By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 24, 2008 2:18 PM
There is something truly special about witnessing the coming out party for a transcendent new star during the NCAA tournament.
It can't be a player on a big-name team because they are on television almost every time they dribble a basketball and are hyped and re-hyped by the talking heads from November to March. Players like Tyler Hansbrough, Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose can't possibly catch anybody by surprise at this time of year. Even very good players like Villanova's Scottie Reynolds and West Virginia's Joe Alexander are known quantities to anyone who follows the college game even a little.
But only the real geeks knew just how good Stephen Curry was before this past weekend. Maryland fans may have had a clue because Curry put up 30 on the Terrapins last year as a freshman in a first-round game Maryland was fortunate to win. Those who will watch almost any basketball on TV -- like a game on MASN in January between Davidson and Elon -- will have a clue.
But most who watched Curry, with some key help from teammates Jason Richards and Andrew Lovedale, dismantle Georgetown on Sunday knew little about Davidson and less about Curry. The last time Davidson won an NCAA tournament game in 1969, Lefty Driesell was their coach and Richard Nixon had just started his ill-fated presidency. Curry's father, Dell Curry, who would go on to star at Virginia Tech and then in the NBA was five years old.
Those who live in college hoops geek-world knew that Davidson had a chance to be very good this season. Bobby Cremins, who returned to coaching two years ago at the College of Charleston, calls Davidson Coach Bob McKillop, "The Mike Krzyzewski of the Southern Conference." Putting aside the fact that McKillop's team is still playing this week and Krzyzewski's is not, Cremins's point is that Davidson has been the league's dominant team under McKillop for a long time now.
McKillop knew he had a team this year that had a chance to do things not done at Davidson for a good long while. That's why he scheduled early season games with Duke and North Carolina and UCLA and North Carolina State. He lost them all -- close, the last one at State by one point -- but his team clearly benefitted from the experience. The Wildcats fell behind by double digits on Friday against Gonzaga and then rallied behind Curry's 30 second-half points to win. Yesterday, they were down 17 in the second half against the No. 2 seed -- a deep, experienced team that had gone to the Final Four a year ago -- and rallied again. This time, Curry only had 25 in the second half to pull off the stunning upset.
There was a good deal of whining after the game from Georgetown apologists about both the location of the game and the officiating. Please. The game's location had nothing to do with the crowd getting loud when Davidson rallied. Anytime a high seed is in trouble the first weekend, especially against a double-digit seed (Davidson was a No. 10) the crowd turns against the favorite. The only exception to that rule would be when UCLA plays in Anaheim, or North Carolina plays in Charlotte, or in a year when Kansas plays in Kansas City, or Indiana plays in Indianapolis.
Georgetown could have played very close to home as a No. 2 seed if the school's administration hadn't decided years ago not to build an on-campus arena and, instead, go for the big bucks by moving first to Capital Centre and then to Verizon Center. Since Verizon Center is the Hoyas' home court, they couldn't play there. Raleigh was the next closest venue. Most of the fans there would have pulled for Gonzaga, or even Arkansas, or any other lower seed against Georgetown. They weren't pulling for Davidson. They were pulling against Georgetown.
It was no different than in Verizon Center on Saturday when the place started going nuts when West Virginia took control of its game against Duke. Did Duke get a bad draw because West Virginia is only three hours from Washington? Of course not. No matter where the Blue Devils go everyone but their own fans pulls against them. They lost because the Mountaineers were a considerably better team, period.
The same is true of the Hoyas. They didn't lose because of where the game was played or because of a ticky-tack foul against Roy Hibbert. It's worth noting that Hibbert could have fouled out at least three times down the stretch and the officials swallowed their whistles. He also barely touched the ball when he was in the game and that wasn't the fault of the officials. Georgetown lost because Curry, after struggling badly for 25 minutes, was amazing the last 15. He hit from inside and outside, set up teammates and made two remarkable plays late in the game, first swooping to the basket for a spectacular layup, then hitting a step-back three from well beyond the line with a hand in his face.
