- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The great American banking center of Charlotte, N.C., lies at the tender, barbecue-basted heart of ACC country. It's the home of the 2008 ACC men's basketball tourney, and the Observer is widely regarded as the conference's newspaper of record. The only thing the city doesn't have is an actual member school within an hour's drive, but all that will change this winter with the addition of the ACC's honorary and temporary 13th member.
The local Wildcats of the Southern Conference, fresh off a school-record 29-5 regular-season mark and a valiant loss to Maryland in the NCAA Tournament's first round, have set forth a path that boldly takes aim at the traditional titans of the country's most prestigious hoops league. Davidson's 2007-08 schedule includes a Nov. 14 contest against North Carolina, a Dec. 1 date with Duke and a Dec. 21 excursion to NC State.
"When you have players who have shown their commitment by how hard they have worked, not only during the season but in the offseason, you want to reward them," said 19th-year Davidson head coach Bob McKillop. "You reward them by giving them the greatest stage to play on that they can play on. To play the kind of schedule that we're playing this year puts us on that stage gives our players significant motivation, excitement and opportunity to play against the best."
"It's real exciting," said sophomore guard Stephen Curry, who led the Wildcats with 21.5 ppg in his freshman campaign. "I grew up right here in Charlotte and I followed the ACC as a kid, so getting to take the court against those teams is a real thrill."
Most upwardly mobile mid-majors often have considerable trouble luring ACC schools from their cozy homes, but most of those thrills will come in Davidson's own backyard. The Duke and North Carolina games won't be played in front of the Cameron Crazies and Tar Heels faithful, but instead at a neutral court in Charlotte: the new NBA-capacity Bobcats Arena. That's a cross-state trek for UNC or Duke supporters, but a quick 20-minute drive south from Davidson's leafy, exurban campus.
"The ACC conference tournament is there this year," McKillop explained. "Teams like Carolina and Duke, they want to get an opportunity to play on that floor, in that venue. They've all got a lot of fans in Charlotte. It's going to give those schools an opportunity to play in front of their fans, in an arena they're going to have to become accustomed to playing in."
NC State and Davidson haven't met on the court since the 1995-96 season. Most of the 71-game series with UNC predates baggy shorts. But McKillop's relationship with Duke goes way back. The yearly trip to Durham has been a traditional staple of the Davidson schedule, nearly always televised by ESPN.
"When you play college basketball, you want to play in the finest arenas in the country, against the finest teams in the country," McKillop said. "We certainly accomplish that task by playing in that series with Duke."
Davidson hasn't beaten Duke since 1981. And last season's matchup ended in a 75-47 drubbing at Cameron, easily the Wildcats' worst loss of the season.
"Yeah, things didn't go so well at Cameron last year," Curry remembered. "Hopefully we'll be more ready for them this time."
But that type of negative result was expected all last season for a squad that had lost seven seniors from its 2005-06 SoCon championship team, one that came within eight points of a 15-over-2 upset of Ohio State in the NCAAs. In 2006-07, a team featuring eight underclassmen was due for a surefire rebuilding season. But led by the baby-faced Curry, who matured with lightning quickness from November to March, the Wildcats repeated as league winners.
Either way, we're going to have to take care of business in the SoCon. And then we'd get another shot at the big boys.
Scheduling played a vital role in the early development of last season's young Wildcats. Last summer, McKillop signed up his team for two faraway preseason tournaments: two games at the season-opening John Thompson Foundation Classic at Michigan and three at the Arizona State Holiday Classic in late December.
"We were able to get three true neutral-court games out of the five," McKillop said of the trips to Ann Arbor and Tempe. "I thought that might give us a little bit of confidence in playing on the road. And playing in front of Michigan's crowd, Arizona State's crowd it's not like a Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, at least not at that point of the year. But it would put us on the home courts of big-time, BCS conference teams. It gave us a chance to sequester ourselves as a young team in an environment where we could grow. And I think we really grew from the experience."
Surprisingly, it was Davidson's win total that grew the most. The Wildcats won four of five games at the two tournaments, the only loss a 78-68 championship-game defeat against host Michigan at the John Thompson. As Curry blossomed into a shooting star over the course of the season, Davidson compiled win streaks of 12 and 13 games on its way to a second straight NCAA appearance.
But that was last season.
"There's a quote from the late, great Joe Lapchick," McKillop said, referring to the legendary St. John's head coach. "He said, 'Proud peacock today, feather duster tomorrow.' And that has resonated in our locker room, in our team room, and in the hallways of our arena. Our players realize that what was accomplished last year is in the past, and they have responded to that by showing me a work ethic that has been extraordinary."
Indeed, the Wildcats need every ounce of sweat equity to avoid becoming household cleaning tools themselves. If Davidson's attempts to slingshot the goliaths of the ACC weren't enough, the team will travel to the Pacific Coast on Dec. 8 for a matchup with UCLA, a veteran of the last two Final Fours, at the John Wooden Classic in Anaheim.
"We jumped on it right away," McKillop said. "Normally, the time around Dec. 8 is a period when we're in exams, but it's a strange year in our academic calendar and exams are starting several days later. So the timing of it was perfect from the standpoint of academics."
So there won't be any excuses, calendar-related or otherwise. The 2007-08 Wildcats are ready to take on all comers, no matter what conference they're from. It's a spirit that echoes that of the Davidson squads of the 1960s, which under Lefty Driesell played in four NCAA Tournaments in five years (including two Elite Eights), accumulated six straight 20-win seasons and spawned three All-Americans. With a current string of three 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, could Wildcats basketball be on the brink of a second golden age?
"The parallels are difficult to draw," McKillop said. "You're talking about a coach who was far ahead of his time in terms of taking a small school like Davidson and taking it into national rankings. What Lefty and his players accomplished was one of the truly great stories in college basketball history. There were 11,600 people every home game at the Charlotte Arena, there were NBA draft picks with Dick Snyder and Fred Hetzel. There are a significant, very significant number of steps to take before we can even be mentioned in the same breath as the glory days."
A breakthrough victory against one of college basketball's elite would certainly be a step in that direction. But that it's even possible -- maybe even expected in some circles -- doesn't faze those in the Davidson camp.
"There are great expectations of us and that's a lot to carry around," McKillop said. "But expectations only come when people respect you. When people respect you, that builds confidence. So we're embracing those expectations, and we're wearing them not with contentment but with a degree of understanding that these expectations have come because of our accomplishments. And that we hope to accomplish much more."
"Nobody expected us to do much of anything last year, but by the Maryland game everyone knew who we were," echoed Curry. "We'll go into those [ACC and UCLA] games prepared, confident, thinking in our heads that we can win, and we'll play hard."
But should the Wildcats go 0-4 in their trial by fire and lose out on the chance to build a solid at-large résumé, there's always the other way into the Big Dance: win the Southern Conference tournament for the third straight year.
"No matter what happens, those games are going to prepare us for what's going to be a real tough league," Curry said. "Either way, we're going to have to take care of business in the SoCon.
"And then we'd get another shot at the big boys."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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