Last year for the 2013 Southern Conference basketball tournament, Brian Sullivan got in his car and drove by himself to Asheville.
Once there, he became a waterboy for the Davidson basketball team. Although technically a member of that Wildcats squad, Sullivan was a transfer from Miami (Ohio) sitting out the season. In order to replace a team manager as one of the people seated on the Davidson bench, he had to earn his keep.
“I was the waterboy, and I was pretty darn good at it,” Sullivan said. “People have no idea how tough a job that is. Everyone’s got their own name on their water bottles. You’ve got to keep up with who’s in the game and have your five water bottles ready for them when the timeouts come. And actually the hardest part is picking them up. Players just drink and put the bottle down, and you have to run through and pick them all up. I was so into the games, I’d lose track of whose bottle was where.”
Sullivan cheerfully admits he looked like he belonged as a team manager. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he is undersized even for the Southern Conference.
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“Oh yeah, I passed the waterboy test,” Sullivan said. “No one was looking at me going, ‘That kid has to be a player.’ ”
But what a player he is.
Sullivan goes to Asheville again this weekend for Davidson’s last appearance in the Southern Conference tournament, which begins Friday (Davidson won’t play until Saturday). Sullivan will ride the team bus this time as a sophomore who is the second-leading scorer for the No. 1 seed, a player averaging 13.5 points per game.
And also one who is always nice to the team managers. “I try not to ever be snappy after going through that experience,” Sullivan said.
Davidson’s offense runs through forward De’Mon Brooks, the conference’s Player of the Year, in much the same way that the Charlotte Bobcats’ offense runs through Al Jefferson. But no one has taken more advantage of the double-teams Brooks routinely draws than Sullivan, who is deadly from 3-point range but also has a variety of stepback jumpers and floaters.
Said senior Davidson guard Tom Droney: “Brian creates his own shot better than anyone we’ve had in my career – really better than anyone here since Steph Curry. When we need a big shot, if they are doubling De’Mon, we look to Brian. He torched the Southern Conference and he torched Carolina.”
That would be North Carolina. In that Dec. 21 game, only his 12th at Davidson, Sullivan came from nowhere to score 33 points against the Tar Heels, including seven 3-pointers. He had a deep 3-pointer at the end of regulation that could have won it – “I thought it was in,” he said – but left it an inch short. UNC won in OT, and Sullivan wasn’t a secret to anyone anymore.
He has scored 20 or more points in six other games this season and shot 46.2 percent from 3-point range in Southern Conference play. On a team that lost three 1,000-point scorers from the Davidson club that narrowly missed upsetting No. 3 seed Marquette in last year’s NCAA tournament, Sullivan has emerged as one of the Wildcats’ newest standouts.
“Brian is relentless with his work ethic,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop, who is trying to get the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament for the sixth time in the past nine seasons. “The rust in someone’s game when they sit out a year is something that always shows up, but he got rid of it pretty quickly. It started in Chapel Hill. Ever since that time, he’s become just lethal from the 3-point line.”
Sullivan is from Columbus, Ohio, the youngest of three brothers in a basketball family. His father and two older brothers all played some college basketball at some level and became either coaches or athletics directors. Sullivan’s father had a key to the high-school gym and Sullivan tried to shoot 500 shots per day.
Miami (Ohio) was one of the first to offer him a scholarship, and he took it quickly. He played one season for the RedHawks in 2011-12, averaging 10.3 points and making 44.9 percent of his threes. Then the head coach who had recruited him retired.
“It wasn’t just that, though,” Sullivan said. “It was more than basketball. The school was too big for me. I like to be around people I know, and I kind of felt I was going to get lost in a place like that. That’s what kind of prompted the switch.”
Davidson hadn’t shown much interest in Sullivan, he said, while he was in high school. But the Wildcats were happy to give him a scholarship the second time around. Sullivan sat out the necessary season by NCAA rules and will still have two more years to play after this one.
And this weekend, the former Southern Conference tournament waterboy will make a different kind of splash.