The Davidson Wildcat basketball team caught the attention of a lot of college basketball fans last spring. They were a team of overachievers from a small college known primarily for its high academic standards. But they played exciting basketball and they played it the right way, going toe-to-toe in the NCAA tourney with top programs at Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin and Kansas, and just barely missed a trip to the Final Four. Earlier in the season, they barely lost against interstate rivals, Carolina, Duke and NC State.
Well, Davidson is back and appears to be starting off their season even better than last year. While I am not predicting a Final Four appearance for them, because so much of the one and out tournament is random, I do expect to see the Wildcats back into the Sweet Sixteen.
Star guard Stephen Curry, from Charlotte Christian High School, was number two in the country last year in offensive efficiency among players involved in at least 28% of their team's offensive possessions. The ratings vary based upon how often different teams need their best scorers to shoot, but Curry was right up there with Tyler Hansbrough among the most efficient scorers in the NCAA. http://kenpom.com/leaders.php?c=ORtg&y=2008
The Wildcats have lost Jason Richards, however, who was the top assist man among players in the NCAA tourney last year, and so this is a crucial loss for Davidson, indeed.
Richard's departure has resulted in Stephen Curry's having to take over the position of point guard and now having to be the key man in terms of production in both points and assists, which is no easy task for one player, which is why there have only been a handful of unselfish Phil Ford-type players who have been top-notch assist-men and scorers.
Curry thus far has his team off to an even better start than last year, when the Wildcats lost all of their pre-conference games against top twenty caliber teams, and even against NC State.
Teams like Davidson in mid-major conferences don't often play schedules as tough as teams from the bigger schools, so Davidson has made a concerted effort to schedule tough out of conference opposition during the pre-conference season and has already beaten North Carolina State and West Virginia, while losing an entertaining game to Oklahoma in the preseason NIT. Duke and Purdue on the road are yet to come in the next three weeks.
While Davidson is performing fairly well so far, the team still does not quite resemble the disciplined, heady, streamlined unit from the end of last season that left Big Ten champ Wisconsin baffled, dumbfounded and wallowing in the muck.
Can Davidson get back to the level of its play in last year's NCAA tourney? It is possible. Davidson might be ready to take another step up in terms of performance this season, given Curry's statistics from his Freshman and Sophomore seasons.
It is instructive to look at Curry's statistics so far this season to see that he is especially excelling in four areas: two point field goals, free throw percentage, assists and steals.
His assist and steal rates would lead a lot of leagues and his free throw percentage is superb, with him taking and making significantly more free throws per game than last year.
ESPN talked a lot about his turn-overs last night but he still had an assist to turnover rating of over 1.0 last night and his rating is currently over 2.0, which is high enough to lead a lot of leagues.
His only, somewhat disappointing stat is, surprisingly, his three point percentage.
Last year, Curry hit .439 of his three-pointers, which is a superb percentage, particularly for a player who shoots so many and such long and difficult ones.
By way of contrast, Duke's J.J. Redick, who was also known as an excellent outside shooter and who had a similar style and role to the one Curry had during his first two years at Davidson, hit .421 of his three-pointers in 2006, while attempting 39 fewer. Last season, Steph Curry both shot more than Redick and made a higher percentage than Redick, and without the blue chip support than Redick had around him on Duke's 32-4 2006 team.
So far this year, Curry is hitting only .378 of his three-pointers, while approximately taking about the same number per game. It is hard to gauge after only eight games, especially since there was one game where he was double-teamed the entire time and only attempted three shots and didn't score, although Davidson won easily.
Making .378 of one's three-pointers, especially when shooting a lot of them and from difficult positions, is not bad, but this is also not a stellar number. Conference leaders usually shoot around .440 or thereabout. Granted the line is back a foot or so this year, but this has only resulted in a 1 percent decrease nationally in three pointers made and attemtped.
Curry's two-point shooting is up, however, going from .540 to .570, and this is an excellent percentage for a guard shooting two-pointers. By way of comparison, again, J.J. Redick of Duke in 2006 hit .521 of his two-point shots.
Curry is also shooting far more two pointers per game this year than he did last year, which makes sense, given his change in roles, and this makes his increase in percentage even more impressive given that he is shooting more and thus has to attempt more marginal shots that he would not have been forced to take in the past.
Looking forward, if Curry can get back to the levels of three-point field goal percentage which he attained last year, Davidson might be a legitimate Final Four team. If Curry shoots three's like last year, the tough wins against NC State and West Virginia become easier victories and Davidson likely beats Oklahoma.
The key word is "if" however, because no one truly is Superman. It may be that the burdens on Curry from running the point will simply leave him unable to get some of the easier three point looks that he got the last two seasons. But if he can get back to the .450 level from the three point line, while maintaining his improvement in two pointers, Davidson's opponents had best watch out.