Sports Nut

How Davidson Slayed Goliath

The diminutive Stephen Curry leads his team past Georgetown and into the Sweet 16.

Davidson’s win over Georgetown

Let me guess—you were shocked by Davidson’s second-round upset of Big East powerhouse Georgetown on Sunday. Well, I saw it coming. Feel free to start a chant of Bullshit! Bullshit! at your office, but I cannot tell a lie. I actually thought the Wildcats had enough Cinderella potential to contact the school’s athletic department this past fall in the hope of following the team for a book about the season—right to the Sweet 16, if all went well. Like every other elite private school in America, Davidson turned me down. So, I watched the Wildcats dismantle the Hoyas with wistfulness and a soupçon of bitterness. It’s like seeing the band you’ve been following down at the local dive make it big. Now everyone can claim my little mid-major.

The star of this group is Stephen Curry, as pure a shooter to grace the hoop landscape since his father, Dell. Curry the elder’s role in the NBA was to come off the bench, spot up behind the 3-point line, and drain jumper after jumper; he did this well enough to stick in the league for 16 seasons. Stephen may be an even better shooter—you can hear a gasp of surprise in the arena when he misses. And even those misses look beautiful, dropping halfway down before rimming out. Curry’s stroke is so pure that he’s the rare jump shooter who can dominate without a strong drive-it-to-the-hoop game.

Incredibly, none of the Tobacco Road schools—or even Dell’s alma mater, Virginia Tech—showed any interest in Curry. Perhaps this is because the scrawny sophomore looks less like a ballplayer than like poker player Phil Ivey. You would think that Duke, in particular, could use a player like Stephen Curry. The Blue Devils, with eight McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster, look and play like an undermanned mid-major squad. Duke should have lost to tiny Belmont in the first round, then were played off the court by Big East mid-packers West Virginia. Upon leaving the arena, one Mountaineer reserve was told that Duke point guard Greg Paulus was one of the team’s many high-school all stars. His reply: “Oh my God. Are you kidding?”

While Duke’s players seem to peak in 10th grade, Curry and his Davidson teammates have shown remarkable improvement since last year’s near-miss against Maryland. Against the Hoyas, Curry played less like his father than Reggie Miller, running through screens for 36 minutes and outlasting a wave of defenders assigned to guard him. Despite a frustrating first half in which he struggled to get open and get his shot off, he never stopped running. He also set a lot of screens himself and made smart passes to open teammates when double-teamed.When Curry finally did pop open behind the arc, he set and fired incredibly fast, launching high-arcing rainbows that seldom touched the iron. Unlike many deep threats, who score wide-open looks when their teammates get double-teamed, Curry is option one, two, and three for his team—and everybody knows it. That’s why his 70 points in two games (55 in the second halves!) ranks among the greatest accomplishments by a guard in tournament history.

Davidson isn’t a one-man team, though. Forward Andrew Lovedale, who had an effective but quiet regular season, has turned into Xavier McDaniel in the postseason, complete with shaved head and bullying demeanor in the post. Davidson also has another key component to March success, a senior point guard who can score and create. Jason Richards, the nation’s assists leader, had 15 points and nine dimes in the tourney opener against Gonzaga and 20 points and five assists on Sunday. More important, he maintained an even keel in both games, even when the ‘Cats were down double digits in the second half. Announcer types like to talk about “not playing too fast.” Richards brings the cliché to life, rarely breaking the team’s natural rhythms. And he knows how to get the ball to Curry in the shooting guard’s favored spots.

Last year it was Butler that made a surprising run to the Sweet 16, and the small Indiana school barely missed this time around. On Sunday, Butler took No. 2 seed Tennessee to overtime before succumbing. The Bulldogs actually have the superior team to Davidson—a back court of A.J. Graves and Mike Green that is just a shade below Curry/Richards and a much better group of front-court threats, led by freshman Matt Howard and long-range gunner Pete Campbell. Davidson’s lack of complementary offensive threats makes Curry’s heroics that much more remarkable. It’s also a reminder of the importance of matchups in the tournament. While it’s hard to imagine that Davidson could’ve stayed close to ultra-athletic (if often out of control) Tennessee, Georgetown plays much closer to the level of its opponent, giving the Wildcats the chance to get hot and pull out a close game.

Davidson is a fantastic story, but I’m not sure they can pull a George Mason and get to the Final Four. First up is hated Wisconsin. Like Georgetown, the Badgers won’t be able to pull away, but they’re a smart, defensive-minded bunch who won’t get frustrated by slow play. Should the Wildcats survive that one, they’ll likely take on an even tougher member of the menagerie—the Jayhawks of Kansas, my pretourney selection to win it all. Kansas features an array of fast, talented players and more depth than any squad in the country. Seems like the kind of team that should rout a 10 seed from a nowhere conference, even one with the best player in the tournament. I’d sure love to watch Davidson give it a go, though—even if someone else is going to end up writing the book.