Thursday, March 06, 2008

Small Campus is Big on Basketball

The following was published in Thursday's Charlotte Observer, written by Davidson beat writer Kevin Cary.

The Davidson men's basketball team will play for a chance at the NCAA tournament starting Saturday, and the Wildcats expect some of their extended "family" to be there.

That family is the rest of the Davidson student body, which has embraced the nationally ranked Wildcats and given the team a boost throughout this season.

More than 70 percent of the student body bought tickets for games against Duke and North Carolina at Charlotte Bobcats Arena, and Davidson has had two of its five biggest crowds ever at Belk Arena this season.

It's a continuing trend over the past two seasons. Two years ago, Davidson averaged 3,000 fans a game to home games. This season, that number has jumped to almost 6,300. Take away the two home games at Bobcats Arena, and the Wildcats still average almost 4,300 fans.

Student interest has also soared. Fans camped out overnight for tickets to some games, and sections such as the "D-Block" -- a group of students who sit and cheer together at every game -- are constants.

"What you've seen is a love affair between our fans and our players," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. "It has really grown over the last few years too. With our students, they don't sign up for a permanent seat license to show how they feel. They sign up with their heart."

Students are known for singing the song "Sweet Caroline" late in Davidson victories. But senior Will Bryan, the former sports editor of the Davidsonian student newspaper, said his classmates don't come just for winning basketball.

"Some of the students are fanatics who just love the game," Bryan said. "But that's just in the front. All of those rows behind them aren't like that. They are here because they have a class with (Davidson star Stephen Curry) and want to support him. It's not just about basketball."

Davidson students aren't in class this week, but many are expected to attend the tournament. Sophomore Wes Calton didn't miss a home game this semester (he was overseas in the fall), and he'll be at the tournament even if the Wildcats reach the championship game at 9 p.m. Monday.

He's not alone. Dozens of students from the small college -- Davidson has only 1,700 students -- have booked hotel rooms in preparation for the three-day tournament.

Calton and classmate Ahad Khan come to every Davidson game dressed as boxers, replete with gloves and a robe.

But they said the players don't walk around like they have championship belts.

"They are just like everybody else here," Kahn said. "The place you see them, just like the rest of us, is in the library studying."

But that doesn't mean players can't be involved in other things. Curry and fellow guard Bryant Barr are among more than 100 students playing the campus game "Assassins," where students are eliminated when they are sprayed by a water gun by a designated person. Point guard Jason Richards and forward Thomas Sander are among several players who have attended other sports events on campus.

"You just get to know a lot of people on campus," Richards said. "You see the same people walking around everyday; it's not like a bigger school. It's really nice. It makes this so much fun."

That fun will continue starting Saturday, when Davidson will be a huge favorite to win its third straight conference tournament championship. The Wildcats have the nation's longest winning streak (19 games) and have won 44 of their last 45 games against conference opponents.

Calton will return to Davidson for class Monday and then drive back to Charleston for the Monday night championship.

"I'm not missing that game," said Calton, who listened to Davidson games online from Peru in the fall. "We have something special here."

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