Commentary

NCAA tourney run puts Davidson on the map, and a target on its back

Originally Published: May 5, 2008
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

For most of Bob McKillop's 19 seasons at Davidson, recruiting top-tier talent to the small liberal arts college outside of Charlotte, N.C., hasn't been easy.

In the past week, though, with the buzz of the Wildcats' Final Four near-miss still fresh, recruiting has been Eze. That's Frank Ben-Eze, a highly touted 6-foot-10 forward from Arlington, Va., who chose the Wildcats despite several high-majors reportedly showing interest.

[+] EnlargeStephen Curry
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDavidson's run in the NCAA tournament against some of the nation's finest teams propelled it into the national spotlight.
It just goes to show what beating Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin in succession in March can do for a rising program.

"Our recruiting efforts have not necessarily intensified in terms of our effort, but response has been significantly greater," McKillop said of the immediate impact of the NCAA tournament run. "Players that perhaps we were not able to get involved with in the past are now interested in us, and we don't have to go through a defining period -- who we are, where we are, what we do."

Who the Wildcats are is no longer a national question after that trio of NCAA wins, the school's first NCAA wins since Lefty Driesell took the Wildcats to the regional finals in 1969. What they do from here, though, will determine whether they can stay in that spotlight for the longer term.

McKillop believes his team benefited last season from its exposure to top-10 teams North Carolina, Duke and UCLA in the regular season, saying those games did a great job of convincing the Wildcats of their strengths while identifying some weaknesses that they were able to work on during conference play. The lessons were learned, as evidenced by the way Davidson steamrolled through the Southern Conference on the way to a perfect 23-0 league mark, followed by the three NCAA tournament upsets before a two-point loss to eventual national champ Kansas denied the Wildcats a stunning spot in the Final Four.

McKillop also realizes how important getting that NCAA tournament exposure is for the perception of the program, both for recruiting and in getting similar games in the future. Star guard Stephen Curry's return for his junior year ensures that Davidson will have the talent to make plenty more noise, and McKillop again is scheduling accordingly. The Wildcats will make appearances in the NIT Season Tip-Off and the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. They'll also play at Duke and face NC State at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.

"You have to put yourself in position to be on the national stage," McKillop said. "I think Gonzaga has probably done it better than anybody [at this level]. They have gone out and played anybody at any place at any time."

The easiest part is making that first run. It's fun and exciting, and it's just kind of like catching lightning in a bottle. The most difficult process is then when expectations happen and just being able to seize the opportunity and continue to grow.

--Mark Few

The symbolism of Davidson's NCAA tournament rally past Gonzaga shouldn't be understated. For the better part of a decade, the Zags have been the gold standard by which other emerging mid-major programs have been measured. They have made 10 straight NCAA tournaments and notched four Sweet 16s, including their initial trip in 1999 that ended with a regional final loss to eventual national champion UConn. They are now regulars in the Top 25 and have national recruiting reach, a new arena and enough scheduling gravitas to get name programs to go to them to play -- or at least to go to Seattle.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, who has been in charge for the past nine of those NCAA trips, said he saw a lot of the qualities of those early Gonzaga teams in this past season's Davidson squad. Having taken over the Bulldogs right after their own Elite Eight trip that kick-started their emergence, Few has a pretty good sense of what's to come for the Wildcats.

"The easiest part is making that first run. It's fun and exciting, and it's just kind of like catching lightning in a bottle," Few said. "The most difficult process is then when expectations happen and just being able to seize the opportunity and continue to grow."

"It's hard [to maintain the success]," he added. "Davidson will see that now. I would think now they'll sell out every time they play on the road, and you really become the hunted. That's been certainly the case up here going on nine years."

What that sustained level of success has done for Gonzaga has allowed the program to gain ground in both the recruiting and scheduling arenas, the two biggest perception-based facets of today's college basketball environment. Elite teams are no longer afraid to schedule the Zags because they are no longer considered a bad loss. That type of nonconference scheduling then helps the Zags gain traction in the recruiting world, even though Few figured that would come much earlier in the process.

Few said he thought that after the 1999 Elite Eight, the Zags would be able to jump in on almost any recruit. It wasn't until the two subsequent Sweet 16 trips in 2000 and '01, though, before that became more of a reality. It took that long, and that much success, for the perception of the program to change enough to appeal to that caliber of recruit and/or his advisers. These days, Few can get in on most recruiting battles, but even that can create problems.

"The danger is that you can a lot of times get in on anybody," he said. "It's whether or not you can get them. Everybody wants to put you in their top five, and you can really waste a lot of time."

McKillop is cognizant of this. He said that he sat down with his staff soon after the Wildcats' Elite Eight loss and reiterated that while Davidson's reputation may have improved in the recruiting world, that wouldn't change the makeup of the type of player they'd want to recruit.

[+] EnlargeBob McKillop
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBob McKillop is determined to build upon Davidson's 2008 tourney success.
"You're tempted to say, 'OK, we're going to take this greater talent, and we're going to forget some of those other factors, like character-related or academic-related factors,'" McKillop said. "We're gonna think that because of where we are, we can trump those things, overcome those other character issues. 'He'll fit in, he'll just blend in, we'll change him.' That's an enormous temptation [to avoid]."

McKillop knows that finding the right kids is what helped propel the Wildcats to 58 wins over the past two seasons. He also is aware that certain aspects of playing at Davidson -- the low-visibility SoCon, the school's academic rigors -- aren't going to change. As such, expect the Wildcats to continue to lean heavily on players who have McKillop's preferred combination of coachability, toughness and work ethic to go with their skill, and are willing to learn at the feet of upperclassmen who have made their way through the program.

That said, McKillop is also well aware of what the right youthful star can do. It was Curry, a sophomore, who was the primary reason Davidson is in this position -- and the reason that many opponents, preseason tournaments and recruits want a piece of the Wildcats now.

"I'm smart enough to realize that Stephen Curry has become a poster boy for our program," he said. "And a lot of people want to have the poster."

As that's a picture Davidson should continue to enjoy.

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.