Newsletter: Road game against VCU another big test for Dayton

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

I’m writing this at my second home, John Glenn Columbus International Airport, which fortunately is only 4½ miles from my actual home. A flight to Dulles in Washington, D.C., and then a connecting flight to Richmond, Va. awaits.

My first year covering the Dayton Flyers, I took the train from New York City after a game at Fordham to Richmond, where the Flyers played three days later. That’s not possible these days because I’ve got a 5-year-old at home, and my help is always needed. Indeed, yesterday, Chase couldn’t go to school because of an ear infection and we spent the day at Little Diggers, an indoor sand play space, and then hiked to a waterfall nearby in Dublin. We threw sticks and rocks in the creek and imagined it was spring because it sure felt like it. Chase is rarely sick enough to not have fun but often sick enough to miss school.

The Flyers, on the other hand, had a charter flight from Philadelphia to Richmond after their 93-79 victory at Saint Joseph’s on Tuesday. They had a recovery day Wednesday and practiced Thursday at Virginia Union University in Richmond. The voice of the Flyers, Larry Hansgen, took the train from Philadelphia to Richmond just for a fun travel experience.

First-place Dayton (19-3, 9-1) plays at Virginia Commonwealth (15-8, 7-3) at 7 p.m. today. No opponent has given the Flyers more trouble over the last decade. It’s turned into one of the Atlantic 10 Conference’s best rivalries because Dayton and VCU are almost always near the top of the league.

VCU has a 14-8 edge in the series since joining the A-10 in the 2013-14 season. It’s 4-0 against Dayton in the A-10 tournament. It has earned five NCAA tournament bids in the last 10 seasons. Dayton has five if you count the cancelled 2020 tournament.

Where Dayton has the edge in the last 10 seasons is NCAA tournament victories (5-2). Otherwise, VCU has been the superior program. A victory tonight would help Dayton close the gap a bit.

Now in its 11th season in the A-10, VCU has its fourth different coach in that span. Shaka Smart led the program in 2014 and 2015. Will Wade had the group the next two seasons. Then it was Mike Rhoades for six seasons.

Now it’s Ryan Odom, who left Utah after two seasons. He’ll coach against Dayton for the first time. On Thursday, he talked to Richmond media about defending Dayton star DaRon Holmes II.

“He presents a ton of challenges,” Odom said. “He’s an all-court player. He can bring the ball up the court. He’s really developed his game over the time he’s been with coach (Anthony) Grant and their staff. He’s allowed to do a lot more now. He can beat you with the 3. He can beat you inside. He requires your total attention. You can’t just guard him with one guy. When you’re playing against a dynamic player like him, you’ve got to get help there and make sure he’s feeling the defense.”

Odom also talked about how to deal with the rest of Dayton’s offense while focusing on Holmes.

“It’s easier said then done, especially when Holmes is catching the ball inside and you’re having to give him your total attention in there,” Odom said. “He does a really good job of getting it out. They share the ball ball really well. They don’t turn it over. They’re getting shots, whether it’s early in the shot clock ... if you allow them to, they’ll take it. They’re certainly excellent in transition, and they get some 3s and layups there, but also playing inside-out. They have a go-to guy. They know in key situations they’re going to go there. But then they also have guys out on the perimeter that can really knock it down. lt’s not like you can say, ‘Hey, take one away and not the other and live with the other.’ You’ve go to do your best to limit both, and that’s easier said than done.”

Dayton finding different ways to win

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Koby Brea once again had a large cheering section in Philadelphia. His family and friends traveled from the Bronx to fill a section behind Dayton’s bench during a victory at La Salle and did the same Tuesday at Saint Joseph’s. At one point, a Saint Joseph’s player kicked a Dayton pass, and the ball sailed into the middle of the Brea section. The fans looked as if they were trying to catch a foul ball at a New York Yankees game.


Brea’s mom, Mayra Villar, sitting right in the middle of the group, was especially enthusiastic. She reminded me of my mom, who loved to shout, “Pass the ball to Dave,” during my high school soccer days.

