Jack Gibbs and Davidson ready for more in 2015–16

Before I kick off this new endeavor, the latest incarnation of Alley Whoops, which I had first started with a friend during my senior year in college as a way in which I could write about sports — for fun, first: a note.

Alley Whoops on Medium will include some reporting (not that I would ever wish to do enough of it to be considered a real ‘reporter’), but its primary focus will be a celebration of the players, teams and everything else associated, most frequently, with college basketball. As Cal women’s head coach Lindsay Gottlieb once put it perfectly, college hoops should above all be fun.

So, about the profile picture. I was entering my teens during the reign of the Lukes in Eugene. Jackson and Ridnour, Oregon’s stalwart backcourt, and one of my favorites of all time. So I only found it fitting, given that I grew up on the West Coast and was immersed in Pac-10 play, to put Action Jackson in the seat of honor, as it were. The profile picture for the Twitter and Medium accounts will change, but this seemed the perfect way to begin, with an homage to the lefty swingman with the purest up-and-under layup I’ve seen.

Now, to the piece. I love college basketball, and I have tried for a couple years now to find the outlet in which I could best express that passion. It hasn’t been easy. But the possibility of this site — writing what I want to write, posting when I want to post, filled me with an exuberance I’d long since forgotten.

But enough about me. One of the best lessons I’ve learned is to remove yourself from the conversation. Unless you’re Proust, there’s really nothing compelling in memoir. So, on to Jack Gibbs, Davidson’s star point guard, entering his junior season. This piece began as I watched the Wildcats take on heavily-favored Virginia last December. It had been a long time since I’d seen a team play with such pace and skill on the offensive end.

Can’t wait to watch the Wildcats next season. Gibbs will be doing some serious work.

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Gibbs, with North Carolina guard Marcus Paige preparing to guard him, in a game last season. (Courtesy of Davidson men’s basketball)

This was how the soon-to-be NBA MVP and world champion began his assessment of a talented guard at his alma mater.

“There’s a lot to his game. He can shoot, he’s physical, he’s got a great IQ. He’s shifty and strong. And smart — and you need to be smart to play in that system. There’s so much potential. It’s been fun to watch him grow — and it’s kind of ‘his team’ now.”

It was just past 10 p.m. on a Thursday evening in late March at Oracle Arena, some twenty minutes since the attending media were granted access to the Warriors’ locker room following a thrilling win over the Suns in which Steph Curry had done what he does best. Namely, hit shots he had no right hitting; willing his team to win in a game they quite rightly should have lost, with a swagger not seen at this level of competition since Maravich. Sometimes, I think he’s Jason Williams, the erstwhile Kings star guard, with a jumper.

After the win, Curry fielded the standard tide of questions from the swarm of reporters that had clustered around his locker. Just as he prepared to leave, however, a reporter from SLAM (that’s, um, me) sidled up and asked him about Jack Gibbs, a 6–0 guard then in his sophomore season at Davidson.

After the initial tide of adulation, which coursed out of Curry’s mouth like a steady stream of dribbles, came an appraisal of Gibbs’s strength. Those 195 pounds he fills out in his frame, which help him dictate the pace of play on the perimeter. “Yeah, he’s strong — not like me,” Curry said with a chuckle. Then, as he slipped an arm through a sweater and made his way out, he thought of something. “I appreciate you giving the Wildcats some love.”

It’s hard not to be give love to Davidson. They’ve been one of my favorite programs to watch since Curry led them on that scintillating run to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight, seven years ago.

This past season, Gibbs missed seven games due to a slightly torn meniscus, but he still finished second on the Wildcats in scoring, at 16.2 per game. He hit 48% of his field goals, 43% of his threes, and handed out a tidy 120 assists. Alongside Tyler Kalinoski and Brian Sullivan, Gibbs rounded out Davidson’s lethal backcourt triumvirate, which combined for a total of 374 assists — 68% of the team’s total output.

Bob McKillop, Davidson’s longtime head coach, told the team’s radio broadcast after a big conference win over St. Louis, “Jack’s just getting better and better. He took to heart the concept of being our leader as our point guard. He’s learned the importance of his leadership and the role that it will play.”

Per McKillop, who throws in references to Virgil’s Aeneid in postgame interviews, Gibbs is the heart and soul of the team.

Curry concurred. Following a Wildcats win on Jan. 3, which christened their debut in Atlantic-10 play (Davidson made the switch from the Southern Conference before ‘14–15), Curry took to Twitter and expressed his admiration.

Gibbs has the look of a leader, and the game to back it up. ESPN announcer Cory Alexander had noticed it several days earlier, when Davidson nearly sent a shock to the system of No. 3-ranked Virginia in a non-conference game in Charlottesville.

“I heard about Jack Gibbs and I knew he was a player. Right now, he’s the best player on the court,” said Alexander, after watching Gibbs kiss a Curry-esque runner in traffic high off the glass, from a rapidly closing window.

At that point in the season, Virginia was allowing a DI-best 46.3 points per game, on the back of their stifling pack-line defense. The Wildcats hung 72 points on the Cavs — and led by four at the half to boot, before falling 83–72. Gibbs finished with 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and added four assists.

For some perspective, Harvard, which last season made its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, faced UVA on that same court nine days earlier, and mustered just one field goal as a team in the first half before finishing with a meager 21 points in a crippling loss.

McKillop is a master of offensive motion — remember Curry’s note that, if you want to play for him, you have to be smart — and against Virginia, it was Gibbs who forced Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett to call an early timeout after scoring off a sharp back cut that left Cavs star Justin Anderson — no slouch defensively — flat-footed.

Looking back on the whirlwind start to that game, Bennett said simply, “Gibbs dominated.” And Davidson? “They kind of schooled us.”

It was a fascinating measure of a very young team that was probably a year away from really contending. Kalinoski was the only senior starter in ‘14–15. Gibbs included, three underclassmen comprised the lineup at tip-off. But Bennett noted that Davidson’s preparedness — the fact that they played like vets — was one of their most impressive qualities.

Gibbs alluded to this quality. One of Davidson’s favorite things to do is catch opponents out after a big play. In a style at-times similar to North Carolina’s secondary break, the Wildcats rip the ball out of the net and course upcourt. While their opponents are still throwing up three-goggles, they’ve already responded with a score.

McKillop said that last season’s Davidson team could be “great”, and their 24–8 final record lends a strong argument to that — their crashing out in the NCAA tournament Round of 64, at the hands of an Iowa Hawkeyes buzz saw notwithstanding. Matt McKillop, a Davidson assistant coach, told the team’s radio broadcast afterward that in the post-game locker room, the message was simple. Yes, they wanted to erase those two hours of game time, but they also wanted make sure these players knew the significance of this season. No one had envisioned this young team making such a mark on the college basketball landscape. (They were picked to finish 12th in the A-10 preseason poll; they won the regular season conference championship.)

As Matt McKillop noted, in that Iowa game, there were two excellent backcuts made by Kalinoski that ended in buckets, both assisted by — you might have guessed — Gibbs. Good omens for next season, when four starters are back and Gibbs, a tri-captain in ‘14–15, will take on an even greater leadership role.

In ‘14–15, Davidson took on the likes of North Carolina and Virginia in non-conference. Did they flinch? Just take a look at the demeanor of their star guard for the answer to that. It’s one reason I can’t wait to watch that team next season.

Follow Alley Whoops on Twitter: @alleywhoops

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