Dayton’s Anthony Grant hugs Massachusetts’ Matt McCall before a game on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass. David Jablonski/Staff

Dayton’s Anthony Grant: ‘It should be exciting year’ in A-10 basketball

Flyers picked sixth in preseason poll

When it comes to differences between Anthony Grant’s first team and second team, there have been bigger changes with the roster. Five of the nine scholarship athletes available this season — three transfers on the roster will sit out the season — didn’t play last season. Four have never wore a Dayton uniform. Three of those are newcomers who enrolled at the university in June.

That’s why a team that returns four starters, including its leading scorer, redshirt senior forward Josh Cunningham, was picked to finish sixth in the Atlantic 10 Conference preseason poll Thursday. There are too many unknowns about the 2018-19 Flyers to label them a contender, though in a wide-open year for the league, anything can happen.

“From top to bottom, I think there’s some pretty good parity overall,” said Grant on a phone call from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., site of A-10 Media Day and the conference tournament for the next three seasons. “When you look at what the league returns and what it’s been able to add, it should be an exciting year.”

» HISTORY LESSON: Where Dayton has ranked in the poll over the years

Dayton fell from 15-3 in the A-10 and winning the outright regular-season championship in 2017, Archie Miller’s final season as coach, to finishing 8-10 in the conference in 2018, Grant’s first season. It was Dayton’s lowest finish and worst conference mark since it tied for 11th at 7-9 in 2013.

The last team to win a regular-season title after finishing with a losing record in the conference the previous season was Dayton in 2000. It won the West Division with an 11-5 mark after finishing 5-11 the previous season.

That’s a harder climb to make now that the A-10 doesn’t have divisions. Saint Louis, which tied for fifth last season at 9-9, will try to make one of the biggest leaps in A-10 history. It received 15 of the 26 first-place votes and was picked to win the conference.

Grant doesn’t have to worry about the Billikens or anyone in the conference until January. His team started practice Oct. 4 and continues to make defense a focus in the preseason.

“That’s an area we need to get a lot better,” Grant said. “We need to make sure we’re putting ourselves in a position where we can get better by what we choose to do every day in practice. I think our guys are working hard. They’re getting familiar with each other and the system and the identity they want to have as a team.”

» RELATED: UD Arena will be ready to go for start of season

On the offensive end, Dayton excelled at finishing shots at the rim. Cunningham, who was named to the preseason first team, shot 70.1 percent from 2-point range, ranking eighth in the country. Trey Landers shot 66 percent and finished 34th in that category. The team shot 59.5 percent, the second-best number in the nation.

Cunningham and Landers return as do starting guards Jalen Crutcher and Jordan Davis.

“It’s great to have those guys back,” Grant said. “Josh, as a senior with the numbers he was able to put up, certainly we’re going to try to take advantage of that, and Trey did a great job. But we’ve been able to add some pieces, and hopefully the pieces we return will show some improvement as well. I think we need to be more efficient in terms of our ability to shoot the 3 and and our ability to take care of the basketball and value possessions. We’ve certainly got room to grow from an offensive standpoint.”

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