Perimeter Assault

Davidson might be the country's best three-point shooting team.
by October 27, 2015
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Jordan Barham’s interview begins with a polite amendment to a question.

So, Jordan, Davidson was picked ninth in the 2014-15 Atlantic-10 pre-season poll, your first season in that conferen…

At which point, Barham gently interjects. “Actually,” the 6-5, 200-pound Davidson senior says, “we were picked to finish 12th.”

Twelfth, out of a possible 14 teams. That Davidson ended up winning the A-10 regular-season championship on the strength of a 14-4 conference record (the Wildcats won 24 games in total) is a testament to the culture at hand, and the skill in place. One that kicked into overdrive several years ago, thanks to a certain baby-faced assassin.

Barham remembers watching Davidson make that thrilling run to the Elite Eight in ’08. He was transfixed by Steph Curry, that slight-of-frame guard who could get any kind of shot off, whenever he wanted. Barham begged his mom to get him a No. 30 Davidson jersey; he hung up a poster of his new hero in his room. He says it was at this point that he began to pursue basketball more seriously. When Davidson came calling to recruit him, Barham says it was like a dream come true.

Curry still drops by campus—he was there this past summer to unveil a gleaming new practice facility—and Davidson coach Bob McKillop frequently uses pieces of his former star’s story as teaching tools. There’s the one about Curry’s first game in Wildcat red. In the 2006-07 season opener, against Eastern Michigan, Curry had 9 turnovers by halftime, and 13 at the end of the game.

This is where a program staple surfaces. Next play. Dust aside your disappointment, forget about the mistakes just made. What matters is finding a way—any way—to help your team.

“Coach tells us that you have to trust in yourself that you’ll be able to do what you do,” says Jack Gibbs, Davidson’s 6-0 junior point guard. “When things aren’t going well, there’s still so many things you can do to affect the game.”

***

Gibbs and Barham join Peyton Aldridge and Brian Sullivan as returning Wildcats starters—all of whom happen to be from Ohio. It’s quite the quartet.

They are the team’s top-four returning scorers, and a big reason why this coming campaign promises to be one of the best in program history. Gibbs is coming off averages of 16.2 points and a shade under 5 assists; Sullivan, a 6-0 senior, drained 83 threes, dropped over 4 assists, and posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.75. Barham led the team with 6.1 boards and threw down some of DI’s most rim-rattling dunks. Aldridge, a 6-8 swingman, turned into a dynamic force able to rain from three or bang in the post.

They are the current practitioners of one of the greatest shows on court. When Davidson’s offense is clicking, the reads upon reads of its motion offense unfold like some masterful concerto. At times, the improvisations hearken jazz. Canny cuts are met by pinpoint passes, all washed down with a steady helping of surgical perimeter shooting.

Take its effectiveness during a road game at Virginia, last December. The Cavaliers entered that matchup ranked No. 3 in the country. Their vaunted pack-line defense was allowing just 46.3 points, tops in DI. In a resounding win over Harvard, nine days earlier, Virginia held Harvard to one field goal in the first half, and 21 points in total. And this was a Crimson team that went dancing for a fourth consecutive season in ’14-15.

But after watching Davidson grab a 36-32 halftime lead on the strength of some serious fluency, Virginia coach Tony Bennett said simply, They kind of schooled us. (UVA ended up winning 83-72.)

Sullivan is the youngest of three brothers, both elder siblings currently coaching. In addition to basketball know-how being embedded in his psyche, Sullivan has said that his brothers will pick his brain sometimes about McKillop’s principles. Everyone wants to learn about what he’s doing with this motion.

Last season, Davidson coursed to the first at-large NCAA Tournament bid in program history by posting 79 points per game—seventh-best in the country. Their 17.1 assists ranked third; their 343 threes were one behind the national lead. In addition to the Virginia fireworks, against Dusquesne in the regular-season finale, the Wildcats chalked up 35 assists on 40 field goals, 23 of which were threes.

When each member of the quartet is asked for a reason behind this stirring success, this withering precision sending defenses reeling, their answers remain refreshingly simple. “I would attribute it to how much we care about each other, honestly,” says Gibbs. “We spend almost all our time together. My roommates and I live right next to Brian [Sullivan] and his roommates. We’re family, and that means you don’t want to let your teammates down.

“We don’t have egos on this team. If someone is doing well, we’re happy. We get him the ball. Coach also listens to us, during recruiting. If a kid comes in, he asks us if we think he’ll be a good fit. If we say ‘No,’ he might look somewhere else.”

When Barham is asked that same question—what sets Davidson apart, what allows them to shred some of the best defenses in the country?—Sullivan lets out an “Oof.” Tough question.

“There’s a lot of different things, but the biggest is that we just like each other, and we like playing together,” says Sullivan. “There’s an unselfishness, and a oneness to the offense. The extra pass is always made. It’s the unselfishness of five guys working together.”

***

Says Aldridge, who notes he played on a series of top teams growing up, “When I came to Davidson, it was just totally different. We really want what’s best for the team. The end goal is just winning.”

“We have guys that are willing to sacrifice for the team,” says Barham. “We’re all setting screens, and running the floor. We know that’s the way we get really good shots.”

