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What went wrong for Davidson in non-conference play?

The Wildcats are 6-6 heading into a difficult Atlantic 10 slate

NCAA Basketball: Davidson at North Carolina
Coach Bob McKillop and the Wildcats are hoping to right the ship after a trying start.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Non-conference play did not go according to plan for the Davidson basketball team.

After receiving votes in the Associated Press and Coaches preseason polls, the Wildcats finished the first two months of the season at .500. Their latest defeat came in a 76-71 loss at Vanderbilt on Monday.

That does not bode well for their NCAA at-large bid hopes. Life will also not get any easier for Davidson, faced with a daunting Atlantic 10 schedule that includes meetings with Dayton, VCU, Saint Louis, Duquesne, George Mason and other contenders.

How did the Wildcats get here? A stacked non-conference schedule, inconsistent play and injuries have each played a role, but not all hope is lost (yet).

Tough schedule takes its toll

Davidson coach Bob McKillop did not fill the early season schedule with easy opponents. The Wildcats played five 2019 NCAA Tournament teams, two SEC foes and former Cinderella Loyola University Chicago.

Nine of Davidson’s first 12 games came away from John M. Belk Arena. That included a trip to the Veterans Classic to play Auburn in Annapolis and a stay the Orlando Invitational, where the Wildcats beat Fairfield but lost to Marquette and Temple. Davidson went 3-0 against UNCW, Nevada and Coppin State at home.

According to TeamRankings.com, Davidson played the 38th-toughest non-conference schedule. Dayton (No. 15) was the only A-10 team with a more challenging start to the season.

“It’s been a very challenging schedule,” McKillop said. “We haven’t played any cupcakes or any chopped liver. And we’ve played a lot on the road.”

Wildcats have struggled with inconsistency

“Inconsistent” is perhaps the best way to describe Davidson’s showing thus far. The Wildcats started 3-5 before reeling off three straight victories over Northeastern, Coppin State and Loyola. But from game to game and even half to half, Davidson has yet to consistently produce good results.

“I think consistency is the ever-elusive challenge that we face and that every school in America faces,” McKillop said. “There are moments where we are sensational, and yet we are not consistent with those sensational moments.”

That conundrum was on display against Vanderbilt. After keeping it close for the 10 minutes, the Wildcats fell victim to a 12-0 Commodore run and trailed 44-27 at halftime. Then Davidson closed the game on a 16-7 swing to make the final score respectable.

“There are four-minute stretches where we just run on empty,” McKillop said. “[Vanderbilt] went [12-0] on us. We just can’t have that inconsistency over extended periods of time.”

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Davidson
Junior Kellan Grady (right) leads Davidson with 16.1 points per game.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries, personnel issues partially to blame

Davidson has been without David Czerapowicz, Luke Frampton and KiShawn Pritchett.

Czerapowicz, a backup guard, had hip surgery and is out for the rest of the year. Pritchett, a senior guard, has struggled with knee injuries throughout his career and could be heading for a medical redshirt. Frampton, Davidson’s top returning three-point shooter, is on a personal leave of absence and will not return this season.

“We’re adjusting to roster changes and guys playing minutes that were [initially] going to be taken by other guys,” McKillop said. “I think we’ve handled it very well, and it’s going to prepare us well for the A-10.”

One pleasant surprise is the emergence of Carter Collins, who has doubled his point production from last year. The junior guard is averaging 10.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. He gives the Wildcats a third weapon in the backcourt along with Kellan Grady (16.1 PPG) and Jon Axel Gudmundsson (11.7 PPG).

Freshman swingman Hyunjung Lee (8.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and freshman sharpshooter Mike Jones (5.9 PPG, 45% 3PT) have also stepped up to account for the missing pieces.

A-10 play up next

While some mid-major programs transition from difficult non-conference slates into relatively easier conference schedules, Davidson does not have that luxury. The A-10 has been strong so far this season – Dayton (12-2) came in at No. 20 in the latest AP poll and VCU (11-3) is currently listed in Joe Lunardi’s First Four Out.

Reaching the Big Dance via an at-large bid is unlikely for Davidson. But if the supporting cast of Collins, Lee and Jones can keep supplementing strong play from Grady and Gudmundsson, the Wildcats will have a chance to make noise when the conference tournament rolls around in March.

Davidson opens A-10 play Sunday afternoon at Duquesne (11-2) followed by a trip to Rhode Island (8-4) on Wednesday, Jan. 8.

“We take one game at a time,” McKillop said. “The road is not getting any easier. We’ve had experiences on the road against terrific teams, so hopefully that has prepared us.”