When coach Bob McKillop found joy, Davidson found success.
Coaching is about tracking down flaws and correcting them. But it is also about instilling confidence and trust in the players. McKillop, in his 29th season at Davidson, said Monday that when he better managed his anger this season over his team’s mistakes, the Wildcats thrived, all the way to Sunday’s Atlantic 10 tournament championship.
That victory over Rhode Island Sunday in Washington, D.C., earned Davidson an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats will fly to Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday for a Thursday night tip-off at approximately 7 p.m. against national power Kentucky.
At 21-11, Davidson’s only chance to make the 68-team NCAA field was winning the conference tournament, which entailed victories over Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure, both of which received at-large berths.
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“Right before the St. Louis game (on Jan. 3), I told the team, ‘I’m coaching angry: We do these things over and over in practice, and you do these things perfect in practice. And then we go into a game, and it’s as if you forgot what we do in practice so very well. I need to start coaching with joy.’”
So he did. And maybe it’s a coincidence, but that’s when Davidson got its act together. The Wildcats entered that game just 5-7 (though two of those losses were to Virginia and North Carolina, two of the top eight teams in the NCAA seedings). A victory over St. Louis that day started a five-game winning streak.
They finished by winning eight of their last nine, the only loss in triple-overtime on the road against St. Bonaventure.
Davidson has its groove back. National prognosticators on ESPN among other platforms on Sunday night listed the 12th-seeded Wildcats as one of those teams no Power 5 school wants to see early in its draw. While Kentucky is generally around a six-point favorite, Davidson’s offensive dynamic – particularly its 3-point shooting – makes it a dangerous opponent in a single-elimination tournament.
Davidson is 28th among all Division I programs, making 39.1 percent of its 3-point attempts this season. Kentucky will have advantages in length and quickness, but Davidson’s ability to stretch the floor with range shooting is potentially a big factor.
Davidson doesn’t have NBA lottery pick-type talent, as Kentucky perennially does, but it does have a star forward in senior Peyton Aldridge, averaging 20.5 points per game, and an impact freshman, Kellan Grady, averaging 18 points.
McKillop didn’t stop correcting mistakes, but he did realize that anger and frustration were impeding this team’s progress.
“Of course, there were some step-backs – the Dayton game and the other Richmond game (consecutive losses) – but we had some moments that validated everything we had worked on. I tried to affirm to them that I would try to coach joyfully.”
Never more so, McKillop added, than in the conference tournament with so much at stake.
“I smiled a lot this weekend. I smiled through mistakes and I smiled on great plays,” McKillop recalled. “I wasn’t just feeling happy for them, I was showing my happiness for them.”
“Here we are going into the tournament very confident,” McKillop said, “and that confidence has grown.”