Photo via AP Photo/Gary Landers
This college basketball regular season has certainly been a memorable one. There have been many weekends where top teams fall to unranked teams, teams that unexpectedly rise into the top 20 and teams that fail to separate themselves from everyone else. There are a lack of standouts as we have a lot of great teams and few players that are dominating college basketball, which will make picking Final Four teams difficult as there are not many teams one can trust. One team that you should trust when filling out your brackets is the Dayton Flyers.
Dayton currently sits at number three in the AP Poll and is in the discussion for a potential number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. They are 27-2 with a 16-0 record in Atlantic 10 Conference play. Their two losses on the season were to out-of-conference opponents in overtime, Kansas and Colorado. While they have been beating up on an Atlantic 10 Conference that is not as strong as it was when teams such as Xavier and Temple were members, the fact they have remained consistent in a chaotic year is impressive. Even San Diego State lost a game in their weaker conference. Due to the major flaws of other contenders and the culture Dayton has built, they should be considered a Final Four favorite.
First, let’s look at Dayton’s path to this point to fully appreciate how special this season has been for them.
Under coach Archie Miller, who is now at Indiana, Dayton found solid success from 2014-2017. In 2014, Dayton entered the tournament as an 11 seed and made a run to the Elite 8. In 2015, they were one of the last four teams in, won games over Boise State and Providence and made it to the Round of 32 where they fell to Buddy Hield and Oklahoma. In 2016 and 2017, they were seven seeds but were eliminated in the first round by Syracuse and Wichita State respectively. After 2017, Miller left for Indiana and they had to start over.
Enter Anthony Grant. He was the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University from 2006-2009 and led them to a victory over Duke in 2007. He then coached at Alabama from 2009-2015, but struggled to find success as Alabama only made the tournament once (2012) during that time. He would then be an assistant coach under Billy Donovan, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, for two seasons before replacing Miller at Dayton in 2017. Grant’s two years in the NBA helped him to realize what went wrong at Alabama and in his third season at Dayton, his work has paid off with one of the best regular seasons in the program’s history.
One problem Alabama always had under Grant was they lacked consistent go-to scorers. In his first recruiting class, he signed Obi Toppin, a forward who got no Division-1 offers out of high school and committed to Dayton after spending a year at Mt. Zion Preparatory School. He also signed two-star point guard Jalen Crutcher. These did not seem like big signings at the time but now, these are the two stars that are leading this Flyers team to a historic season. Toppin has been very productive with 19.8 points per game to go with 7.8 rebounds per game. Crutcher has been the floor general this team has needed with clutch shot-making and contributing 14.8 points and 4.9 assists per game. Not only does Grant have a dependable scorer that he lacked at Alabama, he has two. Throw in two-reliable guards who average more than 10 points a game, senior Trey Landers and Michigan transfer Ibi Watson, and you have a deep team that can score with anyone when it matters most.
Dayton leads the nation in field-goal percentage, they are 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio and are top 50 in three-point field goal percentage. They take smart shots and rarely turn the ball over; that is a recipe for success in March Madness. While being only 138th in free throw percentage is a concern, I trust that they will outscore most opponents they play by maximizing possessions and taking smart shots.
Besides dominant center Udoka Azubuike on Kansas, there is nothing that gives me doubt for Dayton against another top-ranked opponent. Baylor is flawed offensively, Gonzaga has issues defensively, San Diego State is limited offensively, and Seton Hall suffers from a lack of depth. Dayton’s main problem is free-throw shooting and that is a flaw they can overcome. Dayton is an elite team and will put the nation on notice this March.