Sunday, March 16, 2008

No Pressure

The day was March 4, 2005. The sun was setting on yet another beautiful day in Chattanooga, TN. As the afternoon turned to evening and the temperature slipped into a cool chill, I met up with a member of Davidson's ticket office staff in the parking lot adjacent to McKenzie Arena. After slipping a cool $20 into the hands of the Davidson staffer, I got my hands on a beautiful gray t-shirt that featured a new-age Wildcat graphic on the front and the word "UNDEFEATED" on the back. I immediately slipped that shirt on and walked into the arena feeling untouchable. It was my freshman year and my Wildcats were perfect in the Southern Conference regular season. All of us fans had started looking at possible NCAA Tournament sites. The only thing that stood in our way was a few meaningless games against previously vanquished SoCon foes. Victory was expected, and the pressure to keep all SoCon comers at arm's length was high.

The next three hours were agony. Davidson barely led in an ugly match that exposed the Wildcats' weaknesses at every turn. After the final missed shot from the top of the key, Davidson's NCAA dreams were shot. Pressure and expectation were Greensboro's allies, and they helped hand Davidson its first conference loss of the season.

A year later, Coach McKillop returned seven seniors and the reigning Conference Player of the Year. Big things were expected, especially after Davidson knocked off Missouri, UMass and St. Joes in the early season schedule. On January 14 of 2006, Davidson was looking to become the holder of a nation-leading regular season conference winning streak of 27 games. The pressure reared its ugly yet again. The Wildcats lost to Furman and went on to lose four of their next eleven conference games. The Wildcats were seeded third in the Southern Conference Tournament and the prestigious careers of players like Brendan Winters, Ian Johnson and Matt McKillop were in their twilight.

In a February 2005 interview with Coach McKillop, he talked about walking the line and not letting the outside things distract your focus. By 2006, the emphasis had changed ever so slightly. In a February 22 Davidsonian interview that year, McKillop talked about the upcoming tournament and the final games of the careers of seniors that had been so integral to the family of Wildcat basketball.

"I'm thoroughly enjoying this experience, and when you're enjoying an experience like this, you don't start reminiscing or worrying that you're going to lose it. I look at that glass as being half full right now."

Since that day over two years ago, Davidson has only lost one game to a Southern Conference opponent. That would be 47 wins in the last 48 SoCon games.

In that stretch, Davidson has only lost one game by more than 12 points, been ranked in the Top 25 on two separate occasions, won three conference championships, had a player in Jason Richards lead the country in assists, and a player in Stephen Curry set a new freshman three-point record, lead the country in threes this year and earn Second Team All-American from ESPN and Sporting News with the AP still pending. Davidson currently has the nation's longest winning streak and is the only team that is perfect in 2008.

So how have the Wildcats handled that pressure? How did they come back from 20 down on the road at Greensboro with their captain and defensive General on the bench? How did they fight back to have one possession games with North Carolina, Duke and UCLA with a minute to play? How did this team embrace the bulls-eye?

"This team is obsessed with getting better every time they step on the court," Coach McKillop said during the Southern Conference Tournament. "We always focus on playing to win, getting better, and having fun."

For most coaches around the country, those three goals sound like stereotypical coach-speak. When the players echo them to a T in the press conferences, it seems as if they have just been trained very well. But those three things speak volumes about the heart and soul of a Davidson program that has been continually tweaked a little here or there by one of the best coaching staffs in the country.

When the Wildcats have stepped on the court against the big dogs of college basketball, they have not played to lose close. They weren't satisfied with merely sharing the court and a national television audience. They played to win. And nearly did. Again and again. And again. And again.

And this Wildcat squad has not been content to sit on their laurels and watch their SoCon foes bow at their feet. They took their opponents' best shots every night, and they never lost. But it was more than that...they kept getting better. Davidson's performance at Georgia Southern at the end of the season might have been the best team effort I had seen all year. And then I watched the Wildcats top that performance in the Southern Conference quarterfinal win over Wofford. And then I watched Davidson top that performance the next night against Greensboro. These Wildcats are peaking at the right time because they are committed to getting better and better at every opportunity.

But ultimately, Davidson hasn't given into pressure because they are having too much damn fun. Heading into the SoCon championship game against Elon, I was worried that the 'Cats would be too clinical in their dispatching of the Phoenix. I thought that winning the SoCon for the third time wouldn't be that emotional. I was wrong.

As Davidson turned back every Elon run with a dagger shot or defensive stop, their emotions continued to rise ever higher. When Curry's final three dropped in from the top of the key with thirty seconds remaining, there was nothing but pure excitement on everyone's faces as they ran back up the court. They were absolutely enjoying their experience and that was buoying their success.

As Coach McKillop proclaimed right before Davidson learned of its seed in the tournament: "We didn't just embrace the bulls-eye. We married it."

So now Davidson heads to the NCAA Tournament with the outside pressure of the media to "be George Mason." The Wildcats have been tabbed the small team of destiny and there is pressure to advance far. The Wildcats have secured the program's highest seed in decades, and many fans have already looked to potential matchups past the first round.

But we don't have to worry about this team feeling pressure. The pressure is on the millions of Americans with brackets filled out. The pressure is on the Vegas oddsmakers. The pressure is on the referees with national scrutiny. The pressure is on the Gonzaga Bulldogs who will have to play in Davidson's backyard.

Davidson is just going to go out and get better. And play to win. And have fun. Those are all goals that they can and will achieve. And when the final whistle blows on the 2008 season these Wildcats will go down in history as one of the greatest teams in this program's storied history.

1 comment:

Lefty's said...

Great post, Will!