by Aaron Burns

Davidson College men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop said he’s always been in search of coaching “the beautiful game.”

It’s McKillop’s idea of the perfect performance, a game when his Wildcats are flawless. It hasn’t happened yet. But Davidson has gotten much closer in the last 10 years to playing the beautiful game.

They’ve also made strides on a national scale.

The Wildcats have advanced to the NCAA tournament four times since 2002 (2006, 2007, 2008 and 2012), making the Elite Eight in 2008 with then-Wildcat and current NBA star Stephen Curry.

Many tout Curry as the key to the Wildcats’ rise to prominence over the past 10 years. McKillop said Curry helped, but Davidson’s run from a small program down the road from Duke and North Carolina to annual tournament contender started before Curry was in high school.

“Our 2002 team, that senior class set the tone for us,” McKillop said. “(That team) became the true crystallization of what it meant to be a team. Injuries had forced us to depend upon (inexperienced players) but they were ready to take on new roles. The senior class in particular did a magnificent job of inspiring players to learn what it meant to put the Davidson uniform on.”

Davidson’s lineup was far from what you’d call NBA-caliber, but the team’s never-say-die attitude elevated it to Southern Conference champion.

The Wildcats lost to Ohio State 69-64 in the first round of the 2002 tournament, but set the tone for future success.

Davidson won the SoCon regular season title three of the next four years, but failed to take the conference tournament crown – and the automatic NCAA tournament berth that came with it – until 2006.

After Davidson made the 2006 tournament and again lost a close first-round game to Ohio State, the Wildcats entered the 2006-07 season expecting a down year.

And with good reason.

Davidson had only two seniors on the roster, John Falconi and Lamar Hull, who had combined for just 18 points as juniors.

Eight underclassmen, including five freshmen, had to pick up the slack. But one – who had only gotten scholarship offers from Davidson, Virginia Commonwealth and Winthrop – made the difference.

“(Curry) immediately elevated our performance,” McKillop said. “The combination of Stephen, Jason Richards and Thomas Sander made that team what it was.”

Curry averaged a league-leading 21.5 points per game as the Wildcats finished 29-5 and won the SoCon title before losing to Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In 2007-08, Davidson went 20-0 in SoCon play, finished 29-7 and knocked off Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before a 59-57 loss to Kansas kept the Wildcats out of the Final Four.

The Wildcats won another SoCon title in the 2011-12 season and advanced to the tournament, but lost to Louisville in the second round.

Ten years after that special 2002 team, McKillop’s Wildcats don’t have a national title. But McKillop said achieving excellence is an ongoing process.

“I’m not aiming for an undefeated season,” McKillop said. “Our quest now is to have the beautiful game, by the beautiful team, that has the beautiful season.

“It’s elusive.”