Without Jack Gibbs, the Davidson Wildcats are a very solid team.
With him, they are a threat to stun everybody and win the Atlantic 10 in their first season in the conference.
Gibbs, a sophomore point guard from Ohio who drives to the basket and shoots 3-pointers with equal skill, has burst into bloom this season. He has earned the conference’s player of the week honor three times.
He was named one of the team’s captains by coach Bob McKillop – the first sophomore, McKillop said, ever thrust into that role in his 26-year head coaching career at Davidson.
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And Gibbs had a Stephen Curry moment just last week, hitting a game-winning 3-pointer on the road against Rhode Island from deep in the left corner.
I asked McKillop how good Gibbs can ultimately be.
“Pretty darn good,” McKillop said. “He’s one of the best we’ve had.”
Entering Thursday night’s final home game of the season (9 p.m., ESPNU), against Virginia Commonwealth, Gibbs and Davidson are having one of those seasons that neither will soon forget.
The Wildcats stand in second place in the A-10, a half-game behind Dayton. With wins against VCU and then at Duquesne on Saturday, they would win the A-10 regular season and be seeded No. 1 for next week’s tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All that for a team picked 12th in the 14-team league in the official preseason poll.
Even in tight situations, Gibbs smiles more than any Davidson player on the court. He just turned 20, but the son of a probate attorney and an assistant principal at an elementary school talks more like he’s 30.
“I try to have as much fun on all the levels of basketball that I can,” Gibbs said. “Because you’re not going to have that your whole life. You’re going to want to cherish the memories.”
‘We still want you’
Gibbs is far from the only reason Davidson is 21-6 and 12-4 in the A-10 – an NCAA bubble team even if it doesn’t win its conference tournament – but he has become one of the Wildcats’ primary threats.
That’s despite the fact he missed seven midseason games after he suffered a slight meniscus tear in his right knee and had arthroscopic surgery in mid-January. Davidson went 5-2 in his absence, led by its two other standout guards and team captains, Tyler Kalinoski and Brian Sullivan.
Gibbs had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in that same knee during his junior year in high school, in January 2012. That injury caused a number of schools to temporarily back off recruiting him, according to his father.
Matt McKillop, an assistant coach at Davidson and Bob’s son, attended the high school game in which Gibbs tore his ACL. After talking with his father, Matt McKillop called Gibbs the next day.
“The day after I did it,” Gibbs said, “Coach (Matt) McKillop called and said nothing has changed for us. We still want you. And that really hit home. It obviously feels good to be wanted.”
Gibbs didn’t commit to the Wildcats right then. It took him about 10 months to heal from the ACL, but once teams saw he was healthy, other offers started coming.
Gibbs took official visits to Creighton and Akron and had one lined up with Wichita State. He canceled that one after visiting Davidson and deciding it would be the best fit for him.
Then Gibbs had a huge senior season in Westerville, Ohio, ending up as Gatorade’s 2013 player of the year in the state. It is an interesting hypothetical question as to whether Davidson would have landed Gibbs had he not torn his ACL.
A ‘leap of faith’ by McKillop
As a freshman at Davidson, Gibbs never started but played 20 minutes per game behind senior point guard Tom Droney, and averaged 6.8 points.
In the offseason, McKillop called Gibbs into his office and told him he was going to name him as one of the captains, an honor always previously reserved for upperclassmen.
“I saw that it would help him and that it would help our team,” McKillop said. “I decided to take a leap of faith, believing that being a captain and a leader as a sophomore would carry over and pay big dividends in the future. It’s been a catalyst for his performance and for our team as well.”
Gibbs’ father, also named Jack Gibbs, said he has seen his son mature since he arrived at Davidson.
“Jack has always been a super-aggressive player,” said the elder Gibbs, “even when he was 6 years old. But he used to sometimes drive the ball inside even if there were 50 people in there. Coach McKillop has brought him along well and helped him understand when to do that and when not to do it.”
Tears in the locker room
All was going beautifully this season for Gibbs until his knee injury during a Jan. 17 game. He had arthroscopic surgery to repair the tear, went through an exhausting month of rehab and was back to playing in a real game on Feb. 18. He does not wear a brace on the knee now.
“I feel like I’m not used to a brace, so why throw it on?” Gibbs said. “That might mess with your head. So if it (an injury) is going to happen again, it’s going to happen. I’m just playing as hard as I can.”
During the seven-game break, McKillop particularly remembers Gibbs’ reaction when Davidson lost a home game by a point to St. Bonaventure.
“When we lost to St. Bonaventure on that last-second shot, he was in the locker room crying,” McKillop said. “That’s how much that loss impacted him. That’s how much he felt for the team. Not that I needed one, but it was a very graphic statement to me how much it all means to him.”
It was one of those rare moments when Gibbs couldn’t even force a smile, and he left the locker room quickly that day. He wants his teammates to remember him smiling.
“I try to bring some energy out on the court,” Gibbs said. “You’ll see me smiling a lot just to keep the nerves down. Coach always talks about having fun. If other guys see you having fun, their nerves will go down, too.”
After basketball is over, Gibbs believes he would like to go to law school, following his father’s career path. But that’s a long time off.
For now, he will remember that basketball is play, not work. And when your knee is healthy and you can return to play a game you love, that is worth smiling about.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
Jack Gibbs by the numbers
Sophomore point guard Jack Gibbs has helped key Davidson’s surprising run in the Atlantic 10. The key numbers:
4.7 Assists per game (first on team)
7 Games missed with a knee injury
15.9 points per game (second on team)
42.2 3-point pct. (first on team)*
88.3 Free-throw percentage (first on team)*
*With at least 10 attempts