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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 5 Davidson Wildcats

The Wildcats have a legitimate shot at earning an at-large bid.

NCAA Basketball: Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament-Saint Louis vs Davidson Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

2018-2019 Record: 24-10 (14-4 Atlantic 10), NIT First Round
Key Returning Players: Jon Axel Gudmundsson (G, Sr.), Kellan Grady (G, Jr.), Luka Brajkovic (F/C, So.), Luke Frampton (G, So.), KiShawn Pritchett (G, Sr.), Carter Collins (G, So.)
Key Losses: Dusan Kovacevic (transfer), Nathan Ekwu (graduation)
Key newcomers: Hyunjung Lee (G, Fr.), David Kristensen (F/C, Fr.)

Bob McKillop doesn’t like to rank his teams.

Days after CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander wrote that the 2019-20 Davidson Wildcats “will be one of the best five teams of [McKillop’s] tenure,” the 31-year head coach shook his head, pursed his lips and gave a quick answer about whether or not this would be one of the best Davidson teams he’s ever coached.

“I never try to categorize teams comparatively to past teams we’ve had at Davidson,” McKillop said at the Atlantic 10 media day on Oct. 24. “I think they have a chance to be a very special team, they’ll have some obstacles to overcome, but we definitely have the ingredients to be a special team.”

But if he chose to categorize this year’s team, it’d have a strong case to be somewhere toward the top.

Davidson returns 94.8 percent of its minutes from last season, which is the fourth-most nationally, according to Bart Torvik’s metrics. Four double-digit scorers return from a 24-win team. And the Wildcats have not one, but two potential Atlantic 10 players of the year in Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady. Throw in a formidable non-conference schedule, and the Wildcats should return to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.

Key non-conference games

Davidson’s 2019-20 non-conference slate is bookended by two games against SEC schools — first with a nationally televised bout against Auburn in Annapolis, Maryland. Two weeks later, the Wildcats host a new-look Nevada team and Wake Forest before playing Marquette in the first round of the Orlando Classic.

Finally, the Wildcats will face their second SEC opponent before Atlantic 10 play. Using past connections between associate head coach Matt McKillop and Jerry Stackhouse, Davidson plays Vanderbilt on Dec. 30.

Nov. 8 vs. Auburn (in Annapolis)
Nov. 19 vs. Nevada
Nov. 22 vs. Wake Forest (in Charlotte)
Nov. 28 vs. Marquette (Orlando Invitational)
Dec. 30 @ Vanderbilt

Three things to watch:

Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady are one of the nation’s best backcourts

It’s no secret Davidson’s three-point-heavy offense starts and ends with upperclassmen guards Gudmundsson (16.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 4.8 APG) and Grady (17.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG). Last season all but ensured this duo were the next Davidson stars; this year, the Wildcats could have two players take the nation by storm.

Standing at 6’5 apiece, the duo has NBA-level size and NBA range for combo guards. The reigning Atlantic 10 player of the year Gudmundsson filled the void left by Peyton Aldridge by stuffing the stat sheet as Davidson’s second-best scorer, best rebounder and leading assist man. Grady, on the other hand, had a down year by his lofty standards and still led the A-10 in minutes per game en route to being a first-team all-conference selection. Unsurprisingly, Gudmundsson and Grady tested the NBA Draft waters last spring before announcing their return to Davidson on May 27.

Although last season saw both of their shooting percentages dip, this was mostly due to two factors: Grady battling a lingering knee issue all season, and Gudmundsson picking up most of the slack to make up for it.

Grady injured his meniscus on Dec. 8 and missed four games in the heart of the non-conference schedule last season. Even though he returned, he never fully recovered,

Zion Williamson [had] the same injury and is out 6-8 weeks; Kellan came back in four weeks,” McKillop said. “Kellan never got to 100 percent as he went through the season. Yet, not at 100 percent, he was first team all-conference, had 17 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. That’s pretty good for not being 100 percent.”

Right now, however, Grady and his coaches say he’s good to go. Averaging 20 a game doesn’t sound out of the question and getting his three-point percentages back up around 37 percent (his freshman mark) will be much easier on healthy knees.

Can Davidson develop its bench?

If there was one glaring weakness about Davidson last year, it was the lack of a bench.

The Wildcats had one of the nation’s thinnest rotations, ranking 337th in bench minutes, per KenPom. Six of McKillop’s teams have gotten 30 percent of its minutes from the bench since KenPom started tracking bench usage in 2007. Five of those six teams made the postseason.

While letting Gudmundsson and Grady bail the team out on any given possession isn’t the worst strategy in the world, McKillop’s goal this year is to develop a bench in order to make the offense more efficient.

“My shortcomings as a coach last year is that I didn’t develop a bench as well as I should have,” McKillop said. “We expect to use a roster that’s nine or ten deep this year — maybe even more. That’s going to cut back on minutes, but it’s also going to help efficiency of all of our players.”

This season, Davidson’s reserve players will be some combination of sophomores David Czerapowicz, and Nelson Boachie-Yiadom, plus incoming freshmen Hyunjung Lee and David Kristensen.

Will Davidson’s Atlantic 10 schedule help them earn an at-large bid?

Speculating at-large bids and conference strength of schedule in November might be a little too forward-thinking. However, Davidson’s conference pairings might become more intriguing as the season progresses.

The Wildcats had an uphill battle in Atlantic 10 play last season — mostly for reasons out of their control. They only played VCU, Dayton and Saint Louis once before the conference tournament last year (not their fault), but then inexplicably lost to Saint Joseph’s, UMass and La Salle on the road (definitely their fault).

So while they weren’t totally blameless last year, the conference pairing powers-that-be were favorable to the Wildcats this season. Davidson plays a solid Rhode Island team twice, a (resurgent?) Richmond team twice and conference favorite VCU twice — in fact, the Atlantic 10 regular-season title might be on the line when the Rams visit on March 6. They also get Dayton and St. Bonaventure on the road, which the NET will value.

X Factor

Luka Brajkovic

In the opening scene of Mitchell Northam’s column about Davidson’s loss to Wake Forest last season, then-freshman Luka Brajkovic received an entry pass in the post, paused and needed some coaxing from the Davidson bench to back down his man. Call it rookie hesitancy, call it playing at an ACC school months after moving to America to start a collegiate basketball career, or call it unselfish play, but that play encapsulated Brajkovic’s freshman year.

“Last year [Brajkovic] was a reluctant part in our offense because he wanted to keep everyone happy,” McKillop said. “He wanted to adjust to America. He had upperclassmen teammates who were receiving accolades. Now he understands where he fits. He’s stepping forward and being more aggressive.”

Despite taking the backseat to his older teammates, Brajkovic was a contributor from the get-go. As a freshman, he averaged 11.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting a team-high 54.9 percent from the floor (among high-usage players) — all while starting in 33 of 34 games. His skillset is undeniable. And Davidson needs his presence inside.

To the chagrin of the rest of the A-10, Brajkovic is poised to make a leap as a sophomore, not only because of this newfound confidence, but also more work in the weight room. He’s listed at 250 pounds, up 30 from a year ago.

“When you have more strength and more size, it allows you to take that step physically,” McKillop said of the sophomore’s offseason. “But he’s also taken a step emotionally.”