How Bob McKillop drove underdog Davidson to the top of the Atlantic 10
NEW YORK — When Bob McKillop took over at Davidson in 1989, he kept a copy of Sports Illustrated in his office to show recruits. Former Davidson star Mike Maloy landed on the Sports Illustrated cover in 1968 with two other players under the headline: “Challenge to UCLA.” To McKillop, the SI cover represented Davidson’s past under Lefty Driesell—reaching the Elite Eight twice—and potential for the future. His willful naiveté to college basketball’s hierarchy allowed his cover-story ideals to overshadow his school's small-school budget. “He’s a dreamer,” said Matt Doherty, who coached with him the first three years at Davidson. “He was talking in our first year to alumni about being ranked in the Top 20 and playing games in Madison Square Garden that mattered. He’s not afraid to dream and face his dreams.”
McKillop’s inaugural Atlantic 10 season at Davidson outpaced the expectations of even the most wide-eyed dreamer. Despite being chosen No. 12 of 14 teams in the Atlantic 10 media poll and last place by The Sporting News, the Wildcats won the regular season league title. Davidson arrived in the Atlantic 10 from the Southern Conference, which had a conference RPI of 30 last season and rivalries with Western Carolina and Wofford. It upgraded to a No. 7 conference RPI, added VCU and Dayton as foils and still managed to win the league. “I think it’s the most compelling story in all of college basketball,” said recruiting analyst Tom Konchalski, who has known McKillop for decades. “They were picked dead last and ended up in living first.”
Konchalski jokes that McKillop, a devout Catholic known to find churches from Las Vegas to Germany, gave up losing for Lent. After Davidson’s stunning comeback win over La Salle in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals on Friday, it sure seems that way. Davidson stormed back from 18 points down to win, 67-66, on a buzzer beater by star guard Tyler Kalinoski. He drove hard to the left, released a left-handed flip shot that hit the rim, backboard and bounced three more times around the rim before falling home at the buzzer. Davidson’s 10-game winning streak stretches back to Feb. 4, and it’ll face No. 5 VCU in the semifinals on Saturday. When told of Konchalski’s joke about giving up losing, McKillop smiled. “That,” he said, “and chocolate chip cookies.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]Davidson’s sun-kissed season, which is McKillop’s 26th as head coach at Davidson, has come amid a backdrop of a generally dreadful year of college basketball. The game has been as aesthetically pleasing as a Sumo Polar Plunge. It’s being played at a historically slow pace, scoring is occurring at a historically low pace and television ratings are fluctuating somewhere between microscopic and non-existent. The game is over-coached, inconsistently officiated and the best teams (Wisconsin, Kentucky and Virginia) stress scoring efficiently over scoring in volume. The end result? General ambivalence from the public.
Davidson has provided a soothing antidote to the brutish brand of basketball that’s elbowing the sport’s regular season into irrelevance. In an era of eye-bleeder games, McKillop’s attacking, relentless and skilled Wildcats are a splash of Visine. The veteran coach often speaks of trying to play the “beautiful game,” something comparable to a symphony or the touch-touch artistry of Brazilian soccer. Davidson’s samba to the top of the Atlantic 10 is partly due to its prolific scoring offense (80.6 ppg, good for No. 5 in the nation) and 10.9 three-point field goals made per game (good for No. 2). Essentially, McKillop has latched ahold of the Atlantic 10 by forgoing ego and game control in favor of trusting his players to make good decisions. “You look at how unbelievably great Virginia's defense has been this year,” La Salle Coach John Giannini said. “Well, Davidson is like the offensive version of them.”
Nothing epitomized Davidson’s free flow more than the defining coaching decision of Friday afternoon, when the Wildcats snared a defensive rebound with 15 seconds left and McKillop declined to call time out. Instead, he believed in his players enough to run through an offensive set without his meddling. They ran a crisp action, Kalinowski got a clean look and won the game without the over-coaching so rampant in college basketball. “Trust,” he said in a quiet moment after the game. “It’s about trust, and I trust them.”
McKillop is smart and disciplined enough that he became fluent in Italian through Rosetta Stone tapes and so exacting that his penmanship on the hundreds of letters he writes each season would make a kindergarten teacher coo in approval. So while he trusts his players, he’s not the type of coach who rolls the ball out and expects them to score. He quotes Thomas Aquinas to sum up his philosophy, “The greatest form of knowledge is habit.” He smiled. “We form a lot of habits.”
McKillop promises each recruit that he’s going to teach him how to play basketball, and follows through by coaching a motion offense predicating on cuts, screens and reads. Former Davidson star Bryant Barr summed up McKillop’s meticulousness by saying that he’d teach and re-teach seemingly simple concepts, like a wing player running in a dead sprint to the deep corner in transition. “I could be four feet from the baseline,” Barr said, “and he says, ‘That’s not deep enough.’” While it seems small in the grand scheme, McKillop leaves no nuance unstressed with a simple ideal. “If you’re not going to do something right,” Barr said, “don’t do it.”
McKillop, 64, looks more like an English professor than a coach, with his modest build, easy smile and shock of white hair. His offense is based on an egalitarian philosophy he calls “equal opportunity motion,” which sounds like a phrase from a textbook. Every player in Davidson’s offense has a chance to shoot and score, depending on how hard they cut and screen. He also stresses a style that’s antithetical to the youth game, which is bogged down by ball-dominant guards. McKillop coaches players “not to abuse the dribble,” says former Davidson assistant Matt Matheny.
It works because of McKillop’s confidence in himself and his system, which has been refined through 15 seasons as a head high school coach. McKillop said he truly didn’t develop a strong coaching identity until the mid-1990s at Davidson. In recruiting, McKillop values a good teammate over a great athlete, precise shooting over gaudy statistics and a player who’ll buy into a specific role over one who demands the ball. “He’s past the point of trying to figure out who he is,” said Matheny, now the head coach at Elon. “A coach trying to figure everything out would have a tough time selling this.”
McKillop’s shining moment on the college basketball landscape came during Davidson’s run to the Elite Eight in 2008, the breakout moment for a baby-faced guard named Stephen Curry. No one could have forecast Curry’s emergence as the frontrunner for NBA MVP, but McKillop’s style based on moving the ball and concise cutting was prescient. As the NBA has become more watchable than major college basketball, teams like the Spurs, Hawks and Warriors embrace similar philosophies. “Bob is ahead of his time,” said Doherty, who is a scout for the Pacers. “Everyone is talking about how the Spurs play—share and move the ball and don’t hold it. That’s how Bob has been coaching for the last 20 years.”
Now, McKillop appears on the verge of another major moment. He’ll bring to the NCAA tournament one of the most difficult teams in the country to guard, a combination of precision, polish and skill that’s rare in modern college basketball. Davidson has five players who’ve hit 40 3-pointers, which allows the Wildcats to space the floor and slice accordingly.
In a bleak year for aesthetics in college basketball, his counter-intuitive methods should be lauded and mimicked. “I think he’s done maybe the best job he’s ever done,” Matheny said. “There’s a purity to the way that they’re playing offense, spacing and how well they’re cutting. I think they’re closer to playing the beautiful game than they’ve ever been.”
That next Davidson cover shot, long an ideal, is perhaps even closer to reality.