Longtime Davidson Coach Bob McKillop thinks he saw it all in his three memorable seasons with Stephen Curry in his lineup. Opposing coaches would try a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two. They would constantly switch defenders to cause confusion. They'd even leave teammates wide open on the floor, hoping Curry would be tempted to pass the ball away.
"Everything imaginable," McKillop says of opponents' defensive strategies.
And of course there was that one time a team tried sequestering Curry entirely. A 2008 game between Davidson and Loyola marked the only time during his collegiate career that Curry was held scoreless. It also backfired spectacularly, revealing that Curry is far more than a shooting machine.
Curry leads his Golden State team into the NBA Finals next week, where Cleveland's David Blatt will become the latest coach tasked with trying to solve the tricky player. Curry has played in 416 NBA games. He's failed to score just three times — one game he didn't start during his rookie campaign and two others he left early because of injury. This season he was sixth in the league in scoring, averaging 23.8 points an outing and was held to single digits just twice.
Coaches have tried just about everything over the years, but none came up with a gameplan quite like former Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos. In the 2008 preseason NIT, each participating team was guaranteed four games. Loyola lost its first two to Boston College and Cornell and then picked up an emotional win over James Madison on Nov. 24.
Patsos stuck around for the nightcap, scouting Davidson. He had less than 24 hours to prepare for the 24th-ranked Wildcats, who were led by the nation's top scorer, a 6-3 junior who had led his team to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament the previous spring.
Curry had begun the 2008-09 season on a tear, notching 29 points in the opener, followed by 33, 44, 30 and 39. To make matters worse, Patsos felt he had just eight players who were 100 percent healthy.
During warm-ups, Patsos knew he was in trouble.
"I was surprised how good he was. He didn't miss," said Patsos, a former Maryland assistant under Gary Williams and now the head coach at Siena. "I thought, 'We can't stop him. That's a lottery pick.' He had so many weapons; he handles the ball so well and gets it off so fast. I knew there was no way we're beating them if he puts up 30 points, so let's try something else."
That night Patsos came up with a plan, a modified triangle and two, in which two defenders would shadow Curry everywhere and the other three Greyhound players would be tasked with the remaining four Davidson players.
"We knew we were trying something different," says Brett Harvey, a junior guard on that Loyola team. "But nobody in the country was able to stop him, so we had to try something new."
Following the tip, Curry battled through a double-team and opened the game with a missed two-point attempt. It took a couple of possessions before he realized what was happening. Davidson called a timeout three minutes into the game with the score tied at four to discuss what they were seeing. Loyola then built its lead to 9-4 before a TV timeout allowed Davidson to huddle again.
That's about the time Curry made an adjustment of his own.
"He came to the bench and said, 'Coach, I'm just going to stand in the corner,'" McKillop recalled.
When play resumed, Curry did just that, eliminating himself from the action and giving Davidson a 4-on-3 advantage. McKillop is wistful thinking back to what that meant: "Just an incredible statement from a mature young man who put team in front of himself and put victory ahead of statistics.
"He could've been tempted by the demon of ego," McKillop continued. "His scoring average was going to suffer. But he never let that enter into his thinking."
Harvey was one of two Greyhounds escorting Curry around the floor. That meant he spent a good chunk of that game far removed from the basket, standing idle next to one of the best players in college basketball.
"He handled it pretty well. He didn't care about the points. He was happy to be winning," Harvey said.
Curry watched each play unfold from near the half-court line, showing no signs of frustration or anger. Instead, his teammates scored and he cheered them.
"That's when I thought, 'Oh no, we're in trouble," Patsos says.
Essentially operating on the basketball equivalent of a power play, Curry's teammates closed the first half with a 35-8 run. At halftime, Patsos told his players it might time to try something else. There was a discussion and the Greyhounds thought Curry's teammates might soon falter and decided to stick with their plan.
"And that was basically it," Patsos says. "Game over."
Davidson won the game 78-48. By not scoring a single point and accepting a diminished offensive role, Curry actually helped his team win. His final line: 0-for-3 from the field with three rebounds and three assists.
Patsos was quoted after the game saying history wouldn't remember that Loyola lost as much as it would remember that the mighty Curry was held scoreless. He says the remark was trimmed and lacked context.
"I thought I could trick him," Patsos says today. "I didn't. Make no mistake, he outsmarted us. He was happy to pass. Never complained, a true gentlemen. My hat's off to him."
McKillop still doesn't like thinking about the game - and not because of what it meant to his star player's stats or résumé.
"I'm still to this day mystified why a coach would do that," he says. "I just can't believe a coach would sacrifice his team like that."
Harvey doesn't talk about the game often. He might mention that he once faced Curry but doesn't usually divulge the details.
"It would've been fun to see how I stacked up against him," he says. "But stopping him, it's tough — a guy who can shoot like that, who's that quick with the ball. Patsos didn't figure it out, but then again, no coaches in the NBA have either."
Patsos said he probably would try something different today. He's just not sure the end result would be that different.
"I was right," he said with a chuckle. "I told everyone how good he was. I told everyone he can't be stopped."