The Davidson Wildcats beat Western Carolina 93-91 in the Southern Conference Tournament on March 5 and received an automatic bid to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The following interview between Vickie Kearn (VK), Princeton’s math editor and Men’s Basketball coach, Bob McKillop (Coach), reveals what lies ahead for them in March Madness and how getting a high ranking after the tournament helps in recruiting new players.
Vickie Kearn: Congratulations on winning the Southern Conference Championship. It was a fantastic finish. What is the pressure like having to win in double overtime?
Coach McKillop: The experience of what we just did is draining and exhausting because of dealing with three successive games, three successive preparations, and three days of anxiety. To even put yourself into the position of thinking about what is the first round game…..it’s impossible. You want to smell the roses, you want to celebrate what you have accomplished. It’s like climbing Mount Everest and getting to your first peak and trying to get onto the next peak without getting a deep breath. We are getting a deep breath right now and we’re fortunate that our post season tournament is a week prior to selection Sunday and we have a couple of days to reenergize. With the pressure of our tournament reenergizing is so valuable.
VK: How are you preparing for the next game?
Coach: I believe it is a 12 month journey for every program in America.
As soon as their season ends the previous year, they begin planning, players and coaches, to get back to the tournament. That’s the end-game.
It’s the ultimate goal, so your 12 month journey can either continue or it comes to a crushing end as you stare at another 12 month journey. At the end of your season, you don’t look at the next day after your final game, you look at the next year.
To expend 12 months of thought, effort, and energy and see it come to a crushing finish, there is quite a finality about it. The objective joy is to have this journey continue. Winning the Southern Conference tournament is just a step in the process, but at least it is a step up.
It is like a stairway to heaven but if you don’t get on to that first step it’s a dramatic drop.
VK: Davidson had to win the Southern Conference tournament to make it into the NCAA tournament. What about teams that have an automatic bid and will be a part of the NCAA tournament whether or not they win their division. Do coaches tend to keep their best players on the bench so they won’t risk being hurt before the NCAA tournament?
Coach: You could look at it from the standpoint of are you content with yesterday’s glory or do you want your journey to continue. And for some people they are just happy to have reached this level. They are just happy to get into the tournament and if you are just happy to get into the tournament you are going to be facing a very quick exit. You must think you can accomplish more and you must understand this is just the first step of the journey. This is the only way you can mentally prepare yourself to continue in the tournament.
Basketball is a game of rhythm. Any time you interrupt rhythm, you invite chaos. Continuity is so important. I will give you a typical season-type experience. You have a key player who is hurt. He is able to play in a game but he is not 100%.The temptation is to put him on the court because you need what he is when he is healthy, but in reality it might be better not to play him because he is hurt. He is not 100% so he is not going to be in the rhythm that is necessary for the team to have rhythm. We experienced that with Stephen Curry back in 2009. Stephen hurt his ankle very badly on a Saturday and we had an important game the following Saturday. He wanted to play but he wasn’t 100%. We played him but he did not play with his usual rhythm and of course we lost the game. I think rhythm is a big factor for individuals as well as collectively for the team.
VK: Now that the brackets have been revealed, are there any teams you hope to play?
Coach: No. If I start thinking about who I would like to play I am going to have anxiety about preparing and what I want to do right now is prepare my team to be the best they can become. One of the joys of teaching is to teach your team to get better-not to prepare a team exclusively for one opponent.
VK: Do your coaching strategies change from round to round? I imagine playing in the first rounds is quite different than when you made it to the Elite 8 for example.
Coach: I don’t have a lot of experience at that. But I believe the rhythm of the season becomes the rhythm of the post season and that’s the lesson I learned from the Elite 8 year.
VK: As you move forward does the confidence of your players increase or do they get more nervous?
Coach: Absolutely. The confidence is accentuated by the perception that surrounds the whole tournament by the people associated with your program as well as the exposure in the media. A team that has the fortune of winning receives even more exposure from the media and there is a change in the perception of alums and fans and all of a sudden, their inspiration, their energy, their embrace now feeds the team’s own appetite so it becomes a bit more inspired. People who were just there for the ride are now thinking this ride may be taking us somewhere.
VK: In addition to promoting sports and math, we are kicking off the publication of Who’s #1? by Amy Langville and Carl Meyer. The book is all about rating and ranking of all kinds of things but this month we are mostly concerned with basketball. When your team made it to the Elite 8 and ended the season ranked #9 in the ESPN/USA Today poll, did it make a difference in your recruiting?
Coach: Absolutely. We had a presence on the national stage instead of the regional stage. It was an identification and that identification also became associated with Stephen Curry who was like a Pavarotti for us-a once in a lifetime performer. The combination of what we did in the Elite 8 year plus the presence of a national star in Stephen Curry tremendously impacted our recruiting. And what’ is interesting is that the current junior class that we have which is a potent part of our team were recruited after the 2008 season.
VK: Has your success in 2008 continued to help in recruiting?
Coach: Fame is fleeting. Big programs like Duke and Kentucky can do it every year but it is more difficult for a mid-major program.
VK: How did the student body react to your success in 2008? I remember that the board of trustees provided funding for tickets, transportation, and lodging for any students who wanted to attend the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games. Did the students take advantage of this offer? Did your success make a difference in attendance at basketball games the following season?
Coach: Over 65% of the student body went to see us play in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds. It really pumped up home attendance the following season.
Fans were lined up outside before the game and others were scalping tickets. Our current attendance is about 80 -85% of what it was after the Elite 8 year.
VK: Every year a team receives a lot of attention for surprising everyone with their play. Huge upsets also occur in the tournament. Who do you think the surprise of the season will be?
Coach: I can answer that in a general way. There usually is a team that performs really well even when they are not expected to. In 2006 it was George Mason, in 2008, Davidson, Butler the past 2 years and Virginia Commonwealth University last year. The pressure on mid-major programs to reach the level of these teams is extraordinary. That is also true for higher level conferences. The feeling is, if they can do it, why can’t you?
Administrators, alums, fans expect that their team can make it to the Final 4. They know it can and does happen. The pressure has increased tremendously.
VK: We have 9 high school and college math classes across the US completing brackets for the March Mathness site on ESPN. They are all using different algorithms to predict their winner. However, we all know that statistics aren’t everything. What are some of the factors that are important to a team’s performance?
Coach: The important elements are collective talent, experience, and confidence and the mental toughness to perform with consistency. There are ebbs and flows in a team’s success but these are the vital factors.
This is Bob McKillops’ 23rd season with the Davidson Wildcats. To read more about him see http://www.davidsonwildcats.com/coaches.aspx?rc=323&path=mbball