What's great about this story is that this was a kid who grew up in ACC country, the son of a father who played for what is now an ACC school, and was completely ignored by the ACC. Seth Greenberg, the Virginia Tech coach, told Curry he might give him a scholarship if he went to prep school for a year or he could walk-on. No one else in the league showed any interest at all. It's probably a safe bet that Greenberg wouldn't have been screaming for an expanded tournament a week ago if Curry had been on his team this year.
Curry went to Davidson, which was consistently a top-10 team under Driesell in the 1960s and has had many good moments under McKillop the last 15 years, but had settled into the role of a solid, mid-major -- a frequent NCAA tournament team but never really a threat to the big boys. The 2007 season was fairly typical: a 29-5 record, dominance in the conference (17-1) and an 82-70 first round tournament loss to Maryland.
All the key players from that team returned. More important, Curry, as a sophomore, became the focal point of the offense. He has as sweet a shooting motion as anyone has seen in a long time. His father has told people that his little brother Seth, currently a high school senior, is a better shooter. Seth has committed to Liberty, which may be another mistake ACC schools will live to regret.
Davidson is one of three double-digit seeds still playing, but easily the best story. Western Kentucky is next, having beaten Drake in what may have been the best game of the tournament when a kid named Ty Rogers hit a 26-footer at the buzzer in overtime for a 101-99 win. Like Davidson, the Hilltoppers are a team that was once a power -- a Final Four team in 1971 when Jim McDaniel was their center. They reached the round of 16 15 years ago, so it hasn't been as long a drought for them in this event as for Davidson.
What's more, Davidson is a tiny (1,700 undergrads) college known more for academics than athletics. Western Kentucky beat two other mid-majors -- the committee did Drake no favors by giving it WKU as a first round opponent -- getting past San Diego in the second round. USD produced the other huge upset of the first round when it shocked Connecticut, 70-69, in overtime on another late game-winning shot. (Note to geeks: If Hasheem Thabeet returns next season, U-Conn. could easily be the pre-season No. 1 team).
Davidson not only had to beat Gonzaga, which really isn't a mid-major anymore, but mighty Georgetown. The other double-digit seed playing, Villanova (No. 12 in the midwest) is a Big East team that was a low seed only because it was the eighth team selected from a power conference. The Wildcats are hardly Cinderella. Neither is West Virginia, the other team to beat a No. 2 seed. In fact, if you watched the Mountaineers dismantling of Duke -- a team that was clearly out of gas emotionally and physically and was lucky to beat Belmont in the first round -- you would hardly call that outcome an upset.
So now the tournament moves on, with Davidson the best story, and Western Kentucky next best. The Wildcats are perfectly capable of playing Wisconsin tough in Detroit. In theory, the Badgers should wear them down. But in theory, Georgetown should have done the same thing. Thankfully, this tournament isn't played in theory. Kansas, which plays Villanova next, is still the heavy favorite in that regional.
In fact, all four No. 1 seeds -- Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and Memphis -- are still playing. The latter two struggled in their second round games but survived. Tennessee, which was very fortunate to beat a Butler team that the committee badly under-seeded, is alive in the east with Carolina. And Texas, despite a near late-game collapse against Miami, is very much alive going to Houston to play Stanford. While Memphis plays Michigan State in the other game in the South Region.
The heaviest favorites to advance have to be Carolina -- which plays Washington State in Charlotte, with Tennessee and Louisville playing in the other game -- and UCLA which plays Western Kentucky, while Xavier and West Virginia are in the other semifinal in Phoenix.
It is worth noting that the Southern Conference and the Sun Belt have as many teams playing this coming week as the ACC. Since the football expansion to 12 teams, the ACC has had a total of four teams make the round of 16 in three seasons. This from a league that in the past had four round of 16 teams in one season.
That's all for later. Right now is a good time to savor the accomplishments of San Diego, Siena (which crushed Vanderbilt in the first round) Western Kentucky and, of course, Davidson. Stephen Curry and his teammates left us all with a memory to savor this past weekend for years to come.
Which is what the NCAA tournament really is all about.