He's been away almost two decades, long enough to raise a few kids and forget what rush-hour traffic is like on the LIE, but Bob McKillop never forgot his local basketball roots, which remain stronger than his New York accent after all these years.
"There's a mentality you kept when you grew up playing ball on the parks and playground," he said. "You have to win and stay on the court because someone's got winners'. For me, whether it was Hickey Field, or Centennial Park, or Rockaway, or Prospect Park in East Meadow, you had to respond. I treasure those times because it toughened you and if you lost, you sat. It ruined your night."
Well, he's back on the playground, in a sense, and he hopes to ruin someone else's night or at the very least, plenty of NCAA office pools. As the tournament begins, everyone's looking for the next George Mason, a little team that can go a long way. And the school most qualified is Davidson College in North Carolina, a speck on the Division I level, coached by McKillop, now officially a long way from Long Island.
Davidson (26-6) brings what you need to win in March. For your bracket consideration, the Wildcats offer terrific guard play with Stephen Curry and Jason Richards and have an eager group of role players. They also have 22 consecutive victories, one of the longest streaks in the country.
This season, the homely academic school with an enrollment of only 1,700 students lost to N.C. State by a point, to North Carolina by four and Duke by six, proof that it can hang with the bigs. Everything feels right for the Wildcats to shake up the tournament like Gonzaga used to, which would be pretty interesting since Davidson opens with Gonzaga on Friday.
Any advancement through the tournament would be the crowning achievement for McKillop, a revered high school coach on Long Island back in the day and star player at Hofstra. He's looking for his first NCAA Tournament win but is respected on the Davidson campus for what he isn't looking for: his next job.
Most coaches, especially those on the mid-major level, spend their careers chasing bigger programs and better shoe contracts. McKillop was one of them, always surveying the landscape, checking the vacancies at State U., plotting his next move. But, 19 years and counting, he's still at Davidson, having long ago realized that it's better to tackle the job you have rather than the one you don't.
Davidson welcomed a coach who did everything possible on Long Island, from a basketball standpoint. McKillop was big time at Hofstra as a player, then won big at Holy Trinity and Long Island Lutheran as a coach. Over time, while turning around the Davidson program, he wondered about working at the next college level, possibly even returning home for a dream job. Who wouldn't? But he was never quite on St. John's radar which, given the struggles of our local Division I team, was St. John's loss.
First things first. McKillop wants to feel the warmth of a tournament win for the first time, get folks in North Carolina excited about a team other than Duke and the Tar Heels, then brace for a projected second-round match with Georgetown.
"We just want to be at our best," McKillop said.
If it all goes right, Davidson will beat a few teams and hopefully tie another: George Mason.