Wednesday, November 07, 2007

McKillop Era Brings Renewed Success

When Coach Bob McKillop moved to Davidson in 1989, he didn't make too many long-term plans. While McKillop had been an assistant at Davidson in 1979, he saw this coaching stint as an opportunity to springboard into the coaching ranks of major college basketball. McKillop knew Driesell's story, and he knew that he could use this opportunity to his advantage.

In Driesell's first year, he made an immediate impact by upsetting Wake Forest early in the season. McKillop went 4-24 with a team that wasn't even playing in the Southern Conference. The next two years were not much better. By the time Davidson rejoined the Southern Conference in 1992, McKillop had been humbled enough to realize that maybe he should refocus his priorities.
The Queens native came to buy into the Davidson way and invested all of his mind and self in the Wildcat program. McKillop changed his philosophy and success followed.

The Wildcats made their first postseason appearance under McKillop in 1994 when they were selected to the NIT after losing by one point in the Southern Conference tournament Championship Game.

Two years later, the Wildcats had one of their best seasons ever as they went 14-0 in conference play and only lost three regular season games. But NCAA glory once again eluded the 'Cats as Western Carolina knocked off Davidson in the tournament championship game. It was a heartbreaking loss for a senior class that included eventual NBA player and Davidson Hall of Famer Brandon Williams.

Although the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NIT that year, a more important thing had transpired during the four-year careers of players like Williams and Chris Alpert: Davidson basketball had become a winning program again. The Wildcats won Southern Conference tournaments in 1998 and 2002 and have advanced to the postseason each of the last three years.

McKillop would go on to fashion the talents of players like Ali Ton, Landry Kosmalski, Michael Bree, Chris Pearson and Brendan Winters into a winning system. That system called for effective perimeter passing, unceasing picks and screens and the ability of every player on the court to hit jump shots. McKillop also emphasized extremely physical defense and smart basketball. Whether McKillop brought in a player from North Carolina or the Czech Republic, they were all taught to play one way: as a team.

Perhaps that is one of the biggest trademarks of the team's success over the last two decades. Davidson basketball has come to embrace a unique role in being a national competitor in a huge commercial business, while continuing to stress the importance of an elite academic experience. The recent USA Today article certainly summed up this paradigm in its headline: "Hoops, Books coexist."

With all the media exposure of the last few years, Davidson's program, and McKillop its orchestrator, has received recognition for its success, international focus, academic integrity and hard work. Yet, there is one modifier that is too rarely used to describe Davidson basketball or McKillop: dynamic.

Two years ago, Davidson sported one of its most experienced team of the last two decades and yet the Wildcats struggled to a 10-5 record in the Southern Conference. By the end of the conference season, McKillop decided that it was time to change things up a bit.

He shortened the practice times, he used more gags and jokes around his players, he started hanging out in the Union more to interact with the team in a different context. For a brief week or two before the Southern Conference Tournament, things changed a little. The 'Cats ended up sweeping through the tourney as a three seed and capturing another SoCon title.

Last year, McKillop took a look at his team personnel and realized that his system might need to be made more flexible. Throughout the season, fans saw a Davidson style of play that seemed really new: the players took quick shots, they played more pressure defense and tried to get run-outs, they were dunking the ball during warm-ups. During the press conferences, McKillop stressed a new theme: responsibility to your teammates coupled with the freedom to improvise a little.

Wildcat basketball has continued to be successful because it has been dynamic and changed in small ways when it needed to.

Every summer, when McKillop and his players and staff run the youth basketball camp, McKillop opens the week off with a call to be great. He brings out the 1964 "Sports Illustrated" in which Davidson was the top-ranked team in the country during the postseason. Then he says, "We can do that again."

Every year, there are usually a few 15-year-olds in the back who snicker at the proposition, perhaps dismissing mid-major Davidson to big conference teams. But this summer, McKillop followed up the "Sports Illustrated" with another display. It was Andy Katz's preseason Top 25 that tabbed Davidson as the nation's 23rd best team. No one snickered this year.

This is the final article in a four-part Davidsonian series on the 100th anniversary of Davidson basketball.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great article