (Big South) are also moving into the Atlantic 10 in sports the Southern Conference doesn’t sponsor.
“This will be more recognition for us, because the (Atlantic 10) has a strong brand,” said swimming and diving coach John Young. “It’s easy to excite people now because of the competitive significance of being in the league and the ability to win a conference championship.”
A legacy move
McKillop’s jitters shouldn’t be confused with him having second thoughts about the move. He has none.
“Our arms are fully embracing this,” he said. “This was a courageous decision (for Quillen), but there is risk. This is taking us from a regional stage to a national stage. As she walks across the tightrope, she’s holding my hand.”
Said Quillen: “The only risk for us in this is that maybe we think we know everything that’s going to come from this, when we might not.”
McKillop is also his usual eloquent self when putting the move into context.
“To be admitted to the Atlantic 10 is a tribute to (former coach) Lefty Driesell and all the guys who played for him and for everyone who has played and coached here since,” he said. “It’s a tribute to Davidson.”
McKillop, 63 and the son of a New York policeman, also acknowledges Davidson’s arrival in the Atlantic 10 coincides with the final years of his career. He’s not thinking about retirement yet, but he understands how the Wildcats fare in their new league might affect his legacy.
“My dad used to always make me polish his shoes before he went to work,” McKillop said. “Here I am, a 7-year-old kid, polishing the front and sides of his shoes, but never polishing the backs. My dad told me: ‘Polish the back. The last thing people see of me is the backs of my shoes. Make sure you finish the job.’ ”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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