Cole Vulpis ’24 (he/him/his)
On Selection Sunday (3/14/21), the Davidson men’s basketball team learned they earned a No. 2 seed in this year’s National Invitation Tournament (NIT). They would square off against their No. 3 seed opponent, North Carolina State, on March 18 at North Texas University. Since they joined the Atlantic 10 for the 2014-2015 season, the Wildcats have now earned five bids to national postseason tournaments, including three NIT appearances. As with their previous four appearances, the team did not make it past the first round, ultimately losing to NC State 75-61.
There was a high note. Near the end of the first half, Kellan Grady ‘21 became the sixth Davidson player to reach 2,000 career points. Grady’s college basketball career is not over. After last season was shut down due to COVID-19, all players earned an extra year of eligibility. Davidson graduates cannot continue playing at Davidson because there is no graduate school. By March 24, Grady, Carter Collins ‘21, and Bates Jones ‘21 had all entered the transfer portal. On March 29, it was announced that Grady had transferred to Kentucky and Collins to Murray State.
I sat down with head coach Bob McKillop on March 24 to discuss the NIT game. With the season now over, we also discussed the team’s outlook heading into next season.
Cole Vulpis: Do you have any general takeaways from the NC State game?
Bob McKillop: We could not have been more ready to play; our guys did everything they could. We got knocked to the mat early in the game. That put us down 14-4 and we were digging out of hole from that point on. NC State is a very talented team; we knew that we had to be ready for a real battle. They’re a type of team that gave us problems all year long, and by that I mean long, athletic, and switching at four positions. We had progressed against that kind of opponent, but when you don’t make shots, you start playing on your heels. We cut it to eight at halftime. Then we cut it to four, and we had some terrific looks, but they just didn’t go down.
CV: After a loss like that, what do you say to the players, especially the seniors?
BM: I thank the seniors for the leadership. They made it an incredible joy to coach them―by the way they practiced every day [and] by the chemistry that they demonstrated amongst each other. We hurt for our staff, but we hurt more for the players that gave us so much this year. They could not have done more in terms of preparation and practice and being a united group of guys.
CV: One highlight from the game was Kellan Grady getting past 2,000 career points. What did that mean for you as a coach and for the program as a whole?
BM: I’m thrilled for Kellan and honored to have had the opportunity to coach him and have him represent our program. He’s represented our program not with just 2,000 points, but he’s matched that with the way he’s represented our program throughout the college community. He’s been a voice of respect. He’s been a voice of reason. He’s been a voice of involvement. Two other seniors, Bates Jones and Carter Collins, are equally such a joy to coach because of who they were as basketball players, but [also] as men and as leaders.
CV: I’m going to transition towards looking into next year. With Carter and Kellan not coming back next season, the team is losing two starting guards. Grant Huffman got plenty of experience this season running the point, especially in the A-10 Tournament and the NIT. How valuable is this kind of experience for Grant going into next season?
BM: It’s going to be tremendously valuable for him. We thought that both he and Emory [Lanier] could come in and, once they learned our system and were immersed in our culture, could really prosper. We thought we accomplished that this year. We also have [Hyunjung] Lee back and Mike Jones. So you’ve got two very experienced guards in Mike and Lee, you’ve got Emory and Grant, and then you’ve got Des Watson coming in as a guard, who’s pretty darn good as well.
CV: Watson is listed as a small forward some places —
BM: He’s more of a 3-2-1, being able to clearly play the guard spot and maybe give us the luxury of having him bring the ball up the court at times. I think he’s that versatile.
CV: It seems that every year since Davidson joined the A-10, going into the season, there was that star player. The team is going to be missing a four-time, all-conference player in Grady. Can you describe how you think the players will step up in Grady’s absence?
BM: We’ve gone through that experience almost every year we’ve been in the A-10. We graduated the player of the year in the conference, Tyler Kalinoski, and soon to follow that with [Jack Gibbs], and soon to follow that with [Peyton Aldrige], and then Jón Axel Guðmundsson. Now Kellan Grady graduates. I believe that the seniors were terrific this year in nurturing Lee. Particularly, I think Lee and Luka [Brajkovic] will be the two that will jump out statistically. But I think that we have positioned ourselves to have a deep rotation again, and I think the freshmen will play.
CV: Speaking of Luka being in the mix, at times this season, especially in that VCU game in Belk Arena, it seemed that Luka was unstoppable in the post. Do you think that there’s potentially a shift to attacking in the paint from the start instead of the three-point shooting offense opening up the inside?
BM: Yeah. I think that there were games this year where we had that as the game plan. Luka has become much more comfortable with double teams, which had been a nemesis of his freshmen and sophomore year. I think next year, the inside-outside attack might be more a part of our game plan than it was this year. And part of that three-point shooting was Luka himself. We feel confident that, as he’s elevated his percentage to 31%, he knocks that up another four or five percentage points. I think he can be a lethal inside-out weapon for us.
CV: With the new transfer rules, Verbal Commits reports some 800 transfers in the portal and counting. Is there any information you can give us about Davidson, with three spots open, in terms of landing any transfers?
BM: We have a long, historical culture here of building a program. If we have taken a transfer, it’s generally the result of a coach getting fired. Davidson is different from [most] other institutions in that we don’t have graduate school, so as a result, we will not take a graduate transfer. And our academic rigor immediately knocks off a lot of [other] guys [in] the transfer portal.
CV: I wanted to ask about Chris Ford and Des Watson, our two commits right now. Do you have any information about how they’re going to fit in next year?
BM: Des Watson had an extremely outstanding high school career. Chris Ford the same way. Chris was such a piece of [North Mecklenburg’s] success puzzle. Chris was the guy who glued it all together. And I think he checks so many boxes, as does Des Watson, in terms of fitting our culture, in terms of the kind of players and skill level they have. We are thrilled to have those two guys in our program. Absolutely thrilled.
CV: I’m excited to watch them, too. Do you have any information regarding new recruits or international recruits?
BM: One of the challenges this year is that we have not had the opportunity to have face-to-face meetings with prospects. We’re involved with several kids who are, we think, very talented. We just haven’t pulled the trigger from the standpoint of offering a scholarship because we’re still doing the research. But there [are] a number out there that are very interested in us.
For more Davidson men’s basketball coverage, Cole Vulpis can be found at @WildcatCole24