Scott Fowler

Even without Zion, Could Wofford make the same NCAA tourney run Davidson did in 2008?

In 2008, Davidson made its famous run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament after going undefeated in the Southern Conference.

I’m here to tell you right now that the 2019 Wofford Terriers could be this year’s version of Davidson.

Check out the similarities. It’s been 11 years since a team sprinted through regular and postseason play conference without losing a single game. Davidson did it in 2008; Wofford did it this season. Both teams had dynamic veteran coaches (Bob McKillop for Davidson, Mike Young for Wofford). Both teams boasted a once-in-a-generation sharpshooter (Steph Curry for Davidson, Fletcher Magee for Wofford).

And both teams entered the NCAA tournament on fire. Wofford has won 20 straight games and will enter the tournament riding the longest winning streak in America.

“I haven’t lost in 2019,” said Young in our recent phone interview. “I’m the happiest man in Spartanburg.”

Spartanburg, of course, is where Wofford (enrollment: 1650) is located. The private, liberal arts school hosts the Carolina Panthers training camp every summer.

Then, in the winter, Wofford plays some really good basketball.

Young, in his 17th year as Wofford’s head coach, has built himself quite a basketball program. This will be the Terriers’ fifth NCAA tournament appearance, with all of them coming in this decade.

But this is the first time the Terriers — whose seventh seed is the best ever by a Southern Conference team — will actually have a better seed than their opponent in their first NCAA tournament game. That game comes Thursday, against 10th-seeded Seton Hall in Jacksonville, Fla. A victory there would likely earn the Terriers a high-profile date on Saturday against No. 2 seed Kentucky.

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Wofford players and fans joined together Sunday to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. Wofford received a No. 7 seed, the best seed in Southern Conference history. The Terriers open the NCAA tournament Thursday against No. 10 seed Seton Hall. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Picked second in the preseason polls behind UNC Greensboro, Wofford ended up going 21-0 against Southern Conference competition this season. I asked Young if he could have ever foreseen an undefeated season in the SoCon.

“Hell, no!” he said. “Not in a million years. Not in this league. Not in any league. It just takes one night. Somebody’s sick. Somebody rolled an ankle. You don’t shoot the ball well. You let your guard down. And you get knocked off.”

Beat UNC in 2017

Wofford never did, though, surviving several close calls with luck, pluck and talent.

“I don’t think any of us allowed ourselves to think ‘Holy cow, we’re really good!’” Young said. “But this bunch has answered the bell, time and time again. This season is something we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.”

In Magee, the Terriers have a rarity for a mid-major team – a 6-4 shooting guard who not only was the conference’s best player but who will also be on an NBA roster one day. Magee averages 20.5 points per game and has now made more three-pointers in his college career than Curry(although Magee has the benefit of a fourth season; Curry went pro after his junior year).

“He’s one of those rare birds,” Young said of Magee. “He just needs a blink to get it off. Just one little nick.”

In big man Cameron Jackson, Wofford has another rarity – a 6-8, 250-pound center who Young said “could play anywhere in the country.”

You may recall that Wofford upset North Carolina in 2017, in Chapel Hill, in a game the Tar Heels were favored by 25. The nucleus of that Wofford team is now 15 months older and has gotten better.

In that game, Magee scored 27 points. But Jackson – who had 18 points, nine rebounds and six blocks in the win – was the player who really flummoxed the Tar Heels inside.

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Wofford went 21-0 against Southern Conference competition this season, winning both the regular-season and tournament titles. Kathy Kmonicek AP

Wofford also has three other players this season who, like Magee, average better than 40 percent from behind the three-point line.

If the Terriers shoot poorly, they can be had. But if they shoot well, they not only will beat Seton Hall Thursday but will have a decent shot at Kentucky.

What about Zion?

OK, time for a little “what if” game.

As good as the Terriers are, they could have been a legitimate national championship contender this season if something else had worked out perfectly.

Zion Williamson played his high school ball in Spartanburg, only four miles from Wofford. And for several years, when people asked him what college he might go to, he always listed Wofford among the contenders. I made the 75-mile drive from Charlotte a couple of times to do stories on Williamson while he was in high school.

When I went down to watch him play and interview him in 2017, he told me Wofford was a real possibility. (Zion also weighed 235 pounds then instead of his current 285, but he was already doing all the same dunks he does now).

Young and his staff recruited Williamson hard. “He was here a lot,” Young said. “He’s a wonderful young man, and I am such a fan of his. I saw him as a ninth-grader. He was a special talent – anybody could have seen it. Goodness gracious.

“Here’s this giant of a man who was a little heavy at that time. And then he starts to play, and he leaves the floor, and he looks like he’s going to jump over the backboard. We had a great relationship with him and his family. He enjoyed our players. He would come over to the campus on weekends, hang out and do what kids do.”

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Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) reacts after a dunk in the ACC tournament last weekend in Charlotte, where he led the Blue Deviles to the title. Williamson at one point seriously considered going to Wofford for college. Nell Redmond AP

So picture this. Let’s say Williamson was a little more of a late bloomer – that he didn’t explode on the national scene quite so fast and that Drake wasn’t wearing Williamson’s jersey when Zion was only 16.

“There came a time toward the end of his junior year it was evident he had flown above Spartanburg and Wofford College,” Young said.

But what if that hadn’t happened? What if Williamson didn’t harness all his talent until his freshman year in college, much like Steph Curry did? What if he was also on this Wofford team?

It didn’t happen, of course. Williamson went to Duke and turned the Blue Devils into the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament. Young said he is “so proud of Zion I can’t stand it,” although he also isn’t itching to face Williamson in this tournament.

“I don’t know if I want to play that big rascal,” Young said. “We don’t match up with him very well. Neither does anybody else in the country.”

That’s not a problem – Duke is on the other side of the bracket. The Terriers have a different set of problems in this NCAA tournament, but also a huge opportunity.

Somebody has to be the surprise small-school team of this 2019 tournament.

I nominate Wofford.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”
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