- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Along the way to the Elite Eight last season, Bob McKillop constantly invoked soaring images of Brazilian soccer, referring often to the legendary concept of "The Beautiful Game." But that didn't mean Davidson's head coach was secretly pining for success in a different sport.
"I respect greatness and excellence," said McKillop over the summer. "Whether it's the Brazilian soccer team, the New England Patriots, or Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps or Tiger Woods. I don't golf at all, but I study Tiger Woods all the time his endurance and his consistency, hole after hole. That, to me, is what the 'beautiful game' is all about."
A good rule of thumb in college basketball is that power-conference teams play their way out of the Top 25 and NCAA bids, while mid-majors with limited resources must play their way in. So a small-college team like Davidson needs to be as flawless as possible, and it helps to have the right heroes. McKillop's tireless and relentless pursuit of perfection led the Wildcats from a No. 10 seed to the door of the Final Four, until point guard Jason Richards' last-second 3 fell just short against eventual national champion Kansas.
And for at least one more year, Davidson will feature the beautiful game of junior guard Stephen Curry. He enters the new season as an AP All-American, a Wooden Award candidate and the preseason Southern Conference Player of the Year after scoring 32 ppg in four NCAA games (25.9 ppg over the course of the 2007-08 season), and since March has become one of the most famous college basketball players in the country after a string of TV talk-show appearances.
Curry and the preseason No. 20 Wildcats will attempt to build on their impressive string of 33 straight victories over SoCon opponents (including a perfect 20-0 regular season last year), and will shoot for their fourth consecutive NCAA bid in a league that has never bracketed an at-large team.
And with a slate of high-profile nonconference games (including Purdue, Duke, West Virginia, Oklahoma and N.C. State), Davidson's every move will be closely monitored and scrutinized for the next five months, held to the same high standards as any ACC or SEC team. With Curry taking more minutes at point after the graduation of Richards, as well as a front line that tops out at 6-foot-9, McKillop's team will once again have to be as perfect, as excellent, as it can manage to be.
But Davidson isn't the only underdog squad on a continued quest for greatness. Here are some of the other mid-major storylines to watch as the 2008-09 season gets under way.
Back To Two Bids?
Two seasons after the landmark 2006 NCAA tournament, when the Missouri Valley Conference and Colonial Athletic Association struck deep into March (Bradley and Wichita State of the MVC to the Sweet 16, while the CAA's George Mason reached the Final Four), both sent just a single team to the Big Dance.
A Valley-wide exodus of senior starters after 2006-07, as well as five new head coaches, spelled an end to the conference's nine-year multi-bid run. The stage was set for Drake's first league title and NCAA appearance since 1971, a stirring run that ended in overtime against Western Kentucky in the first round. Meanwhile, the CAA's standout squad from last season, Virginia Commonwealth, fell out of its league tournament in the semifinals, opening the door for Mason to reprise a little of its March magic.
This year's CAA should feature the kind of competitive balance that makes every regular-season game worth watching, with GMU, Old Dominion, VCU and Northeastern all mounting strong candidacies for the championship. But the MVC appears better poised to recapture its old powerhouse form. Double-champion Drake is back in rebuilding mode after the loss of league MVP Adam Emmenecker and the defection of national Coach of the Year Keno Davis to Providence. Look for the Valley's sleeping giants to wake up again.
Creighton, in particular, looks poised to claim an eighth NCAA bid in 11 years. A young Bluejays team had eight players average 15 minutes or more last season, still won 22 games, and enters the year deep, experienced and talented. Southern Illinois' late surge couldn't overcome early road problems, but reinforcements have arrived in a highly touted freshman class: ESPN100 power forward Anthony Booker, and point guard Kevin Dillard, who was pursued by Kentucky and Louisville.
And with schools such as Illinois State and Wichita State in the second years of new coaching regimes, and traditional powers like Northern Iowa and Bradley waiting in the shadows, the league's brass is hoping for a crooked number on the scoreboard come March.
"We need to return to two bids, that's for sure," said MVC commissioner Doug Elgin. "It would be a rough thing to have another one-bid year."
Rising In The West?
