Blakney: UD’s season ahead could be ‘remembered for a long time’

Third-year guard started all 35 games last season

The offseason is the best time for bold proclamations.

In July 2019, long before the Dayton Flyers rose to No. 3 in the national rankings with a 29-win season, Obi Toppin and Jalen Crutcher talked about winning a national championship that season.

“We talk about competing at the highest stage,” Toppin said.

Three summers earlier, Dayton’s seniors talked about getting to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season and becoming the winningest class in school history.

“We want to do everything we’ve done in my three years and exceed that in one,” Scoochie Smith said in 2016.

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The returning players on Dayton’s 2022-23 roster have not shied away from similar goals. Kobe Elvis talked about making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Koby Brea mentioned going undefeated in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

R.J. Blakney didn’t talk about anything quite so specific as he followed those players in a sit-down interview at the Skuns Room at the Cronin Center on campus on July 13, but his comments followed a similar theme.

“It’s hard to say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’” Blakney said, “but I feel like it’s going to be something that we remember for a long time because it’s just a very, very talented group. If we continue to put that together and we’re all on the same page, we’re going to do something.”

Blakney, a 6-foot-6 guard/forward from Baltimore, Md., started all 35 games last season for a team that finished 24-11. The other starters — DaRon Holmes II, Toumani Camara, Malachi Smith and Elvis — return as do key reserves Brea and Mustapha Amzil.

Zimi Nwokeji and Kaleb Washington, who both received limited playing time return, as does Richard Amaefule, who redshirted. The two newcomers among the 12 scholarship players are Georgia transfer Tyrone Baker and freshman Mike Sharavjamts, of Mongolia.

Blakney didn’t stand out in one statistical category in second season as a Flyer but built a reputation as someone who can do a little bit of everything. He averaged 6.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per game. He was a big reason Dayton improved from 109th in the nation in defensive efficiency in the 2020-21 season to 39th last season.

“That’s one of the things I love to do,” Blakney said. “People love to do certain things. People love to shoot. But defending is very important. We’ve got a couple of guys who are good. I’m one of them. I feel defense is going to take us to the next level.”

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Blakney had several standout offensive moments as well. He made 5 of 5 3-pointers and scored a career-high 19 points in December in a 62-57 victory against Virginia Tech at UD Arena. His dunk off an alley-oop pass from Malachi Smith with 1.2 seconds left led to a 55-53 victory at Richmond in February.

Blakney shot 35.2% (31 of 88) from 3-point range, though he missed all nine of his attempts in the last three games against Richmond, Toledo and Vanderbilt. He has focused on improving his ball handling and developing more consistency with his shot in his offseason workouts.

“I feel I can vastly improve my shot because, in this game, being able to shoot the ball is very important,” Blakney said. “On a lot of great teams, a lot of guys can shoot. Everybody can shoot, for the most part. So you want to always get better at that.”

While Dayton ranked 53rd in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (36.1) and 37th in 2-point percentage (57.8), it ranked 291st in free-throw percentage (68.3, 392 of 574). It was the program’s worst mark since the 2015-16 season (66.8). If Dayton had made 20 more free throws, it would have shot the national average (71.7).

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Free-throw shooting has also been a focus in summer practices.

“That’s a very important thing that we work on that a lot,” Blakney said, “but I feel like in the clutch moments, we made a lot of big free throws.”

Summer practices started in mid-June for the Flyers and will continue into August. The second summer session of classes ends Aug. 6. Players typically get a break and travel home in early August before returning for the start of fall semester, which is Aug. 22. From that point, the waiting game will continue for the Flyers, who can’t wait for the start of practice in late September or early October and then the start of the season in the first week of November.

“We all want to play right now,” Blakney said.

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