Defense isn’t the first thing that comes to mind with Davidson basketball. But that might be changing this season.
Playing with their usual precision on the offensive end of the floor, Davidson’s defense – especially a stingy 2-3 zone – has been equally as successful for the Wildcats (13-9, 8-3 Atlantic 10), who play a key conference game Friday at 18th-ranked Rhode Island (19-3, 11-0).
Although the zone has been effective for Davidson, it’s not been something coach Bob McKillop has used consistently in his 29 seasons at Davidson. But with a group of players who are committed to making it work, as well as having the physical attributes to bother opposing shooters, the Wildcats have shown an ability to win games offensively and defensively.
“We like mixing it up on teams, making it a mind game,” said senior forward Peyton Aldridge. “Every night we come out and try to break their rhythm.”
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There’s nothing fancy about Davidson’s 2-3 zone. But having guards who have height and length – 6-foot-5 freshman Kellan Grady, 6-4 sophomore Jon Axel Gudmundsson and 6-6 KiShawn Pritchett – on the perimeter makes it especially effective for the Wildcats.
“Our length,” said Aldridge (who is 6-8), “really bothers other teams.”
When the Wildcats have won in the A-10 this season, they’ve won big. Their average margin of victory is 23.0 points in the league. Much of the credit comes from the Wildcats’ defense, which holds opponents to league lows in shooting (41.8 percent) and scoring (59.8 per game) in conference games. Those numbers have blended well with the Wildcats’ usual offensive efficiency – Davidson leads the nation in assist-turnover ratio (1.80) and is fifth in 3-pointers per game (11.4).
But early in the season, the Wildcats weren’t as committed to the zone. It wasn’t until Davidson played Akron in a Christmas Day game in Hawaii that McKillop decided to go all in.
“We were struggling to keep people from beating us,” McKillop said of Davidson’s man-to-man defense. “We were struggling playing man (-to-man) and at about the 28th minute, they were picking us apart.”
McKillop elected to play a zone against Akron. And although the Zips made six 3-pointers in the first half, Davidson would go on to win 91-78.
“Coaches are always of the mindset that they are going to play zone, and then a team makes another 3 and that courage evaporates,” McKillop said. “You talk to coaches and they will tell you that. We stayed with it (against Akron) and they took those same 3s as the game wore on and they didn’t make them.”
McKillop isn’t stubborn, however. When Saint Joseph’s hit a few jumpers in a row over Davidson’s zone in a 91-62 Wildcats victory Tuesday, McKillop switched to man-to-man for a while.
“We don’t rest in the zone,” McKillop said. “It’s a matter of rhythm. How many shots you’re giving up. How many fouls you’re giving. The kinds of shots you’re giving up. You don’t want to be giving up too many shots in the paint.”
McKillop also doesn’t overly rely on statistics to make his decision on what kind of defense to play. He said he leaves the numbers and analytics to his assistants.
“I see how the ball leaves a guy’s hand,” McKillop said. “And I’ll say, ‘I respect that guy and here’s how we have to play him.’ “
The Akron game served as a reminder to McKillop a game in 2001, when the Wildcats beat North Carolina 58-54 in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels’ Melvin Scott hit a 3-pointer over the Davidson zone on the first possession of the game.
“I said, ‘No matter what we do, we’re staying in the zone, we’ve got nothing to lose,’ ” McKillop recalled. “And we won. I remember those things.”
David Scott: @davidscott14