ASHEVILLE — Davidson has earned a berth in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. Now the question is whether the Wildcats can win a game in the NCAAs for the first time since Stephen Curry was on campus.
They can – and they very possibly will.
The Wildcats’ 17th straight win Monday night – a 74-55 blasting of College of Charleston in the Southern Conference final – showcased why. Davidson is the sort of team that will audition for the role of upset specialist in the NCAA tournament and has a shot at getting the part.
Davidson is extremely experienced and also a much bigger team than your average mid-major conference champion. The Wildcats also play such a tough schedule that intimidation won’t be a factor.
Remember, Davidson was tied with Duke at halftime earlier this season, and that was against “Good Duke” – the one with Ryan Kelly in the lineup. Davidson led Gonzaga by nine early and the two teams were tied midway through the second half. The Wildcats lost both those games, but Gonzaga and Duke are No.1 and No. 2 in the country, respectively.
17 and counting
Davidson has the confidence that comes with holding the longest current NCAA win streak in the country. And if the seeding committee is paying attention at all, the Wildcats (26-7) should get around a No. 12 or No. 13 seed and thus get a first-round game in which they have a better shot.
Now the Wildcats don’t have Curry to fill it up, like they did in 2008 when they made their run to the Elite Eight. They aren’t as dazzling as that team was, and they’re not going to go quite that far.
But they do have Jake Cohen – the two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year and a 6-foot-10 forward who had 24 points and 10 rebounds in last year’s seven-point NCAA tournament loss to Louisville (which eventually made the Final Four).
Said Cohen Monday night of the back-to-back NCAA berths: “I’ve been able to experience this twice now, and I’m going to do it with some of my best friends in the world. That’s something really special. I just feel incredibly lucky.”
They do have De’Mon Brooks, who was the Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament after scoring 24 points Monday night. “This is what you dream about,” Brooks said.
When the 3’s don’t fall …
And they have a bushel of 3-point shooters that Cohen and Brooks gladly feed when they are double-teamed. Where Davidson sometimes falls short is when the outside shots don’t fall.
When the 3-pointer isn’t going in, the Wildcats look very beatable, like when they shot 4-for-19 from beyond the arc against Duke or in the first 25 minutes Sunday against Appalachian State. If Davidson shoots poorly from 3-point range in the NCAA’s first round, then there will not be a second round.
But back to Monday night: Cheered on by three busloads of students who made the two-hour trip for free – the school paid for the buses, and Davidson’s basketball office bought their tickets – Davidson never trailed in the final. The Wildcats came out with the same offensive strategy that allowed them to edge Appalachian State in the semifinal – throw the ball in to Brooks and let him do his work.
Charleston stubbornly and incorrectly refused to double-team Brooks, even once it was apparent that it was his night. Brooks is very good with both hands and just kept winning one-on-one matchups in the post, scoring the way he did last season when he shared conference Player of the Year honors with Cohen.
So unlike last year’s final – which Davidson won in a thrilling double-overtime battle with Western Carolina – this one was never in doubt. Davidson got to clear its bench with two minutes left. Then Davidson’s players shared a nice moment with their fans, jumping into the first row of the stands to hug the ones they could reach and singing “Sweet Caroline” right along with them.
Davidson’s next opponent will be bigger, faster and smarter. But this Davidson team – as Duke and Gonzaga well know – can play with anybody.
Scott Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler