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Why I’m Bullish on the 2020-21 Davidson Wildcats

The last 2 seasons have been somewhat underwhelming for Wildcat fans. After making the Big Dance in 2018, Davidson had squads in 2019 and 2020 that were talented enough to go to the NCAA Tournament. Needless to say, slow starts in non-conference play and some untimely injuries kept them out of at-large contention. Looking back on that 2018 Davidson team that played some of the hottest basketball in the country down the stretch (the Wildcats went from 114th in Kenpom to 43rd), there seems to be one key piece that’s been missing since: a reliable stretch 4.

Having said that, “reliable stretch 4” really doesn’t do Peyton Aldridge justice. The 2018 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year shot nearly 40% from deep in league play his senior year, and he played the 2nd most minutes in the entire conference. A workhorse who does everything as efficiently as Aldridge did only comes around once or twice a decade. But looking at advanced stats, you can see just how impactful Aldridge was.

Courtesy of Sports-Reference.com

Sports-reference.com tracks offensive win shares, an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense. Peyton Aldridge ranked 7th nationally in this category his senior year and fell just outside the top 10 of total win shares. To put that in perspective, take a look at who else is in the top 10… Jock Londale, Jalen Brunson, Deandre Ayton, Trae Young, and many others is pretty good company. And keep in mind, we’re talking about a 12 loss Davidson team that suffered head-scratchers to Appalachian St., Hawaii, and Richmond (2x). If those games go Davidson’s way, it’s possible Peyton Aldridge is near the top of this list. Going back to the 2010 season, I couldn’t find another A-10 player to rank top 10 nationally in this category; however, as you may have guessed, Obi Toppin did rank 7th in the nation in 2020 for total win shares. Still, it’s pretty safe to say it’s very rare to find a player as important to an individual offense as 2018’s Peyton Aldridge was to Davidson.

A reliable stretch 4 can do more than just score though. Guys like Aldridge impact the game in intangible ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Most notably, they command attention that opens up lanes for teammates (especially guards) to get more efficient shots. I honestly think the biggest beneficiary of Peyton Aldridge’s presence was freshman year Kellan Grady. Granted, there was a significant injury in 2018-19, but if you look at Grady’s efficiency numbers with and without Aldridge on the roster, it’s astounding.

Grady’s 2 point field goal percentage is the biggest indicator. If you look purely at conference play, Grady shot 64.1% from 2 in 2018 compared to 52.5% and 47.7% in 2019 and 2020 respectively. The freshman guard had Obi-Toppin-like efficiency from inside the three point line, and while I don’t have the advanced statistics to back it up, I’m guessing shot selection is a major indicator. Specifically, when you have a guy like Peyton Aldridge on the floor, he commands so much attention whether he’s in the paint or on the perimeter, that your guards have more room to operate and more options on drives. Purely from watching games, it seems Grady has been more content taking long 2s these past few seasons compared to freshman year when he’d bulldoze his way to the basket, and we all know he has a knack for finishing at the hoop.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, it feels like Davidson finally has a reliable stretch 4 coming in to play the role that Peyton Aldridge did so well 2 seasons ago. 6-8 power forward Sam Mennenga from New Zealand seems to be a guy who can become a shooting threat with size that college coaches salivate over.

While there aren’t a ton of highlight videos out there, the few that exist showcase his ability to make passes out of the post, his shooting touch around the rim and away from the hoop, and most importantly: his athleticism. A 6-8, 200+ pound guy that can maneuver around the floor with ease is so hard to guard, and he seems like a guy who fits Davidson’s system perfectly. He’s Davidson’s 2nd highest rated recruit of all time (though that doesn’t seem indicative considering Steph Curry ranks 8th), and he’s the highest rated incoming A-10 commit according to 247 Sports.

Courtesy of Kenpom.com

While he’s clearly highly-touted, he also fills a gaping hole for the Wildcats who I believe struggled mightily due to the injury to KiShawn Pritchett. Pritchett was the guy who effectively played the post, shot the ball from distance, and defended at a high level. The Wildcats had a bit of an identity crisis at that position this past season. Look at the Wildcats’ depth chart at the PF position over the last 5 games of the season… Nelson Boachie-Yiadom played a majority of the minutes, but Bates Jones, Hyunjung Lee, David Kristensen, and even Kellan Grady spent time at the 4. There has not been a clear answer as to who will fill that role, and as good as Nelson Boachie-Yiadom has been over the last few weeks in the 2019-20 season, the Wildcats love to put 5 players on the floor that can shoot the three, and he’s still working on adding that to his game. I think NBY could be most effectively utilized at the 5, sharing minutes with Luka Brajkovic.

But enter Sam Mennenga, and if he lives up to his potential, he could be an immediate threat for the Wildcats both inside and from longer range. I’m not saying Sam Mennenga is all of a sudden going to become Peyton Aldridge from 2018, but he seems to have similar fundamentals and maybe even better athleticism. There’s plenty that’s left to be proved, but I think Bob McKillop and co. killed it on the recruiting trail with this one. If I’m another coach in the A-10, the potential of this guy scares me…