It's never too early to look ahead to next season. In the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and for those outside the Power 5 that could make noise on the national stage. Today: The Davidson Wildcats.
The story goes like this: In March 2008, a little-known guard named Stephen Curry led a little-known program named Davidson on a weeks-long YouTube montage of NCAA tournament brilliance. One of the giddiest upset runs ever, Davidson's March ended in a valiant two-point Elite Eight loss to eventual national champion Kansas. That spring, Curry spurned the NBA draft and returned to Davidson to expand his point guard skills. In 2009, he would step into the NBA, but not before former Minnesota general manager David Kahn would consecutively draft both Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn just above him.
To the wider world -- the world of star professional athletes and long form narratives about their road to greatness -- the Davidson Wildcats are less a basketball program than a setting: where our humble protagonist discovered his true potential. Most people likely think about Davidson in the same way they think about Jack Curry's run-down basketball hoop. Or Larry Byrd's French Lick, Indiana, garbage route. Or Jon Snow's first trip beyond the Wall. Davidson is just one more waypoint on the hero's journey.
But Davidson is also a real basketball program, of course, and one that continues to thrive even in the all-encompassing perceptive shadow of its most famous alumnus.
This felt especially true in 2014-15. As the Golden State Warriors went wild, longtime Davidson coach Bob McKillop was leading another Wildcats group on a stylistically fitting, and fittingly successful, campaign of his own. Davidson played some of the best, most beautiful offense college hoops had to offer last season, a coach's ideal mix of movement, spacing, pace and connectivity. Davidson recorded an assist on 61 percent of its made field goals. It shot 38.7 percent from the 3-point line and 53 percent from the 2 as a team. Only Wisconsin turned the ball over on fewer of its possessions.
From Feb. 7 to March 7, McKillop's team turned a 5-4 Atlantic 10 start into a 14-4 Atlantic 10 finish, good for a regular-season title in the program's first season in the conference.
Then again, Curry alone can't be blamed for obscuring Davidson's impressive 2014-15; the Wildcats' highest-profile appearance didn't help. After a month of scorching play, Davidson shot 6-of-28 from the 3-point line and scored just .81 points per trip in an 83-52 NCAA tournament loss to Iowa. Anyone who missed the A-10 season -- or anyone who tuned in and thought, "Oh, Davidson, that's where Steph Curry played" -- likely missed a pretty great story in its own right.
What the immediate future holds: Fortunately, that story isn't over just yet.
For as tight-knit and well-drilled as Davidson appeared last season, it was easy to forget the Wildcats comprised exactly one senior, and that everyone else would return in the 2015-16 campaign.
The returners include guard Jack Gibbs, who posted a 120.7 offensive rating on 26.7 percent usage by hitting 42.5 percent of his 3s, assisting on nearly 30 percent of available possessions, drawing 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes, and nailing 85 percent of his free throws once there. They include forward Jordan Barham, who matched Gibbs' offensive rating/usage rate excellence in the frontcourt, with less perimeter shooting but much more rebounding on both ends. The returners include guard Brian Sullivan, a high-dime, low-turnover type who shot 234 (!) 3s and made 35.5 percent of them. And they include Peyton Aldridge, who as a 6-foot-7 freshman gave McKillop interchangeable size and shooting on the wing.
He'll need them. The lone senior on last season's roster is also its most significant loss. Tyler Kalinowski led Davidson in minutes a year ago as a senior and took more of his team's available shots than all but one of his teammates (Barham). McKillop will also need better defense across the board. The Wildcats finished eighth in the A-10 in points allowed per trip, and 197th in the country in adjusted efficiency. Porousness cost a handful of games last season -- from Dec. 30's 83-72 loss at Virginia (in 63 trips) to a 93-73 loss to VCU in the A-10 tourney (in 69 trips) -- and made Davidson's offensive brilliance less a bonus than a nightly requirement.
Last week, thanks to a Yahoo! Answers post linking to his office phone, Davidson sports information director Joey Beeler was on the receiving end of an onslaught of calls from people -- mostly kids -- asking to speak to Stephen Curry.
It's a funny story. It's also telling: Seven years on, there is no escaping Curry's history at Davidson, and no desire to.
If McKillop's well-built roster maintains last season's offense, and discards last season's defense, the Davidson office phones will be ringing off the hook again next spring. Those inquiries will have less to do with the program's iconic alumnus -- and everything to do with the program's best team since that icon's star was born.