There is no shame in losing a reasonably close game to a ranked team (not to mention one coming off a Final Four performance) on a neutral floor. But this is not the typical season for Davidson. In Bob McKillop’s three decades at the helm of Davidson’s program, this is almost certainly the first time ever that Davidson’s preseason expectation was to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. For sure, Davidson has been expected to win the Southern Conference and advance to the Big Dance through an automatic bid. This year’s squad is not expected to win the A-10; the preseason favorite is rightfully VCU after its impressive campaign last season. But Davidson returns almost its entire roster a year after finishing second in the regular season. Returnees include A-10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and two time all second team performer Kellan Grady. Davidson was in Joe Lunardi’s preseason NCAA tournament projection as an at-large.
So expectations are high. In this light, Davidson’s debut looks less than stellar. Auburn, Davidson’s opponent, struggled against Georgia Southern in its opener. Davidson has long had issues matching up against big, athletic teams and Auburn proved no different. The Tigers’ 94 foot pressure seemed to throw off the Wildcats offensive rhythm, and the team resorted to fouling in stead of good on-ball defense too often (though the game was called too closely).
Against Auburn’s athletic defenders, Gudmundsson and Grady struggled to get going. Neither made a three pointer and both all-conference guards struggled at the rim against Auburn’s length. Luke Brajkovic also struggled. He went scoreless and picked up four fouls in 11 minutes. In the right matchups, Brajkovic’s post game and interior passing can be crucial for the Cats. But against some teams his lack of comfort shooting and ballhandling from the perimeter can slow down the offense and lead to mismatches against quicker bigs on the defensive end. Auburn proved to be such a team.
That said, there are also plenty of reasons for optimism. Kishawn Pritchett missed the season opener and the Senior would have been a crucial asset against Auburn. Most importantly, Freshman Mike Jones looked very impressive. He can stroke the three like many Davidson players, and often did so with a hand in his face. Hyunjung Lee clearly experience some athleticism shock, as one would coming straight from South Korea and then playing an opener against a defending Final Four team. But he showed a lot of mental toughness, coming up with an impressive steal a moment after he had a three point attempt swatted. Luke Frampton and Carter Collins look improved and were Davidson’s two best players last night, each putting up 18 points. And there probably will not be another game this season where neither Grady nor Gudmundsson hits a three pointer.
Davidson has never been a great non-conference team. Even during their magical 2007-2008 season, they took Duke, UNC, UCLA, and NC State down to the wire but didn’t come out on top in any game against a major conference team in November or December. Two years ago the Peyton Aldridge led Cats posted a losing record out of conference but then went 14-4 in the A-10 and won the conference tournament. With a stronger A-10 this season, Davidson cannot afford to bank on a few games in New York. The team is playing perhaps its toughest non-conference schedule in a decade so it will have multiple other opportunities to pick up good wins. But if the Cats are going to make the tournament this year as an at-large, they need to collect some signature wins sooner rather than later.