Wildcat Weekly | Edition 11 | Cole Vulpis
I had to take a break from having these Wildcat Weeklys actually be weekly, but we’re back! And there isn’t a better time to be back. Davidson is the Atlantic 10 Regular Season Champion!
Davidson clinched the championship on Wednesday when they beat George Mason in Belk Arena 73-62. Hyunjung Lee led the way in this one with 18 points and 8 rebounds. Davidson then had the opportunity to clinch sole possession of the regular season title on Saturday by beating Dayton. They led at halftime by 1 but ultimately lost 82-76. The game was very close from start to finish; the largest lead any team ever had was 6. Luka Brajkovic, who is a candidate for A10 Player of the Year, only played 17 minutes due to foul trouble. 39 personal fouls were called in this game. Foster Loyer led the team with 25 points in his first game since February 14.
The ‘Cats faced an uphill battle this season. Davidson was picked to finish sixth in the conference. Teams like St. Bonaventure and Richmond were heavy favorites due to the experience they’d be returning on their rosters. Moreover, Davidson does not have graduate school, so Kellan Grady, Carter Collins, and Bates Jones all graduated from Davidson and transferred to different schools to use their extra years of eligibility. Davidson also couldn’t welcome any graduate transfers themselves. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t welcome any transfers at all. Loyer, a transfer from Michigan State, was a major addition to this team. And essentially every single player on Davidson that sees significant minutes took a leap this year statistically. This includes Hyunjung Lee, Luka Brajkovic, and Michael Jones, to name a few.
Davidson won the conference by going 15-3. Their biggest conference wins include road victories over VCU, St. Bonaventure, and Richmond. They also went 25-5 overall this season, including their signature win against then-10-ranked Alabama in Birmingham. This game wasn’t even supposed to be scheduled.
In fact, nothing that happened this season was “supposed to” happen. And that’s what’s great about college basketball. In that spirit, I thought it would be fun to ditch the usual format for the Wildcat Weekly and instead pick out some sentences from my A10 Talk preview for Davidson and talk about what I got right and what I didn’t. The preview was written in October.
My Preseason Preview
“Davidson welcomes Foster Loyer, a transfer guard from Michigan State, as well as freshmen Des Watson, Chris Ford, Styrmir Thrastarson, and Michael Katsock. It’s unclear whether these newcomers can fill the holes left by Grady and Collins, who played 85.5% and 64.4% of the team’s minutes, respectively, last season.”
Foster Loyer definitely did his job in terms of filling Davidson’s hole at the point guard position. And Loyer proved to be a different kind of player than Collins or Grady. Loyer’s game generally consists of shooting threes, assisting others, and scoring a lot of points from the line. Loyer shoots a team-leading 45% from three, which is a higher mark than anyone shot last season (minimum 10 attempts). Loyer also averages 3.4 assists per game, which is more than anyone not named John Axel Gudmundsson (2020 graduate) has had over the last 5 seasons. And finally, Loyer’s free-throw shooting is phenomenal. Loyer leads the nation in free-throw percentage per the NCAA at 93.5%. No Davidson player has finished with a higher free-throw percentage since Nik Cochran did in 2012-2013 (minimum 10 attempts). Cochran’s free-throw percentage was only fractions of a percent better than Loyer’s is now. And for a player who isn’t as known for driving to the rim as a player like Kellan Grady, Loyer gets to the line a tremendous amount. He leads the team with 100 free-throw attempts. The next best in Hyunjung Lee at 86 free-throw attempts, and Lee has played 5 more games than Loyer. Loyer gets to the line frequently partly because he is a magician at drawing fouls; he drew two fouls on three-point attempts in Davidson’s last outing against Dayton. He also gets extra attempts from shooting free throws from technical fouls and by being the guy Davidson gives the ball to when teams are intentionally fouling late in close games.
As for the other players listed, Des Watson is the only player who has seen significant minutes. Watson has definitely been an important player for Davidson off the bench but isn’t yet filling the roles Grady or Collins had in their final season at Davidson, which is no surprise for a freshman. Watson averaged 13.1 minutes and 2.6 points per game. One area that Watson will look to improve is his shooting, given that he was 6-36 from three and 32-101 from the field.
“That said, this team is coached by Bob McKillop, who has never tasted defeat before the A10 semifinals. That alone provides a decent floor for this team.”
This was right. Having Bob McKillop provides Davidson with a high floor. McKillop led Davidson to be 7-2 in games decided by 5 points or less. Davidson has now finished with winning records for 7 of 8 seasons in the A10. And, as it turned out, Davidson’s ceiling was pretty high too; this season was the first time in program history that Davidson finished with at least 15 wins in the A10. As for making the A10 semifinals again, that remains to be seen, but as the number one seed in the tournament, it would take a big upset from Fordham or George Mason to knock Davidson out in the quarterfinals.
“Loyer should share time at point guard with sophomore Grant Huffman. Watson had a fantastic senior year at DeSales High School, and McKillop believes his athleticism and versatility should find him time at either guard position or small forward.”
Watson primarily played shooting guard and small forward, so Davidson’s primary point guard options were Loyer and Huffman. (Emory Lanier saw minutes as well, but this mostly occurred when Loyer or Huffman was injured.) Having only two main options at point guard is a little different than last season, when Collins, Grady, and Huffman were all capable of running the point. Loyer did share time with Huffman, of course, but was the starter in Davidson’s first game and remained the starter for all but five of Davidson’s games against Division I opponents. As for those five games, he was out with injury for four of them and the fifth one was Davidson’s last game, which was his first game back from injury. Huffman was definitely more involved than last season, though, and has averaged more than 5 minutes per game more than he did his freshman season. Huffman especially gets praise as a strong defensive substitution.
