Davidson enters its last Southern Conference tournament Saturday in Asheville determined to exit the league like the final thunderous boom of a July 4 fireworks show. The odds of that happening are good.
No.1 seed Davidson (19-11) has won 12 in a row, blasted through the SoCon with a 15-1 record and stands as the favorite to become the conference’s representative in the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in the past nine years. The Wildcats open tournament play Saturday at noon in a quarterfinal against Samford.
Other league coaches lavish praise on Davidson, which started the season 4-10 against a monstrous non-conference schedule that included Wichita State, Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina.
“That’s one of the best offensive teams I’ve seen in the Southern Conference in 21 years,” said Elon coach Matt Matheny, a former Davidson assistant whose Elon team handed the Wildcats their lone league loss this season. “To shoot 53 percent as a team in league play? I’ve never seen that.”
Said Chattanooga coach Will Wade, whose team is seeded No. 2 in the tournament but lost to Davidson by 43 points this season: “They remind me a lot offensively of a Cornell team I remember that went to the Sweet 16 [in 2010].... They have a big kid in the middle in De’Mon Brooks that if you single-cover him, he will score every time. And they have four 3-point shooters surrounding him that can really stroke it. In order to beat Davidson, something good has to happen to you. Either Brooks has to get in foul trouble, or they have to get tired and miss some threes.”
A member of the SoCon for 74 years, Davidson joins the Atlantic 10 in July. The Wildcats are in search of a more nationally prominent conference that the school hopes will heighten its basketball profile and recruiting base.
The Wildcats are one of four teams taking a final bow in the 2014 SoCon tournament: Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Elon are all leaving as well. The league will add VMI, East Tennessee State and Mercer next season.
“I’m not even thinking about this being the last Southern Conference tournament for us,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said, “and I have not thought about it all year. We can only concern ourselves right now with what goes on at the basketball court.”
‘A blow to lose Davidson’
While you might think opposing coaches would be happy to get rid of Davidson, which has dominated the conference for most of the past decade, that’s not the case.
“In no way, shape or form am I excited to have them leave the league,” said Wes Miller, the former Tar Heel guard and current UNC Greensboro coach. “To lose a program that sets the bar so high like Davidson does – that’s disappointing in a lot of ways. I’m a pretty competitive dude. I want to play the best. So it’s certainly a blow to lose Davidson.”
Behind Brooks, who was named conference Player of the Year for the second time, the Wildcats play an offense that relies on Brooks in the post and a bevy of 3-point shooters on the outside. Davidson averaged 9.1 3-pointers per game in league play and has shot an astounding 48.4 percent as a team from behind the arc during its current 12-game win streak.
Are they as offensively explosive as some of the Davidson teams that Stephen Curry played on, as Matheny suggested? McKillop chuckled at the thought.
“I don’t think any team could have the firepower that Stephen Curry’s teams had,” McKillop said. “You’d be really stretching it to suggest that.”
More vulnerable than 2013?
These Wildcats are seen as somewhat more vulnerable in Asheville than last year’s team, which rolled through the SoCon and should have won its first-round NCAA tournament game. As a No. 14 seed, Davidson led No. 3 seed Marquette by seven points with 1:49 to go. But Brooks had a critical turnover in the final seconds, Marquette got a contested layup with one second to go and Davidson lost by a point.
“This Davidson team has been different,” Appalachian State coach Jason Capel said. “It’s not a team you look at and fear, so to speak.... There’s not a guy like Jake Cohen running around.... They’re not as talented as they’ve been in the past, but they’re still a good team and a good program.”
The 6-foot-10 Cohen was the Player of the Year a season ago for Davidson and now is playing professionally in Israel.
“We don’t have Jake Cohen in the paint blocking shots,” McKillop acknowledged. “That’s something we can’t put on the court this year.”
What the Wildcats do have, though, is a team that has dominated the Southern Conference. Given the single NCAA bid the SoCon annually receives, however, now they have to win three games in three days to get to where they want to go.
“I’m excited,” Davidson senior guard Tom Droney said. “We love Asheville. We’ve been there the past two years and won both years. And the way we’ve been getting better each and every day bodes well for us.”