Peyton Aldridge’s career at Davidson will draw to a close sometime over the next few weeks. A senior forward, Aldridge will go down as one of the Wildcats’ all-time greats, winning Atlantic 10 Co-Player of the Year honors this season and finishing as the program’s third-leading career scorer.
But as stellar a college basketball career as Aldridge has had, there’s also a “what-might-have been” aspect to his story.
By the time Aldridge was a sophomore at LaBrae High in Leavittsburg, Ohio, his skills on the basketball court were attracting attention from major-college basketball programs, including Davidson, Dayton and Creighton.
Basketball had always been Aldridge’s passion. He would eventually sign to play basketball for the Wildcats, who on Friday will face the winner of Thursday’s game between George Washington and Saint Louis at the A-10 tournament in Washington. Friday’s quarterfinal will tip off at 8:30 p.m.
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While basketball is his game now, Aldridge was also once a strong-armed 6-foot-8, 185-pound quarterback who began getting feelers from prominent college football coaches during his sophomore season at LaBrae.
Among them, apparently, was a coach who now has won six national championships, five at Alabama.
“My (high school) coach told me once that Nick Saban called to ask about me,” Aldridge said. “He mostly was asking whether I was going to concentrate on basketball or football in high school. By then, I had already pretty much decided on basketball.
“But you always think, ‘Wow, Nick Saban. Could I have actually gotten to that level?’ ”
Bill Bohren, LaBrae’s football coach at the time, doesn’t specifically recall speaking to Saban. But Bohren doesn’t rule it out.
“If Peyton says so, it’s true,” said Bohren, a legendary coach in the Youngstown, Ohio, area who is in his early 80s. “And that makes sense, because I heard from everybody about Peyton.”
Bohren said Aldridge would have made it as a football player.
“He had a great arm and he was tough,” Bohren said. “He’d get sacked, go down hard and bounce right back up.”
Aldridge laughs now at his potential as a quarterback, which sounds like it was pretty one-dimensional.
“I was definitely a pocket passer,” said Aldridge, who was also an excellent shortstop and pitcher for LaBrae’s baseball team. “(Bohren) would tell me if nobody’s open and I start scrambling, just to run out of bounds.”
McKillop: ‘My priority’
There was another college coach closely tracking Aldridge.
Davidson’s Bob McKillop first noticed Aldridge, then a high school sophomore, during an AAU tournament in Pittsburgh. McKillop, who was scouting another player at the time, was intrigued by Aldridge, who was playing a few courts down from where McKillop was sitting.
“Peyton (became) our priority,” McKillop said. “He was my priority.”
A year later, McKillop went to Florida to watch Aldridge play in another AAU tournament. During one game, an opponent’s elbow caught Aldridge flush in the jaw.
“It felt weird for three or four days and I still couldn’t bite down on it right,” Aldridge said. “My dentist told me I broke my jaw and originally said I had to have surgery right away.”
But Aldridge, who was leaning toward Davidson but hadn’t committed yet, didn’t want to miss playing in any more tournaments that summer – broken jaw or not. So he got a second opinion.
“They said it was already broken, so I should just go play and they’d fix it when I got back,” Aldridge said.
McKillop, who desperately wanted to land Aldridge, was paying attention.
“That was another affirmation for me that, ‘Wow, this guys is the right guy for us,’ ” McKillop said. “The guy gets a broken jaw and continues to play.”
Aldridge would have his jaw wired shut for four months. In September of 2013, he called McKillop to tell him he was coming to Davidson. Aldridge had already elected not to play football his senior season so he could concentrate on basketball, a decision the broken jaw would have made for him anyway.
“I don’t know if coach could really understand me, but I got it across to him,” Aldridge said.
McKillop was thrilled.
“I think I was so lifted up to the clouds when he said he was coming to Davidson that I didn’t notice that maybe I couldn’t understand the rest of what he was saying,” McKillop said.
Waiting his turn
Aldridge’s toughness translated to the college game. He’s started every game of his career (126 and counting) and McKillop said he’s never missed a practice due to injury.
McKillop doesn’t discount Aldridge’s football background as having an impact on his basketball abilities.
“His quarterback experience is invaluable,” McKillop said. “He sees the whole field. He sees secondary options, not just primary options. He knows how to go on to the next play. That’s right away; you can’t celebrate just because you made a 20-yard pass for a first down. Now you’ve got to call the next play.
“I think that’s an aspect we’re missing from these athletes who specialized in one sport growing up. Those that grew up playing multiple sports have a broader vision and appreciation for what’s needed.”
Still, Aldridge had to wait until his senior season to become the Wildcats’ clear-cut go-to guy. With a solid post game and a strong shooting touch, he nonetheless deferred to senior Tyler Kalinoski as a freshman and then spent his sophomore and junior seasons playing Robin to star guard Jack Gibbs’ Batman.
But there was never a chance that Aldridge wasn’t going to be ready to take over as a senior. Not with how he’s worked at and developed his game throughout his career. He also weighs 225 pounds now, 40 pounds heavier than he was in high school.
Wildcats guard Rusty Reigel saw an early sign that Aldridge’s senior season would be special. It came about 10 days after their junior season ended.
“At the end of last season, I was beat, so I took about a week and a half off,” Reigel said. “Sleeping, relaxing, what you do after a long season. When I came back, we were messing around, playing pickup. I was used to Peyton always posting me up. But then he starts hitting guys with double-crossover step-backs from beyond the NBA (3-point) line.
“I’m like, ‘What? He’s been in here every day since the season’s been over.’ So you see him out there this season hitting these jab-step 3s. That’s where that came from.”
Aldridge (21.3 points per game) led the A-10 in scoring this season. He became the fifth player in Davidson history to score 2,000-plus points in his career and his 2,087 points trail only Stephen Curry and John Gerdy on the school’s all-time list.
Aldridge’s prospects of playing professionally are strong. Although he’s unlikely to be taken in the NBA’s two-round draft, he will likely get a shot at making some team’s roster. Also, McKillop has a sterling record of placing Wildcats players overseas.
But for now, there’s the A-10 tournament, an event the Wildcats need to win if they are to get a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Aldridge’s freshman season. Failing that, Davidson could be a logical choice for the National Invitation Tournament.
“Freshman season seems like a long time ago, but it also seems like a blink-of-the-eye,” Aldridge said. “As much as it’s been a great time, there’s still more to do.”
David Scott: @davidscott14
Top 10 guy
Peyton Aldridge is in the top 10 in the Atlantic 10 in several statistical categories (per game):