Much to their delight of alum Stephen Curry, the Davidson Wildcats are serving notice that they are an NCAA tournament threat, especially after drilling 12 three-pointers in an upset of No. 22 Dayton on Tuesday night.
During Davidson’s game against Dayton on Tuesday night, CBS Sports network cameras caught five Wildcats fans at Belk Arena wearing nothing but Speedos in an attempt to distract the Flyers’ free throw shooters. The display proved mostly unsuccessful -- Dayton made 68.4 percent from the line, a slight improvement on its season average entering the game of 66.3 percent -- and also unnecessary, as Davidson won by 17 points.
It did, however, catch the eye of one very notable Wildcats alum, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who tweeted, “yep that’s my school.”
Curry had other reasons to be proud of his alma mater on Tuesday, mostly because they put on the kind of shooting display as a team that he routinely provided by himself during his three years on campus. Davidson made 12-of-23 from three-point range in its 77-60 win over the 22nd-ranked Flyers, and along the way served notice that it may have the formula to embark on the kind of magical March the school last enjoyed when Curry shot himself to stardom -- and his team to the Elite Eight -- in 2008.
In fact, these Wildcats may actually be better than their ’08 predecessors that went 29-7 and a perfect 20-0 in the Southern Conference before falling two points short of a Final Four berth. For one thing, they are more balanced. While Curry averaged 25.9 points per game that season, fourth-best in the nation, only one teammate also scored in double figures. This year five Davidson players do so, led by senior guard Tyler Kalinoski’s 16.7 points per game.
This year’s Wildcats are also better shooters overall. The ’07-08 squad shot 37.2 percent from beyond the arc. This year’s team is at an even 40 percent.
In addition to being more accurate, they're also more prolific this year, making 10.7 threes per game, fourth-best in the nation, compared to 9.1 per game -- half of which came courtesy of Curry -- in '07-08.
Tuesday’s display was even more impressive because it came without the services of sophomore guard Jack Gibbs, who missed his first game after suffering a knee injury in Saturday’s loss to Richmond (there is no timetable for his return). Gibbs is by far Davidson’s best offensive player, boasting an offensive rating of 130.4 that was good for 18th in the country entering the night. He also may be a better shooter than Curry ever was as a collegian, hovering above a rare benchmark by making at least 50 percent of his field goals (51.4 percent), 40 percent of his three-point attempts (41.4) and 90 percent of his free-throw attempts (90.8), something Curry never accomplished in his three seasons.
For one night at least, Davidson didn’t miss Gibbs or his shooting. Kalinoski made 3-of-4 from outside while freshmen forwards Peyton Aldridge (4-of-5) and Oskar Michelsen (3-of-6) chipped in seven more triples. (The latter two are almost identical from outside this year, with Aldridge having made 26-of-61 and Michelsen 27-of-62.) The Wildcats were in front for the final 36 minutes and their lead never dipped below double digits in the second half.
It was Davidson’s first win in its last 13 games against ranked opponents and is further proof that this team, picked to finish 12th in its first season in the 14-team Atlantic 10, is worthy of consideration for the top 25 itself.
It was also an important statement win for a team that has the chance to build an NCAA tournament resume that could withstand the type of heartbreaking conference tournament loss the Wildcats suffered last year. After going 15-1 in the Southern Conference, they dropped a two-point decision in overtime to Western Carolina in the league tourney and had to settle for the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Missouri.
Last year, Davidson finished with an RPI of 129, weighed down by two months of playing in a low-major conference. Its RPI entering play on Tuesday was 52, and that will only go up after beating No. 27 Dayton. The Flyers are by far the best team the Wildcats have conquered this year, but even their losses have been respectable: three of the four defeats have come against ranked teams in North Carolina, Virginia and VCU.
Road games against George Washington on Feb. 18 and Rhode Island on Feb. 25, plus a home game with VCU on March 5, figure to be the most likely stumbling blocks for Davidson the rest of the way. It should enter the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn in mid-March with a real shot at returning to the NCAA tournament for the third time this decade, and the first time ever as an at-large.
If they get there, the Wildcats have already shown that their deep shooting may be able to catapult them on a deep run reminiscent of the one Curry led them to seven years ago. And should that happen, he won’t be the only one taking notice.