Davidson’s game against La Salle was on the line last Saturday when Wildcats freshman guard Jordan Watkins swiped the ball and took off downcourt.
Directing a fast break while dribbling at a sprint through traffic, Watkins had options as his team held on to a precarious four-point lead in the din of the Explorers’ Gola Arena: He had teammates on either side of him to whom to pass, or he could slow things down by bringing the ball back to midcourt and milking a clock that showed 21/2 minutes to play.
Instead, Watkins pulled up and made a 10-foot jump shot, giving the Wildcats the separation they needed in what became a 77-69 victory.
The precociousness displayed by Watkins – less than a year removed from his days at Providence Day – wasn’t an accident.
“That’s how we’re coached,” Watkins said after the game. “Don’t hesitate. Just play basketball. That was the mentality I had.”
It was the kind of play that has come to mark Davidson’s season, the Wildcats’ first in the Atlantic 10. With a free-flowing, explosive offense and a toughness to go along with it, Davidson (18-6, 9-4) is one of the nation’s surprise teams and firmly in contention for an at-large NCAA tournament bid if it doesn’t win the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. Next up for the Wildcats is an A-10 game against Fordham (8-16, 3-10) 7 p.m. Saturday at Belk Arena.
“It’s about basketball IQ and toughness with this team – as it is with all Davidson teams,” said Matt Doherty, a former high school player and assistant at Davidson under Wildcats coach Bob McKillop. “You don’t have one without the other.”
What separates the Wildcats from most teams is their offense. Davidson leads the Atlantic 10 in every major offensive category, including points per game (80.6), scoring margin (plus-11.3), field-goal percentage (47.2), free-throw percentage (72.3), 3-point percentage (39.4) and assists per game (17.0). Davidson also leads the nation in assist-turnover ratio (1.74) and is second in 3-pointers made per game (10.7).
That all adds up to the Wildcats having the seventh-most efficient offense in the country, according to kenpom.com, an analysis website.
Get past the numbers, however, and it’s just plain fun to watch Davidson’s uptempo offense. The Wildcats’ attack begins on the defensive boards (they lead the A-10 at 25.4 per game). They’re then in constant motion on the perimeter, cutting and screening to find any one of several dead-eye 3-point shooters McKillop can put on the floor. Tyler Kalinoski, Brian Sullivan, Peyton Aldridge, Jack Gibbs, Jordan Barham and Oskar Michelsen and Watkins all shoot in at least the 40 percent range from beyond the arc.
“It is fun to play in this offense,” Barham said. “We’re constantly running and screening, and we know we can count on the next guy to do his job.”
If the Wildcats grow cold – as they did in the first half of a victory Wednesday at George Washington – they can go inside to Barham, who is listed as a 6-foot-4 guard but whose extraordinary jumping ability makes him Davidson’s best threat near the basket.
Barham scored eight points in less than four minutes – all at the rim – to kick-start a Davidson second-half rally and victory against the Colonials.
“They can all make 3s, but they’re not just random 3s,” said Richmond coach Chris Mooney, whose team has split two games with Davidson this season. “They move at a fast pace and have a great understanding of what they’re doing. They don’t waste a lot of time. There’s not a lot of holding the ball. They reset and decisions are made quickly. If a guy doesn’t have a shot or a drive, he passes to an open guy. There’s no compromise on that.”
McKillop, in his 26th season at Davidson, isn’t one to compromise. He’s still doing it his way but was keenly aware of the challenges the Wildcats would face in playing in the A-10, a step up from the Southern Conference, a league Davidson had often dominated.
“A lot of how we play has to do with the personalities of the players we have,” McKillop said. “The constant is they’re willing to throw the next pass, yet they’re all confident enough to take the shot or attack the basket. The personality factor is essential.”
Toughness and detail
As pleasing as the Wildcats are to watch on offense, McKillop still preaches toughness and an attention to detail.
“It takes a lot of toughness to run a motion offense like that,” Doherty said. “It requires a hard screen, and doing that throughout a 40-minute game isn’t easy. His players aren’t afraid to expose their chests when they’re setting screens. The wider you are, the more effective the screen, but you’re exposing yourself a lot.”
Doherty, a former North Carolina player and coach, said that during Wednesday’s Tar Heels-Duke game, a Blue Devils player whipped a pass along the baseline that was deflected by a North Carolina player. Another Duke player reacted, going after the ball but knocking it out of bounds, giving possession to the Tar Heels.
“I immediately thought of (McKillop) when I saw that,” Doherty said. “He’s always said don’t try to catch a deflected pass.”
Next up for the Wildcats is an Atlantic 10 game Saturday against Fordham at Belk Arena. Thanks to their offensive aplomb, each regular-season game now has NCAA tournament ramifications for the Wildcats.
So far, it’s been a fun ride.
“(The players) are enjoying bounding up and down in the RPI with each win and each loss,” McKillop said.
Offense on target
Davidson’s offense is tops in the Atlantic 10 across the board. How it ranks in the Atlantic 10 and nationally:
3 pt. FG/game
McKillop coaching tree
Fordham coach Tom Pecora, who brings his Rams to Belk Arena to play Davidson on Saturday, is one of 10 former assistant coaches under the Wildcats’ Bob McKillop who went on to become a college head coach:
N. Dame, UNC, FAU, SMU
* Long Island Lutheran