This isn’t to say that it doesn’t take time to master the nuances of all the wrinkles on tap—and that’s just concerning the secondary break. Gibbs says it took until the start of his sophomore season before he felt completely comfortable running the offense.

A strong culture of leadership helps in that regard. During his freshman season, Gibbs learned from Tyler Kalinoski and Tom Droney. Sullivan cites JP Kohlman and Nick Cochran as mentors.

“They were seniors during my redshirt year, and they were unbelievable leaders,” says Sullivan. “Even today, I try to emulate how they led the team. Even with Tyler [Kalinoski] last year, we were the same age, and we were roommates, but watching him prepare, practice and lead was a great help to me.”

Sullivan, who transferred from Miami (Ohio) following his freshman year in 2011-12, had the benefit of an NCAA-mandated redshirt year to learn the ropes. But even he recalls De’Mon Brooks, one of the best Davidson players in history, telling him that it took a full season until Brooks felt comfortable.

“It certainly is a process, but it doesn’t take as long as you might think,” says Sullivan. “Coach does a great job recruiting the right types of guys to execute it. You have to read and react quickly. When guys do it, and you create those gaps in the defense, and it’s like, Whoof.

It was a more abridged transition for Aldridge, who was called into serious PT as a freshman.

“There’s definitely a lot going on, but the coaching staff did a great job of breaking it down for me,” says Aldridge. “Every drill in practice concerns some kind of offensive move we do. It took me some getting used to, but by the time conference play started, I felt more comfortable. And once you’ve got it, you’re just playing. Those set reads and rules mesh with our ability to flow. It just becomes natural.”

With each season, they try to enhance their skill set, to widen the breadth of their potential impact.

“Last year, it was spacing the floor, allowing penetration from the guards and Jordan, and that got me good looks,” says Aldridge, who hit 46 percent of his shots, including 39 percent from three. “Now, teams will realize how well I shot it, and they’ll start crowding me, so I have to be more dimensional than just shooting it.”

Sullivan’s shooting and savvy, Gibbs’s headiness and drive. Aldridge’s smooth, Barham’s bounce. All become meshed in the overriding philosophy: “We attack—relentlessly,” says Sullivan. “We look forward to playing the best defenses. We want to prove we can put points on the board against anybody. And with Coach, the stuff he draws up, and the way he teaches it, it’s opened my eyes as a player. It’s broadened my basketball mind.”

Call it the Steph approach.

“It’s about fearlessness,” says Sullivan. “Steph’s not afraid of anything. I try to take that from him, and I think he provides motivation for all of us. He’s not just in the NBA—he’s the MVP. He’s the flagbearer of this program, and he’s the ultimate at staying in the moment. Coach relays that to all of us.”

***

“It’s an ever-changing offense,” Gibbs says. “Even in the middle of practice, Coach will put something new in. We don’t usually run that many plays, though. It’s just a bunch of different reads, based on what the defense is showing. We go for the best shot—hopefully, a layup or a wide-open three.”

In high school, Gibbs mostly ran an isolation-based offense, but he notes that when McKillop watches recruits, he is most interested in how they adapt on the fly. Do they notice a good back cut? Can they make the appropriate pass to capitalize upon it? That quick thinking transitions to Davidson. Should McKillop note something about an opposing defense during the middle of a game, he expects his players to adapt immediately.

It takes conditioning to run these defenses ragged, but Barham says that after building a base in the summer, the season is dedicated to basketball. “We get our conditioning from the constant running of the secondary break,” says Barham. “We’re going up and down, up and down. It’s continual motion.”

A note on setbacks. The story of Curry’s first game for Davidson; the way things ended for the Wildcats last season.

Says Sullivan, “Losing to VCU in the conference tournament, and then to Iowa in the NCAA Tournament (Round of 64), still hurts. It was with us for pretty much the whole offseason. We have confidence about our team this season, but we have a bitter taste, too. It’s a great balance of knowing how good we can be, while still trying to prove how good we are. Being that close just makes you want it more.”

“After the Iowa game, Coach brought us in and made sure we realized what we’d accomplished,” says Gibbs. “First year in the A-10, and we won the regular-season championship. We got to where we wanted, but then, we didn’t get it done. We didn’t like the way we went out. We knew we could’ve done a lot better, and we knew we needed to get better.

“So, everyone was motivated this offseason. We’d gotten the first at-large NCAA Tournament bid in school history—but we don’t just want a taste of the tourney. We saw Steph lead this program to the Elite Eight, and we think, ‘Why can’t that be us?’ The goal is not just to make it to the NCAA Tournament, but to do some damage. And we can definitely do that.”

You get why Steph, when he was about Gibbs after a Warriors game last April, said: “It’s kind of his team now.”

Barham speaks of the 12-month journey that began days after the last season ended. Aldridge seconds the point.

“That’s what Coach told us, when we met a couple weeks after the Iowa loss,” says Aldridge. “Whatever we’re doing, we picture where we want to be. After our first practice, Coach told us that he’d planned it as the practice right before the NCAA Tournament. That’s how we took the mentality to be.

“We’re preparing to be there.”

Photo courtesy of Tim Cowie