The last time I saw Elon play Davidson, the game was played at Elon's small gym in 2008. After having dinner at High Point, I left to get to Elon early for a good seat for the 9 p.m. regionally televised game. Elon students also arrived early, hoping to see up and coming star Stephen Curry from Davidson. Kyle Whelliston was also in attendance that night, one of six games during Season 4 that both he and I would attend. Davidson would come in having won the last two SoCon titles, and I was interested to see if the Wildcats and Curry were worth the hype. Davidson brought a solid contingent of fans, but did not come close to taking over the gym.
It was a very close game, and to my surprise Elon led most of the game. Curry got very few touches on the game, and I could not tell if he was holding back or if the Phoenix were defending him well. But in the final two minutes, Davidson quickly erased a late seven-point deficit to take the lead once Curry was able to get his shots off. Elon still had one more chance at the buzzer, but just missed a three that would have given them a huge upset. After that game, I thought Davidson looked good enough to win in the SoCon, but neither Curry nor his Wildcats looked like a potential dominant mid-major.
But this was 2008, so you know what happened next. Not only did Davidson dominate the rest of their conference games, they were a missed Jason Richards three from making the Final Four. Stephen Curry became Flash, and perhaps the most famous player below the Red Line since Larry Bird. The Wildcats were a national phenomenon, and would be invited to play Purdue on national television in the John Wooden Classic in Indianapolis the following year. The Wildcats nearly sold out all their SoCon games, both at home and on the road. At this point, I wondered if Curry's success would take Davidson into Gonzaga status: a school with a national following that plays in a mid-major conference without having the disadvantages of recognition a mid-major has.
But that would not come to be either. In a game I had hoped to get tickets to, Curry got injured at Furman. Richards had graduated, and Davidson was no longer dominant. Even before Curry's injury, a poor shooting night for him usually meant a disaster for the Wildcats, as happened in the Wooden Classic against Purdue. Davidson's offense was too reliant on Curry, and even after Curry came back from his injury Davidson was no longer the same. They did win the regular season title, but had to play the tournament in Chattanooga, where the lack of home-court advantage hurt in a loss to College of Charleston in the semifinals. Curry would leave for the NBA, and Davidson would slide back to the middle of the conference.
But Davidson still has a solid tradition that Curry was able to build back up, and the Wildcats still have a solid base of fan support. While Davidson would be at a disadvantage against Western Carolina with fans able to make it to Asheville, the Wildcat fans far outnumbered those from Elon in today's game. Davidson's tradition in the Southern Conference is similar to Winthrop, but even in rough times Davidson fans will still fill Belk Arena, and will never go after Bob McKillop like Winthrop fans did to Randy Peele. Of course, McKillop's role at Davidson is similar to that of what Gregg Marshall had at Winthrop. While the Wildcats dominated the SoCon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Davidson's athletic program dropped sharply in the 1980s. The school dropped scholarship football, and the Wildcats were forced out of the SoCon, hurting all sports. For a couple years in the early 1990s, Davidson had to play in the fledgling Big South. But McKillop made Davidson a big-time program once again when they re-joined the SoCon in the mid-90s, and hit the jackpot when they brought in local recruit Stephen Curry after Curry was passed over by major conference schools, most notably his father's alma mater in Virginia Tech.
So how has Davidson been able to maintain a solid program with great fan support? They are a very small college, with less than 2,000 students. They are located in the north suburbs of Charlotte, a city that has other quality mid-majors along with professional sports. But Davidson has two things going for them that allows for a quality basketball team. The first is that while small, they are a regionally prestigious liberal arts college. Their alums form a closely-knit network, often with the money able to support a big-time program. Elite academic schools have the disadvantage of not being able to accept every player who wishes to attend their college, but have an advantage in that they are usually financially better off than other comparably sized colleges. The other advantage is the Davidson does not have a scholarship football team. The fans care most about basketball, giving Davidson the time and effort to develop the basketball program. And unlike other schools in the South, baseball has not been able to catch up with basketball lately either.
Today Davidson would once again face Elon, which also fancies itself as a regionally prestigious school. Elon is bigger than Davidson, but does put more effort into supporting football and baseball. Both schools were alike in wearing red, with a mix of older and younger alumni supporting the school. The fans even seem to give off a vibe of being better off than those of larger public universities. And the same can be said with the players as well to an extent. One Davidson fan in my section cracked that Al Sharpton would not have approved of this contest, as there were brief moments in the game where all of the players on the court were white. But both schools did have players and students from all backgrounds, and all of the players could play pretty good ball.
Early in the game, it seemed that Davidson would have a difficult time again with Elon. The first half was back and forth, with neither team getting much momentum early. But the Wildcats were able to get on a run to end the first half with the lead. A big difference between this group of Wildcats and those of Curry is that there is no one player you need to target. Sometimes De'Mon Brooks would be getting baskets, and the next stretch would be led by Jake Cohen. This team effort led to an effective offense, and Elon would not have a chance late. Davidson cruised to an 83-67 win, setting up a highly attended showdown with local favorite Western Carolina Monday night.
We all hope to be like Davidson someday for those of us below the Red Line. They are a school that is able to mix good academics with good basketball, which leads to a very happy group of alumni. Their fans often outnumber those from other schools, despite a small enrollment. For home games, Davidson averages two fans per every student currently enrolled. That is a number that all of us wish we could reach.
DAVIDSON 83, ELON 67 03/04/2012
ELON 15-16 (9-9) -- J. Isenbarger 6-13 8-9 22; S. Koch 1-3 2-2 5; L. Troutman 8-14 2-2 18; R. Beaumont 2-8 1-2 5; D. Spradlin 0-1 0-1 0; J. Bonney 2-5 3-6 7; A. Hamilton 0-4 0-0 0; B. Ervin 1-2 0-0 2; K. Blake 1-2 2-2 4; E. Edomwonyi 1-3 0-0 2; R. Dugas 0-1 0-0 0; A. Smith 1-1 0-0 2; R. Winters 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-57 18-24 67. DAVIDSON 24-7 (16-2) -- J. Kuhlman 2-7 1-3 6; C. Czerapowicz 4-10 3-3 12; J. Cohen 8-14 7-7 24; N. Cochran 2-5 2-2 6; T. Kalinoski 2-8 0-0 6; D. Brooks 8-12 2-2 20; T. Droney 1-2 3-4 5; C. Mann 2-4 0-0 4; W. Reigel 0-0 0-2 0; A. Atkinson 0-0 0-0 0; A. Mackay 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-62 18-23 83.
Three-point goals: ELON 3-12 (J. Bonney 0-1; B. Ervin 0-1; R. Dugas 0-1; J. Isenbarger 2-5; S. Koch 1-2; A. Hamilton 0-2), DAV 7-23 (J. Kuhlman 1-4; N. Cochran 0-1; J. Cohen 1-3; D. Brooks 2-4; C. Czerapowicz 1-4; T. Kalinoski 2-7); Rebounds: ELON 28 (R. Beaumont 10), DAV 35 (D. Brooks 6); Assists: ELON 8 (J. Bonney 3), DAV 12 (J. Kuhlman 3); Total Fouls -- ELON 20, DAV 22; Fouled Out: ELON-None; DAV-None.