By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008
DETROIT, March 27 -- At least one young fan inside of cavernous Ford Field seemed disenchanted with the crisp, precise, businesslike way the Davidson Wildcats ran through their open practice Thursday afternoon, the day before their NCAA Midwest Region semifinal against Wisconsin.
There had been lots of drills and very few crowd-pleasing dunks -- a staple of the low-key workouts for many teams -- during the first 30 minutes or so. But here, finally, was a chance for a highlight, as Stephen Curry came up with a loose ball during a scrimmage.
"Dunk it!" the boy in the stands screamed, as the star sophomore guard drove to the basket, all alone. Curry, however, opted for a smooth finger roll. The boy groaned.
That 50-minute practice on the Ford Field floor might not have enthralled fans the way that the 10th-seeded Wildcats did during the opening week of the tournament, as they upset seventh-seeded Gonzaga and second-seeded Georgetown behind the brilliance of Curry and senior point guard Jason Richards. But it was an example of what has helped the Southern Conference champions put together a 24-game winning streak, the longest in the nation.
"That's the way we play," sophomore forward Stephen Rossiter said, shrugging his shoulders. "Simple, yet effective."
Much of that stems from Bob McKillop, the disciplined, detailed and intense coach of the Wildcats, who in his 19th season has won more games than any other coach in school or conference history (339). He was attentive to everything on the court. He screamed at senior captain Boris Meno to use the backboard during a layup drill. He yelled at Andrew Lovedale to attack the basket, after the junior forward opted for a pull-up jumper during a two-on-one drill.
His players love that intensity and feed off that energy; as Max Paulhus Gosselin said, "You don't want your coach to have more energy than you do." The junior guard from Quebec discovered just how competitive the 57-year-old coach is when he went to McKillop's house for dinner on his recruiting trip.
"There's a hoop behind his house for his two sons, and I was just shooting when all of a sudden Coach comes in and bodychecks me," the 6-foot-6 Gosselin said. "I'm not the type of guy to let that happen, so I said, 'Is there something I can do for you, Coach?' It turned into one-on-one. . . . It was a great experience. Obviously I won, to say the least. I think it's good to have a coach that's a competitor on every level."
McKillop doesn't believe in setting goals for his teams, because "when you establish goals, you establish limitations." Instead, he is "on a quest for the perfect performance, the perfect game, the perfect season." And that requires a tremendous attention to detail.
Every minute of practice is planned out, down to the minute. Assistant coach Matt Matheny, who played for McKillop and then joined his staff as an assistant in 1993, pulled a copy of Thursday's schedule out of his pocket to show a reporter. It is handwritten in a tight script: 12:00-12:02: Full-court layups. 12:02-12:10: Secondary options. And so on. Toward the end of practice, the players line up for foul shots -- but they don't shoot them. Instead, an assistant stands at the line and deliberately misses, so the players can practice rebounding.
"He's disciplined in every single movement that we do, so that way it becomes habit," Rossiter said of McKillop. "When the game comes around, it's just natural and you don't even think about doing it."
But as single-minded as McKillop can be in the gym, he wants his player to think broadly outside of it. He often uses basketball to impart life lessons; when he stresses the importance of good communication on the court, for instance, he references the divorce rate in the country.
"The problem is, people aren't talking to each other," Matheny said. "To develop trusting and caring and commited relationships, communication is a vital part of it. That's true on the basketball court, and it's also true in life."
The main lesson now, according to his son, freshman guard Brendan McKillop, is to "smell the roses. Enjoy the experience."
Bob McKillop says that he's never felt more at ease, more grounded than he does right now, because this trip -- Davidson's first appearance in the region semifinals since 1969 -- is "an affirmation of and a validation of dreams that I've been selling to our program, to our players, to our community, year after year after year. It's doable. It's possible."
He uses one of his favorite movies, "Life Is Beautiful" -- which he prefers to call by its Italian name, "La Vita ¿ Bella" -- to illustrate his point. There is a song in the movie called "Abbiamo Vinto," which loosely translates to "We have won."
"Whether we have gotten to the Sweet 16 or won 28 games, we have won because we have this belief that's been lived. That's what I mean by it," said McKillop, whose team overcame deficits to beat both Gonzaga and Georgetown. "We did not surrender. Our world today is full of surrender: People surrender morals, principles, beliefs, dreams, at the first sign of a challenge, at the first sign of failure. We did not surrender."