If Davidson could simply flip-flop its past two seasons, everyone would be a lot happier.
In their second season in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Wildcats have returned to reality. A stunning regular-season championship for Davidson in 2014-15 has given way to the modestly successful ride Davidson is on now – the Wildcats sit in sixth place out of 14 A-10 teams – entering Saturday’s key 2 p.m. home game against a Saint Joseph’s team that is tied for first.
“I think the things that happened last year put tremendous expectations on the shoulders of our guys this year,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop, whose team finished 24-8, 14-4 in the A-10. “Last year if we had the same situation that we are currently in – 7-6 in the conference and 15-9 overall – I think our fans would be very, very pleased. But coming off the heels of the conference success last year, I think the expectations were elevated significantly.”
Entering Saturday’s game against St. Joseph’s, Davidson has won 32 of its past 34 games at home.
Indeed, Davidson was picked to finish 12th in its rookie A-10 season and instead finished first in the regular season and grabbed an NCAA tournament bid. It was led by do-everything guard Tyler Kalinoski, who became the conference’s player of the year.
Kalinoski graduated, but this Davidson team was still picked to finish third and boasts its own A-10 candidate for player of the year in guard Jack Gibbs. His 24.9 points per game average ranks third in the nation.
The Wildcats, though, have been inconsistent. In the past week alone, they have suffered through what McKillop calls the most “heartbreaking loss of the season” (a one-point loss to George Mason) and celebrated their best win (an 83-79 victory over Richmond Tuesday night that was won despite three players, including Gibbs, sitting out because of illness).
Rebounding has been “an Achilles heel,” McKillop said, on a team that doesn’t have much size. Shots that rattled in a year ago have rattled out. Injuries have been a constant – although McKillop notes that is something every team goes through.
“The difference between this and last year – besides the fact that we lost Tyler Kalinoski – is one play here and one play there,” said McKillop, who is in his 27th season as Davidson’s head coach. “It kind of shows you how we were on the upside of fortune last year and are on the down side of misfortune this year.”
This will be the first season Davidson has not won its regular-season conference championship in its last five. The Wildcats won three straight Southern Conference titles, followed by last season’s Atlantic 10 regular-season crown.
This actually was the season Davidson was supposed to have a year ago, when a middle-of-the-pack finish would have been considered quite respectable. Instead, the Wildcats now find themselves battling to extend their season.
Likely the only way they make the NCAA tournament this season would be one of those rare “four wins in four days” sweep through the A-10 tournament in March in Brooklyn. Even an NIT bid would be questionable if Davidson can’t go deep in the A-10 tournament.
Said McKillop: “We may have caught some people off guard last year in terms of our style, and who we were and low expectations. People didn’t get too excited to play us. But now, after you win the conference regular season, there’s going to be a little more attention.”
Upsetting St. Joe’s Saturday at Belk Arena would help Davidson’s cause, and its confidence. Davidson will have a few more opportunities after that, too. But time is running short for the Wildcats as they try to find the recipe for the magic they cooked up one year ago.