LEXINGTON, Ky. — Davidson coach Bob McKillop carries a bunch of pennies in his back pocket.
For most, a handful of pennies won’t buy much. But for McKillop, pennies buy motivation and improvement.
All year long he’s filled a penny jar, adding one each time his team got better.
“I believe we needed to always have an impetus at key moments, crucial moments, reminders,” McKillop said. “There are things that I carry in my pocket on the bench that are there at the right time. At the appropriate time, I’m ready to pull them out.”
The Wildcats needed something to kick-start themselves in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals against Appalachian State, so McKillop brought the jar to the bench. Down as many as 13 points in the second half, the coach passed the pennies down the bench to his players.
“I had the pennies in my back pocket for quite a while,” McKillop said. “It wasn’t that I felt pressed to pull them out at any particular time, but having got that game, I felt it was very important that they saw little by little we got back into that game, and it was just lesson of the pennies all year long that brought us to victory against Appalachian State.”
Without that comeback Davidson would be preparing for the NIT, not to face Marquette in the NCAA tournament Thursday in Lexington, Ky. It would have been a gigantic disappointment for a team that dominated the Southern Conference and went 17-1 in regular-season conference play.
The Wildcats — who have won 17 straight games since starting 9-7 — instead return to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time since 2006. When many think of Davidson, minds instantly wander back to the 2008 team that made the historic run to the Elite Eight behind Stephen Curry.
But this current Davidson team has been on this stage before, losing to Louisville 69-62 last year in the Round of 64. The majority of that group is back, ready to use the lessons learned against the Golden Eagles.
“There was a new experience for us coming and doing the media day from last year and the bright lights and stuff like that,” Davidson forward Jake Cohen said. “This year, we knew what we had in front of us going in. It doesn’t make our task of beating Marquette any easier, but it certainly helps knowing what to expect and that will help (Thursday).”
It was a down year for the Southern Conference, and Davidson hasn’t faced a high-level opponent with the talent and athleticism like Marquette features since playing Duke on Jan. 2. The Wildcats are confident a non-conference schedule that included games against Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke prepared them enough for what they’ll see Thursday.
“We played really tough games earlier in the year, and they prepared us for games like this,” Cohen said. “We knew we weren’t going to win every game we played this year. So playing on the road at New Mexico, playing Duke in Charlotte, playing Gonzaga in Orlando, those are all top-three seeds.
“Playing those kind of teams, that’s what prepares you for a game like (Thursday’s) and you don’t forget what it’s like playing against those kind of guys. I think we’ll be ready.”
McKillop added an interesting twist to the schedule story line by saying his team has fought a tough opponent all season long.
“We played against ourselves for quite a long period of time this year,” McKillop said. “The expectations that this team had upon its shoulders from the beginning of the season were extraordinary. This team never had those expectations last year.”
The significant pressure Davidson has faced all season will intensify against Marquette on Thursday. This time around, the Wildcats are looking for an extended stay.
“I think last year they were relieved to be in the tournament,” McKillop said. “I think this year they’re excited to be in the tournament. There’s a big difference between those two emotions.
“I believe that they were on a mission from the beginning of this year and handled it very well despite the adversity of a 9-7 record back in early January.”