Davidson basketball New Year’s Resolutions for 2023 season

Davidson’s Sam Mennenga (3) shoots and scores during the first half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament Michigan State, Friday, March 18, 2022, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Davidson’s Sam Mennenga (3) shoots and scores during the first half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament Michigan State, Friday, March 18, 2022, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

AP

Ask Davidson head basketball coach Matt McKillop what his New Year’s Resolution(s) might be as conference play begins, and one word comes to mind.

“Consistency,” McKillop told The Observer in a recent phone conversation. “I think it’s obvious.”

Perhaps it is.

The Wildcats (7-5), led by a new coach for the first time in decades and led by only four returning contributors from last year’s tournament team, have wrapped up their non-conference slate. And they’ve already seen a lot: They’ve won in overtime (Wright State) and lost in overtime (Charlotte). They’ve beaten a Power Five team (South Carolina), and they’ve lost to a Power Five team (No. 1-ranked Purdue).

Their win over San Francisco, a 10 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, is the kind of win that gets the attention of the NCAA tournament selection committee. It is also the kind of win that can be overshadowed after losing four of their past five.

Davidson, in other words, has shown flashes of how good it can be. Now it’s time for the team to show how good it can consistently be.

The Wildcats open Atlantic 10 play at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Fordham on the CBS Sports Network. Here are four New Year’s Resolutions the team should implement to meet its potential in 2023.

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Davidson Wildcats head coach Matt McKillop watches from the bench during a game against the Charlotte 49ers at Belk Arena in Davidson, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Alex Slitz alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

1. Rebounding will be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

If there’s one number that might drive this Davidson team mad, it’s this: -4. That’s the team’s rebounding margin.

The Wildcats, before college basketball’s Tuesday night games, ranked tied for 326th in rebounding margin out of 352 Division I teams. Last year’s departure of Luka Brajkovic — the four-year letterman and 6-foot-10 center who filled out a pretty big frontcourt — offers an explanation for the struggle. The team has also played some of the best rebounding teams in the country in the early-going of the season (among those teams: Purdue and College of Charleston).

But the statistic nonetheless makes you wonder: How many more games could Davidson win if it sorts out its rebounding problem?

There are glaring examples: Charlotte collected two offensive rebounds on its final possession to set-up its game-winning, buzzer-beating 3 that shook John M. Belk Arena. Northeastern got an offensive rebound on each of its final two possessions to hand Davidson a 73-70 loss last week.

There are also less-glaring examples of how not-great rebounding shades the stats of what is otherwise a quite sound defensive team.

“If you rebound the ball, your 2-point percentage defense automatically improves,” McKillop said. “And those are the two statistics that are weaknesses of ours (that keep us) from being statistically as good as we were last year — the way we give up rebounds, and our two-point percentage defense. And if you put those two together, it’s one problem in the same.”

In so many words: Better rebounding can mean better everything else. And for a team that has lost three games by four points or less — a slight improvement can go a long way.

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Charlotte 49ers guard Lu’Cye Patterson (25) battles for the ball with Davidson Wildcats guard Desmond Watson (4) Davidson Wildcats guard Foster Loyer (0) and Davidson Wildcats guard Grant Huffman (5) during a game at Belk Arena in Davidson, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Alex Slitz alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

2. Unlock big man Sam Mennenga

There’s no doubt that Sam Mennenga is having a great season. The redshirt junior, 6-foot-9 big man, is averaging 15.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and is shooting a team-best 39.1% from 3 among regular contributors.

The crazy part? McKillop says he can be better.

The Wildcats largely go as Foster Loyer goes: The fifth-year senior is averaging 18.5 points and 5.7 assists in 35.6 minutes a game. But it’s his frontcourt mate from Auckland, New Zealand, whose individual potential makes Davidson one of the more dangerous teams in the Atlantic 10.

“We’ve probably spent more time in the film room with him than any of our players,” McKillop said of Mennenga, “and not because he is making mistakes or doing things wrong. It’s to say, ‘Here’s how well you are playing, and here’s how much better we believe that you can play. Here’s what we believe you can continue to do to be even better for yourself, and for our team.’“

Mennenga’s potential was perhaps best on display in his performance against Purdue, which boasts one of the best frontcourts in the country. He finished with 14 points and “put it on the line” on defense.

“He can be absolutely unstoppable at times,” McKillop said. “And we’ve gotta find that perfect balance for where he can be a great individual scorer, a great perimeter scorer, and someone who helps his teammates.”

He added: “If he can anchor our defense the way we believe he can, the way he has shown at times, it’s going to lead everybody to compete harder on the defensive end.”

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Davidson Wildcats forward Sam Mennenga (3) dribbles around Charlotte 49ers forward Josh Aldrich (22) during a game at Belk Arena in Davidson, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Alex Slitz alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

3. The 3-point shot is a team strength. Fire away

Some resolutions are reminders for sustenance. This is one of those: Davidson is averaging 20.8 3-point attempts a game — and the team should keep letting them fly.

The Wildcats are 34.4% from deep on the year, a good number for most teams and a solid average for a traditionally great shooting program like Davidson. It’s worth mentioning that everyone can shoot it, too — even the team’s forwards, as illuminated in Davidson’s home win against Western Carolina earlier this month.

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The Davidson Wildcats celebrate from the bench during a game against the Charlotte 49ers at Belk Arena in Davidson, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Alex Slitz alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

4. Stay confident in the team’s balance.

Davidson boasts seven players who are averaging more than 20 minutes per game. Only two average double-figures — Loyer and Mennenga — but the other five bring important offense to a team that averages a solid 74.2 points per game.

Davidson’s depth is a virtue, McKillop said. It’ll be needed for the kind of run Davidson hopes to make come March.

“I don’t recall a year when we felt like we had quite a scoring punch coming off our bench as we had this year,” McKillop said. “David Skogman is playing better and better and better. Des Watson is getting better and better and better. So we are getting scoring from our bench, which really helps balance our team out.”

He added: “It all comes down to consistency and wanting to rely on everybody, not just Des one day, Conner (Kochera) another day, Grant Hoffman and Skogman another day. Just consistency.”

Alex Zietlow writes about NASCAR, Charlotte FC and the ways in which sports intersect with life in the Charlotte area for The Observer, where he has been a reporter since August 2022. Zietlow’s work has been honored by the N.C. and S.C. Press Associations, as well as the APSE, which awarded him with Top-10 finishes in the Beat Writing and Short Feature categories in its 2021 writing contest. He previously wrote for The Herald in Rock Hill from 2019-22.

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