“Huffman, Mike Jones, and Sam Mennenga, among others, should see an increased role this year. Statistically speaking, however, Luka Brajkovic and Hyunjung Lee should lead the charge.”
Each of Huffman, Jones, and Mennenga each saw nice increases in minutes per game. However, the second comment it isn’t exactly right. Loyer led Davidson in points per game at 16.8, while Lee (16.5 PPG) and Brajkovic (14.6 PPG) were second and third, respectively. In conference play, Loyer widens the gap even more, with 18.1 PPG, compared to Brajkovic’s 16.2 PPG and Lee’s 15.3 PPG. As previously mentioned, Loyer also leads the team in assists. In rebounding, however, Brajkovic leads with 7.2 rebounds per game. Lee is second on the team with 6 rebounds per game, which is 2 more per game than he had last season.
“As Brajkovic continues to do well inside, however, we may see more games where Davidson takes the inside-out approach.”
It’s not necessarily easy to gauge trends for teams’ strategies, but we can use some stats to help us. According to Sports Reference, Davidson has attempted threes on 41.3% of field goal attempts, compared to 40.3% last season. (They rank 6th in the A10 this year and were 3rd last year.) They also have made 38.7% of their three-point attempts compared to 36.4% last season. So, if anything, threes became a slightly a larger part of Davidson’s game, which is likely due to the fact that Davidson still has terrific shooters. Per ESPN, Loyer, Jones, and Brajkovic all rank in the top 6 in three-point percentage among A10 players, and Lee ranks 13th.
I do think that the stats are a little misleading, though. Davidson is definitely capable of making their inside game a focal point, especially when shooting threes isn’t working. Davidson won 3 of the 4 games where they shot under 25% from three-point range, and in all of those games they shot at least 50% from two-point range. (Last season they had no games where they shot under 25% from three-point range.) Brajkovic and Mennenga have proven to be quite a challenge to defend in the post this season, and the ‘Cats have relied on them more than a handful of times.
“If the ‘Cats and Lee can find their way to national attention this season, it’s certainly possible that Lee could be drafted.”
The ‘Cats did find their way into national attention, at least more than I was reasonably expecting. Since beating Alabama, Davidson has received votes in 10 out of 11 AP Polls, including this current week. For one week in January, Davidson was ranked at 25, their first ranking since 2015. Similarly, Davidson has made many appearances in Gary Parrish’s CBS Sports Top 25 And 1 and Andy Katz’s Power 36.
That said, this national attention hasn’t necessarily been a boost toward Lee’s draft stock. After Lee’s streak of 20 consecutive games of scoring double figures ended on January 18, Lee went on a little bit of a scoring slump. He scored 6 or fewer points in 3 of his next 6 games. He is now back on an 8-game streak of scoring in double figures, but his slump was not well-timed with Davidson’s national attention, given that Davidson got their AP Top 25 rankings in the middle of it. All in all, I am not an NBA Draft expert, so I will defer to ESPN’s draft rankings. Lee was ranked 71 when I wrote my preview in October and he is now ranked 95. I have no knowledge of Lee’s intentions of declaring for the draft.
“The Wildcats won’t have too many opportunities to impress in their non-conference schedule; the only potential way to play a Power 6 opponent is if they draw Oklahoma in the final round of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.”
This was wrong. I learned you should never make predictions about a team’s schedule during a pandemic. Davidson did have an opportunity to play a Power 6 opponent outside of the Myrtle Beach Invitation. This opponent was Alabama. Both teams had their previously scheduled games that week canceled. And Davidson certainly used this game as an opportunity to impress.
As for the Myrtle Beach Invitational, Davidson did not have the chance to play Oklahoma. They lost in the first round to New Mexico State. This was both the low point and the turning point of Davidson’s season. It was the only time they lost back-to-back games (their previous game was a loss to San Francisco), and with a record of 1-2, this was the only time this season that Davidson had a losing record. But after this, Davidson won their remaining games in the consolation bracket of the Myrtle Beach Invitational, which was the beginning of a 15-game winning streak. At one point, this winning streak was the longest in the entire nation.
“In conference, their schedule is light, too, only drawing St. Bonaventure, Richmond, Saint Louis, and Dayton once.”
This ended up being true. Davidson’s 5 home-and-home opponents finished 3rd, 8th, 11th, 13th, and 14th in the conference. But their games against Dayton, St. Bonaventure, and Richmond were all on the road. Despite the fact that their schedule may have been easier than others’ on paper, I don’t think it in anyway takes away from their accomplishments. They still rank 1st in the conference in both the NET and KenPom rankings as of this writing. Also, they had the privilege of playing the winner of the conference zero times.
“Conference Record Prediction: 11-7”
This was dead wrong! Davidson had their 12th win by February 19 and beat my prediction by 4 wins.
A Look Ahead
Davidson will be in store for an exciting week as they look to capture their second A10 Tournament title in program history and their first since 2018. You can see my preview for the tournament by clicking here. Also, Davidson should be in store for major recognition for A10 Conference awards, which will come out later this week. Brajkovic and Lee should be among Player of the Year favorites and Bob McKillop has a strong case for Coach of the Year.
Thanks for reading. Come back every Monday for another edition of the Wildcat Weekly! For more Davidson and Atlantic 10 coverage, follow me on Twitter @WildcatCole24.