Davidson men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop summed up the past five months succinctly, needing only a few words to describe the Wildcats’ struggles in their second year in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
“It’s been a season of ups and downs chasing that elusive quality of consistency,” McKillop said.
Injuries to three key players haven’t helped matters. Losing Jake Belford, Dusan Kovacevic and KiShawn Pritchett for the season destroyed Davidson’s depth. The losses forced the Wildcats to alter their approach and pose an obstacle the team must overcome if it hopes to advance to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years.
That uphill climb kicks into high gear for sixth-seeded Davidson (18-11) in the Atlantic 10 Championship, which tipped off Wednesday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Wildcats earned a first-round bye and will face either No. 11 Duquesne (16-15) or No. 14 LaSalle (8-21) in the second round Thursday night at 9.
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Wins in four of its past six games has Davidson pushing in the right direction, but McKillop said the Wildcats aren’t where he hoped they’d be heading into the postseason.
“I think in the last month we’ve gotten better, but we have stubbed our toe a few times as well,” he said. “We have seen flashes of brilliance and moments of bright lights. We’ve also seen some clouds and dark skies. So, we’ve experienced both aspects of what you normally go through during a season.
“I think we have had some bright lights lately, more so than the dark skies. But we still have a ways to go to play as good as we need to play.”
McKillop found himself in a dilemma at times because of depth issues, and that’s unlikely to change during the tournament. Fatigue is a genuine concern, given the Wildcats’ top three players – Jack Gibbs, Peyton Aldridge and Brian Sullivan – log an average of at least 34.2 minutes each per game.
Davidson’s uptempo style is supposed to wear down opponents, but the Wildcats’ lack of depth forces McKillop to monitor his players closely and manage things based on feel.
“You have to have the confidence to use the bench to make strategic substitutions, and that’s always a challenge,” McKillop said. “You are in a tight ballgame, do you take the guy out because you want to make sure he has enough stamina to be at his best? And all of the sudden, a one-point game becomes a seven-point game.
“That’s how explosive this game is today, that a possession or two can result in a six- to seven-point swing.”
McKillop’s message to the Wildcats this week has been about enjoying the experience, playing freely and to win – instructing them not to hold anything back in the process. That, he acknowledged, isn’t easy even if the Wildcats aren’t exactly among the favorites to cut down the nets after Sunday’s championship game.
“That’s the ever challenging aspect of coaching – to get guys to play loose and relaxed,” McKillop said. “It always challenges a coach to get your team emotionally ready, especially because the game is such a swing of ups and downs, and you can be knocked to the mat in a heartbeat. The problem is you can’t stay on the mat; you have to get up.”