Davidson wasn’t expected to compete for the Atlantic-10 men’s basketball title in its first season after leaving the Southern Conference.
But thanks in large part to senior guard Tyler Kalinoski, a 2011 Olathe East graduate, the Wildcats have crashed the A-10 party and are tied for first place with Dayton and Rhode Island.
“He’s been absolutely extraordinary,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said of Kalinoski. “He sets the tone. I’m constantly in touch with him in the evenings about talking to his teammates and getting them singing his song and dancing to his music. He’s got people, as a Pied Piper, following what he’s doing.”
As the only senior playing significant minutes for the Wildcats, Kalinoski has embraced the burden of leadership.
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“Our biggest challenge was getting the freshmen where they needed to be by conference play and getting our team chemistry in place,” he said. “Every day, I’m thinking about what can I do better to help this team succeed. What can I say to these guys? It’s a lot of work I’d never thought of and a lot of work being the bridge between coach and the younger guys.”
It helps that Kalinoski is enjoying a terrific season, one that has him among the favorites for A-10 player of the year.
Kalinoski leads Davidson in scoring (16.2 per game), rebounding (5.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6 to 1) and ranks second in assists (4.0) and steals (1.2).
He leads the A-10 with 73 three-pointers, ranking sixth in three-point shooting at 41.7 percent, and checks in second in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio and ninth in scoring.
Nationally, Kalinoski ranks 29th in NCAA Division I in plus-minus rating — not bad for a lightly recruited 6-foot-4 combo guard from Overland Park.
Kalinoski, whose family moved to Kansas City from Cincinnati when he was 3, had early offers from UMKC and Arkansas-Little Rock as a high school senior.
He waited until the spring to sign and picked up an offer from Jacksonville but continued to hold out hope that a bigger program would come through as he led Olathe East to the state tournament.
“Luckily, Davidson contacted my AAU coach (L.J. Goolsby) looking for a guard that hadn’t signed with anyone yet,” said Kalinoski, who was a first-team All-Metro selection after helping the Hawks to third place at state.
McKillop liked what he saw during the 2011 Class 6A state semifinals against Perry Ellis’ Wichita Heights squad.
“What I saw that day was a prototypical guard for Davidson College,” McKillop said.
While it isn’t KU, Kalinoski isn’t complaining.
“It worked out well for me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be in the position I am right now if I went to a different school. … I’ve gotten better each year. This was the best place for me.”
Kalinoski, a two-year captain who reached 1,000 career points in a win at St. Louis earlier this season, helped Davidson reach the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013.
Last year, the Wildcats lost at Missouri in the first round of the NIT, but Kalinoski is poised to cement his legacy by leading the push back to the Big Dance.
“It would be a huge part of it, especially to make the tournament our first year in the A-10,” Kalinoski said.
McKillop said he couldn’t have handpicked a better player to lead Davidson’s transition to a new conference.
“Kids today don’t know what it means to be in someone’s foxhole,” McKillop said. “I’d be in Tyler’s foxhole in a heartbeat. I want him in the foxhole, because he is as tough an hombre as you can find.”
In McKillop’s eyes, one final foray into March Madness would be the perfect close to what’s been a pretty perfect Wildcats career for Kalinoski.
“He may get a street named after him here in Davidson; he’s just been so embraced by the people here in this community,” McKillop said. “It has been a pretty magical ride that he’s had here, and a pretty joyful experience to have him here.”