FAIRBORN, Ohio — Things are the same but different at Steph Curry’s alma mater.
Same Davidson small-school charm, facing the bright lights of the Division I college basketball world with an enrollment of 2,000 students. Same long and strong tradition, especially the time Curry shot the Wildcats within a couple minutes of the Final Four. Same McKillop name coaching on the bench, like there has been for more than three decades.
Wait a second. That’s a different McKillop.
Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t the only coaching icon in the state of North Carolina to retire last spring. Bob McKillop called it a career after 33 seasons and 634 wins and a lifetime spent connected to his school at the heart. He lived a block from his office and walked to practices and games. His three kids went to Davidson, and they all married Davidson graduates. One of those children was a son named Matt, who was once a Davidson ball boy and attended Davidson summer basketball camp and then played at Davidson (still in the top-10 in career 3-pointers) and next was an assistant at Davidson. Everyone bleeds red but his is Wildcat red.
And now look who’s coaching Davidson, replacing a legend who happens to be his dad. Or is that the other way around? No matter, that must put a couple of anvils of weight on a son’s shoulders, right?
“I’ll probably find that out soon,” Matt was saying Wednesday when the Wildcats paid a call at Wright State. “It’s tough to put that into words. I’ve really wanted to avoid thinking about it like that."
“When I took the court on Monday night and it was our first game, the court is Bob McKillop Court. I had to do a double take. I started walking out of the tunnel and I turned around and went the other way because I was getting emotional and I didn’t want to walk on the court and everyone see I was getting emotional that first time going out there."
“I don’t know if burden is the right word. Some people have said there’s a shadow. If I’m thinking about that I’m not thinking about our team and helping us to get better. I’ve been intentional trying to think one day at a time.”
By the way, Matt lives nearly a mile from campus so he has had to drive to work. But fear not, he and his family are moving soon to a home even closer than his parents’ white house.
“I actually paced it out one day. I’m like 10 or 15 seconds closer,” Matt said. “That wasn’t the goal, but I can hold it over his head.”
So far, so good for this passing of the torch. Davidson rolled over Guilford 87-64 for the opening scene of McKillop, the Sequel. Next came Wednesday night when the Wildcats were blown away in the first half to fall behind Wright State by 21 points, they charged back to win 102-97 in double overtime. Foster Loyer had 38 points to Wright State’s Trey Calvin 37. It was only Nov. 9, but college basketball won’t see many better shootouts this season.
“No matter what happens the rest of the year, whatever situation we are in, we can reflect back on this,” McKillop said. “It’s something that we can carry with us for the entire season.”
Nobody feels better when Davidson does well than someone named McKillop. Been that way for ages, which is why this transition was always going to seem as natural as spring following winter, even if it meant high expectations for the son to follow.
“Yes, things changed but I was so welcomed by the people who have been a part of my life for so long,” Matt said. “The four greatest years of my life were when I played basketball for Davidson. I wish I could be in those guys’ shoes doing it all over again. To be able to lead them is amazing. Nights like tonight make it even better.”
His father prepared him for this, same as he had prepared the Curry teams to mow down Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin in the golden tournament run of 2008. Matt watched, listened, worked, learned. Learned . . . what?
“How to take things day to day, how to be gracious for everything that we have, how to be humble, how to do things with class and how to just care about the people in our locker room more than anything else,” he said. “He’s allowed for me to do that because I’ve watched him do it the way he’s done it. I’m a different guy but I want to do it my way exactly like he did.”
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By the way, two of Matt’s three assistants are Davidson men. And the director of basketball operations. And the director of student-athlete development. “Few schools exist like we do; 2,000 students, all undergraduate, small residential campus,” he said. “We know who can thrive at Davidson.”
One of those thriving is Loyer, a Michigan State transfer who has found a home. He led the nation in free-throw shooting last season, put up 30 in Monday’s opener and came within one assist of a triple double against Wright State. He went so hard for 48 minutes, he could barely walk afterward with leg cramps.
“When you step inside the constraints of Davidson, you feel that family atmosphere,” Loyer said. “You feel it on campus going to class, you feel it when you step in the gym for practice. I think it helps you put everything away and be yourself and go out there and play basketball.”
Loyer has done that for the father, and now the son.
“I think they each have their own way of going about things. I think he’s done an incredible job of picking up right where Bob left off. He’s going to be a positive reinforcement in the back of your mind but he’s going to hold you to the standards that we need to be held to in order to win. Coach Bob McKillop has so many great old sayings and quotes and things up on our wall. Those aren’t going to go anywhere.”
Speaking of family, one of Davidson’s biggest non-conference games is Dec. 17 in Indianapolis against Purdue. Know who led the Boilermakers in scoring in their opener? A freshman named Fletcher Loyer.
“We’re going to have everyone I can imagine at the game,” Foster said. “There’s going to be a lot of emotions. My brother and I have always been that extra year apart, so that I’ve never played him, I’ve never matched up with him, I’ve never guarded him and he has never guarded me. It’s going to be a memory-making moment, but we’re going to go out there and play basketball like we have our whole lives.”
By then, Matt McKillop will be fully rooted in his debut season. But his father is always a phone call away, or a short walk and a knock. Bob is still in that white house, where nearly every memory comes with a Davidson logo. In a way, Wildcats never leave Davidson. Even Curry was back the past summer to pick up the diploma he earned 13 years after leaving for the NBA.
“I’m lucky my father is in my corner, giving advice and watching film and sharing things.” McKillop said. “And so much of it is less about basketball. It’s about how can I help get the most out of this player? How can I communicate better with this player today? That experience that he has, no one has a resource quite like I do.”
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So the son has taken over the life’s calling of his father; loving and leading Davidson. Every day is a revelation, even Wednesday nights at Wright State.
“There was like 30 seconds left and it was a one-possession game and I thought to myself, wow, I’m really not nervous right now. When I was an assistant coach I was sweating,” McKillop said. “I learned what it was like to have Wright State score so many points against us in the first half, I learned what it was like in crunch time moments, when I felt like I was in the moment and I felt like I could help our team.
“I’m going to learn something new about myself every single day.”
And maybe think about it as he walks to work, as Davidson coaches do.