RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—Lefty Driesell put little Davidson on the basketball map 40 years ago. The retired coach thinks the Wildcats’ star sophomore can return the school to glory.
Stephen Curry’s lightning-quick release and savvy play has the 76-year-old Driesell so fired up he was thinking about making the trip here for Davidson’s first-round NCAA tournament game Friday against Gonzaga in the Midwest Regional.
“I told people the other day that I’ve seen a lot of guards play this year, and if I’m starting a team, I’d start Stephen Curry over all of them,” Driesell said by phone from his Virginia home earlier this week.
“If George Mason went to the Final Four, I think they’re just as good as they were a couple of years ago. I’m pulling for them.”
Behind Curry’s 25.1 points per game and his 139 3-pointers, Davidson (26-6) has overcome close losses early this season to powers North Carolina, Duke and UCLA to reel off nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games.
“I think the experiences we had with playing different styles of ball, just the close games we had, will definitely help in the tournament,” Curry said.
Curry hopes to lead 10th-seeded Davidson to its first NCAA tournament win since Driesell guided the tiny liberal arts school to two regional finals in the 1960s before leaving for Maryland.
But the obstacle is the school that’s the envy of Davidson and all the other midmajor programs: Gonzaga.
The seventh-seeded Bulldogs (25-7) are in the NCAA tournament for the 10th straight year. They’ve made it to the second weekend four times, with one appearance in the regional finals.
“It’s very, very difficult to have the target that they’ve had on them for the number of years and continue to be successful,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said Thursday.
Gonzaga’s loss to San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament final might be why it was sent 2,700 miles away. Davidson took a 2 1/2 -hour bus ride.
“Obviously, we can’t deny we’re disappointed that we got sent across the country to play in their backyard,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.
Few was busy Thursday preparing a defensive plan for Curry. The son of former NBA 3-point specialist Dell Curry has gone from a lightly recruited high school player to one of the best shooters in college basketball.
Point guard Jason Richards, who leads the nation with 8.0 assists per game, is primarily responsible for getting Curry the ball in the right spots. The 6-foot-3 Curry has responded by scoring 30 or more points eight times this season. He’s shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the foul line.
Driesell was at Davidson being honored in January when he watched Curry outscore Chattanooga himself in the first half, 27-26.
“I haven’t seen anybody play this year that’s a better 3-point shooter,” Driesell said.
West Coast Conference player of the year Jeremy Pargo likely will get the task of defending Curry, but Few indicated he could rotate players on Curry.
Few also can pick the brain of Gonzaga’s top scorer, Matt Bouldin. Curry roomed with Bouldin when they were teammates last summer on the U.S. under-19 national team. Bouldin scored 26 points in a win over Utah this season.
Davidson went 23-0 in the relatively weak Southern Conference this season. But despite not beating a power team all season, Curry and the Wildcats have become the trendy pick. Davidson is a 2-point favorite despite being the lower seed.
“A lot of people are picking us to get upset, especially coming down here to N.C. and it pretty much being a home game for them,” Gonzaga senior forward David Pendergraft said. “But we’re just ready to go and ready to prove everyone wrong.”
The bruising Pendergraft and Gonzaga’s front line might decide whether Gonzaga moves to the second round to face the winner of the Georgetown-Maryland-Baltimore County game.
Davidson’s tallest starter is 6-8. It could mean more minutes for 6-10 Austin Daye and even 6-11 Josh Heytvelt, whose minutes have declined this season following his arrest on a drug possession charge and foot surgery.
But Driesell thinks Gonzaga’s size advantage might not matter if Curry is lighting it up from the outside.
“A lot of guys that are great shooters hurt your team because they shoot too much. Not him,” Driesell said. “I’d make him shoot more. That little sucker can shoot, man.”