DAVIDSON, N.C. — Stephen Curry put Davidson on the basketball map with a contagious boyish smile and a lethal jump shot.
Four years later the Wildcats (15-5) are looking to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Curry led the school on a magical ride in March of 2008, upsetting Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before falling 59-57 to eventual national champion Kansas.
The Wildcats are once again making some NCAA noise.
They own the Southern Conference's best record at 9-1 and have already gained a measure of revenge from four years ago after upsetting then-12th-ranked Kansas on the road Dec. 19.
Yet to compare this year's Davidson team to the one Curry brought to the brink of the Final Four is, at least in the mind of long-time Wildcats coach Bob McKillop, a wee bit unrealistic.
Sure, this year's team is deeper and more balanced offensively, but McKillop foresees one little problem with the Wildcats turning in another bracket-busting performance should they get to the tournament.
"Number 30 is not on the floor," McKillop said, referring to Curry.
McKillop called Curry a "once-in-a-lifetime player."
And he's probably right.
The Southern Conference doesn't produce many NBA lottery picks. Curry averaged 32 points in those four tournament games and led the conference in scoring three straight years.
"Stephen made us a special team and a special program," McKillop said. "There could be no comparisons to what he did for Davidson College and the Southern Conference on the national stage."
The Wildcats have, in a sense, put the Curry era behind them.
"Steph was an amazing player and he put Davidson on the map, but we're trying to forge our own identity," said junior guard J.P. Kuhlman, who came to Davidson shortly after Curry turned pro in 2009.
To do that, the Wildcats have to take a different approach.
McKillop said that "when Stephen was here I had a very strong urge to get him the basketball."
He doesn't have anyone who fits that model on his current roster.
The Wildcats are one the nation's more balanced teams, displaying an ability to score inside the paint, on the drive and from 3-point range with regular consistency. They're good in transition too and rank among the top 20 teams in the country in scoring at 78.9 points per game.
"When Steph was here everything ran through him," said senior forward Will Reigel, who played with Curry in 2008-09. "This year's team from top to bottom is deeper than what we've had."
So far five different players have led the team in scoring with 20 or more points.
Four Wildcats average in double digits in scoring — De'Mon Brooks (15.2), Jake Cohen (14.2), Nick Cochran (11.8) and J.P. Kuhlman (11.6) — while Chris Czerapowicz is on the fringe averaging 9.2 points per game.
"I'm sure it's tough to scout our team because we have seven or eight guys who can score double digits on any given night," Kuhlman said. "You try to shut down the post and the guards will get going. You go after the shooters and the post will get you. It's kind of a pick your poison deal."
Said McKillop: "The fact that we have the distribution of points that we do is a stark contrast to the time when Stephen was here."
Also different is the Davidson aura.
Sure, the Wildcats are a good Southern Conference team. They won their first eight conference games by an average of 18.4 points after all. But they're also capable of losing to a 7-14 Samford team as they did Saturday night on the road.
"When you have a lottery pick in the SoCon that just changes everything," said Furman coach Jeff Jackson, whose team will host the Wildcats on Wednesday night.
"When you have a guy of that magnitude playing in a mid-major conference it's a scenario you can't overcome. I think Davidson is very good but I think probably having been here during the Stephen Curry years there was an air of invincibility about them... I just don't get they have the air of invincibility that their previous teams had."
Still, McKillop likes the balance.
"I'm really pleased with what we're showing both inside and out, from starters to subs," McKillop said. "I think we've shown a great deal of versatility in our ability to score. Defensively we've played well enough to create opportunities on the offensive end and limited opportunities on the defensive end."
The hard part for the Wildcats will be getting back to the NCAA tournament.
The Southern Conference typically only sends one team.
Even in 2009, the year after Davidson's big postseason run, the Curry-led Wildcats didn't get an at-large bid after losing to the College of Charleston in the Southern Conference semifinal.
In the two years since Curry turned pro, the Wildcats have been bounced in the first round of the conference tournament, something they're intent on changing this March in Asheville, N.C.
"I feel like the sky is the limit as long as we stay focused and keep getting better," Cohen said. "We've shown flashes that we can be really, really good."
And people are noticing.
Attendance is up again at Davidson, although not cresting like it did at maximum capacity during the Curry era.
"It's definitely building," Reigel said. "It's not to where it was obviously when we sold out everywhere we went, but it's definitely coming back up a lot higher than it has been the last few years. You can feel the energy in the games and you can feel it around campus. You can hear people talking and that's been exciting for us. It's fueling all of us."