By stringing together seven NCAA wins over three years at the turn of the century, tiny Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference arrived on the national radar and captured the public's imagination. With 10 consecutive tournament appearances, high-caliber recruits, national TV exposure and an uncanny ability to schedule (and beat) top schools, the Zags remained in the college basketball consciousness. Last season, the WCC finally rose to Gonzaga's level.
With Gonzaga's spirited rivalry with Saint Mary's and its Australian phenom Patty Mills, as well as its title-game loss to San Diego, a league that had sent two teams to the Big Bracket just six times since 1953 enjoyed a breakthrough three-bid season. Then the Zags and Gaels lost in the first round, and San Diego upset Connecticut in overtime to reach the round of 32. The WCC is no longer an eight-team "Gonzaga Invitational," it's a fully fledged elite mid-major conference.
Gonzaga enters the season as strong as it's ever been, led by league POY Jeremy Pargo. And Saint Mary's, which watched Mills excel in Beijing, adds 6-foot-11 Indiana transfer Ben Allen to its Aussie arsenal. The league champs from San Diego return virtually intact, including all-WCC forward Gyno Pomare.
And the league could become even stronger in days ahead. The wide gap between the top three and the other five could be bridged by a resurgent Santa Clara if center John Bryant has a successful recovery from wounds suffered in a summer knife attack. San Francisco, now led by former Kentucky star and emerging coaching sensation Rex Walters, could be in a position to make a move as well.
There's nowhere to go but up for the other premier BracketBusting conference in the West, the Western Athletic Conference. The WAC overscheduled as a group last year, and not only lost its multi-bid status (sending one team for only the second time since 1983); the league wallowed in the RPI's lower third for most of the season as the losses mounted. Nevada and Utah State, uncharacteristic NCAA non-participants this past March, lead the charge into the WAC's comeback season, along with upstart San Jose State.
In perennial one-bid conferences like the Patriot League, America East, Big West and Southland, the successful champions of the recent past often fall down the memory hole. After their round of 32 successes, teams like Bucknell, Vermont, Pacific and Northwestern State haven't been able to sustain their NCAA success year after year, and as such have been generally forgotten by casual fans as new Cinderellas emerge.
But it's one of the most exciting parts of any college basketball season: forecasting which virtual unknowns will survive the long grind and be the next to break onto the national stage with a big NCAA win. Belmont, which came within a single possession and a single point of knocking off Duke as a No. 15 seed in March, returns four starters as the Bruins venture toward their fourth Atlantic Sun tourney title -- and perhaps, this time, more than that.
Middle Tennessee State fell short in the 2008 Sun Belt title game against Sweet 16-bound Western Kentucky, after forcing a multi-bid scenario with a nine-point semifinal win over regular-season champion South Alabama. That team featured no seniors, and will enter this season with a strong core of five fourth-year players, as well as 6-7 standout junior forward Desmond Yates (16.0 ppg in 2007-08). With rebuilding projects all across the Belt, the Blue Raiders could very well return to the Dance for the first time in 20 seasons.
And while Butler could be hard-pressed to repeat its round of 32 performance and national rankings after the loss of four seniors, the Horizon League still contains Cinderella candidates. Wright State, with a conference-best backcourt of Vaughn Duggins and Todd Brown (26.5 combined ppg last season), could return to the Big Bracket after a year away. Long-dormant Cleveland State has been turned around in two short seasons by head coach Gary Waters and will try to improve on a 2008 NIT bid. If Butler reassembles quickly, multiple Horizon bids could be in the offing.
But the team most likely to crash the party out of a one-bid conference is one that has already done so: Siena of the Metro Atlantic. The Saints announced their presence with a resounding, shocking 13-over-4 upset over Vanderbilt, and return nearly every player who left the Tampa court two days later after being ousted by Villanova.
Siena will have the opportunity to make another splash on the order of the Vandy victory in this season's early going, with a schedule full of NCAA teams, including power-conference heavyweights like Tennessee, Pittsburgh and the national champions from Kansas.
"The expectations will definitely be higher this year," said Siena head coach Fran McCaffery. "But I wouldn't have scheduled those games if I didn't think we had some chance to win."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
The heady days of Gonzaga's multiple-year tourney runs and George Mason's Final Four run are past. Mid-major conferences have fallen on hard times the past few years come tourney time. But don't be surprised to see some familiar faces in this year's tourney, writes Kyle Whelliston.