The New York Post listed the 2019-20 Dayton Flyers No. 1 on a list of the most heartbroken March Madness teams of all time last weekend.
Not even the 2000 Cincinnati Bearcats, who lost their star player, Kenyon Martin, to a broken leg in the first round of the Conference USA tournament could measure up to a team that never got a chance to play a postseason game. That UC team ranked fourth on a list that included six teams.
The Flyers and their fans may never get over the pain of seeing a 29-2 season end because of the coronavirus pandemic, though awards season has provided some consolation.
Dayton made more history Tuesday when Obi Toppin and Anthony Grant swept the national awards — player and coach of the year — handed out by the Associated Press. The honors are important news for a number of reasons, one being they'll be a key recruiting tool for Dayton in the years to come.
“The message we strive for is these kind of things can be done at the University of Dayton,” Athletic Director Neil Sullivan said. “It doesn’t take a power-five program to have a coach and a player of the year. It takes what we have. Once you know it can be done, then you’re just chasing consistency.”
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Not since Jameer Nelson and Phil Martelli, of Saint Joseph’s, were named player and coach of the year by the AP in 2004 has one school won both awards, and it’s only the third time it has happened since 1980.
Toppin averaged 20.0 points and 7.5 rebounds for a team that won the Atlantic 10 Conference championship, set a school record for victories, tied a school record with 20 straight wins and climbed to No. 3 in the AP poll.
“Honestly, if you had asked me, I swear we could’ve won a national championship and our team was so ready to play in the tournament,” Toppin told the AP. “We were so locked in. But because of this virus, things happened. It’s just going to be a what-if for the rest of our lives, but it’s something we’re going to have to live with.”
Toppin is expected to head to the NBA Draft and wrote Monday on Instagram he would make an announcement about his future soon. This was just the latest award for the 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore, and there may be more coming. The biggest honors — the Naismith, Wooden and Oscar Robertson awards — will be announced in April.
Toppin’s accomplishments are all the more remarkable considering how much of a late bloomer he was. The last player to win the AP award, Duke’s Zion Williamson, was a five-star recruit who ranked second on ESPN’s list of top players in the class of 2018. Toppin had no stars and no offers after his senior season at Ossining High School in New York. His recruiting didn’t take off until he spent a post-graduate year at Mount Zion Academy in Baltimore.
“When I think of Obi, I think about his journey,” Sullivan said. “I think about his personality and the way he relates to people and the joy he has playing the game.”
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Sullivan laughs when he thinks about a story last summer involving Toppin and guard Jalen Crutcher. The two talked on video about the goal of winning a national championship in 2020. Sullivan said he wasn’t too thrilled with his video staff for putting that out there because it seemed like such a distant dream.
“Young people always have aspirations,” Sullivan said. “You expect young people to say those things. Through the season, what I came to learn was it was an authentic belief. It was a good lesson they taught me. ‘Hey, Neil, I know you’re not willing to say this, but I am.’”
None of this would have happened, of course, without Grant, whose program added Toppin and Crutcher to the roster in his second month on the job in 2017. He’s the first coach of an Ohio college to win this award since Ohio State’s Randy Ayers in 1991.
“In the 31 games that we played, our guys did a heck of a job of playing consistent and taking advantage of the opportunities that were in front of us,” Grant told the AP. “What we did accomplish in the shortened season is something I think that hopefully will be remembered.”
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Sullivan credited Grant for making dozens of different decisions that filled in the bigger puzzle, including getting everyone on the roster to buy into their roles, even if he meant playing fewer than 10 minutes per game.
“Clearly any coach knows someone like Obi makes your shooting percentage better than if you didn’t have him,” Sullivan said. “It’s putting all of the things together. You need great players. You need a great system. You need a great process. Each one of them alone is necessary, but alone they’re not sufficient. They need to be merged together.
“I think sometimes you can have programs with really talented players, but maybe they don’t play well together. Other times you may have programs that play really well together but they’re not quite as talented. What stands out to me is the number of boxes the team was able to check. We’ve got talent, and we have togetherness. We have depth, and we have unselfishness. That, to me, is what I’ll probably remember the most.”
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