The Flyers don’t need any reminders about passing to Brea. He leads the nation in 3-point shooting accuracy (62 of 128, 48.4%). Brea made 3 of 5 3-pointers Tuesday and had plenty of help as the five Dayton starters scored in double figures. It was the first time they all had scored 10 points or more in a game this season.

The increased production by Enoch Cheeks, who I wrote about on Thursday, has been one development in the last two games. He has 13 points against St. Bonaventure last Friday and 12 against Saint Joseph’s. In the previous five games, he had 24 total points.

“I’m embracing my role,” Cheeks said after the game at Hagan Arena. “Obviously, as a player, you reminisce at times about when you were the guy, but coach AG (Anthony Grant) and the other coaches help me embrace my role, along with my teammates. I know there are going to be nights when I score the ball. There are going to be nights where I have to be more of a defender. I already knew that coming in here.”

As Grant would say, that’s just basketball. It’s a random game at times. Kobe Elvis, for instance, had 21 points against Saint Joseph’s after scoring 24 in the previous four games.

Holmes has been Dayton’s most consistent scorer, but even his totals rise and fall: 13, 34, 25 and 9 in the last four games.

The important thing for Dayton is that, with one exception in the last two months, it is is finding different ways to win. It has built big leads and protected them. It has rallied from double-digit deficits. It has won games on cold shooting nights. It has overcome rebounding deficiencies. It has won games with strong performances at the free-throw line but won games when the free throws aren’t falling.

One of my favorite Twitter/X accounts belongs to Dave Severns (@dave_severns), who posts a Hoop of the Day photo every day. It’s a simple picture of a basketball hoop. The photos come from all over the world. I sent him one a year or so ago of a hoop being transported in the back of a pickup truck near my house in Columbus.

My favorite hoops will always be the ones at my childhood home in Mount Orab, Ohio. My dad Jeff built a full basketball court on our six-acre property, as well as a baseball field with a backstop, benches and an outfield fence that was about 250 feet from home plate. A long home run would land in the pond if it cleared the pine trees.

We rarely played full court basketball, in part because a tennis net was in the middle, but also because we only had four players most of the time: me and my youngest brother Noah against my dad and brother Adam, the second oldest behind me.

I regret not working a mention of Jablonski Court into “The Epicenter of College Basketball: A History of UD Arena,” so I’m mentioning it here. It had the softest rims outside Maui, but if you missed badly, the ball might bounce over the fence and you would have to navigate weeds and sticker buses to retrieve it. The lines of the tennis court served as 3-point lines. We played a lot of 2-on-2, 21, Horse, Pig, Around the World, you name it.

It’s worth mentioning my favorite court as I return to VCU’s Siegel Center today. Dayton fans love to poke fun at the size of the arena, but it always has one of the best atmospheres in the conference. For whatever reason, Dayton has played well there in its last two trips, avenging earlier losses to VCU at UD Arena both times.

This time the first matchup between Dayton and VCU takes place in Richmond, and the second will be at UD Arena in the final game of the regular season. It will be up to the returning players to prepare the newcomers for playing at VCU.

“It’s going to be very hostile,” Kobe Elvis said. “The veteran guys that have been there, we’re going to want to make sure we have guys ready to play and understand the atmosphere that we’re going into and what it’s going to take to win that game.”

Fast Break

Here’s other news that might interest Flyer fans:

🏀 After finishing last in the A-10 in its first season in the league, Loyola Chicago (16-7, 8-2) has emerged as a regular-season championship contender. It trails Dayton by a game with eight to play. The Ramblers won 85-79 at George Mason on Wednesday.

🏀 Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update has No. 4 seed Dayton playing No. 13 Akron in Spokane, Wash.

🏀 Ohio State’s season started with an exhibition victory against Dayton at UD Arena. It played well in November and December but has fallen apart in Big Ten play. This week, Ohio State’s student newspaper, The Lantern, called for coach Chris Holtmann to be fired in a column by Sam Becker.

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