Josh Cunningham doesn’t feel like the old man on the Dayton Flyers roster. He’s a fifth-year senior but a relatively young one in that he turns 22 on Aug. 11.
With an August birthday, he was always one of the youngest kids in his class. Now the Chicago native Cunningham feels he’s “kind of in the right grade.”
Entering his third year on the court with the Flyers and his fourth year at the university after starting his career at Bradley, he’s also in the right place to make the most of his final season.
“I’m very excited just because it’s my last year,” Cunningham said Wednesday during an interview at UD’s Cronin Center. “At the same time, I’m kind of in between because it’s my last year in college basketball, and college basketball is amazing. Then it’s on to the real world. I’m looking forward to see what my opportunities are a year from now.”
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Cunningham considered exploring his NBA Draft options in the spring. Players can enter their name in the draft without hiring an agent and then return to school, getting advice from scouts and learning about the process.
That’s what Charles Cooke did after his junior season at Dayton. Cunningham chose not to do that, but looks forward to the opportunity next year.
“To get a chance is all I want,” he said. “Then I’ll try to seize the moment from there.”
Cunningham led Dayton in scoring last season (15.6 points per game), ranked among the best finishers at the rim in the country (64.6 percent field-goal percentage) and put himself in a position to compete for the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award in the 2018-19 season. No Dayton player has ever won that honor.
“I feel like I can,” Cunningham said. “That’s the goal. I talk about it. I just feel like I can talk about it as much as I want, but it’s just about the work I put in now and it carrying over to the season, so I’ve been working out real hard — not just for myself but for the team.”
Cunningham has worked on his 3-point shot, ball-handling and getting to the rim. He and all his teammates have focused on defense. Cunningham wants to be able to defend “one through five, whatever they need me to defend.”
Considering what Cunningham went through as a redshirt sophomore in 2016-17 — an ankle injury limited him to 11 games — just staying healthy all season was an accomplishment. He never had any doubt about his status and praised trainer Mike Mulcahey for getting him back in shape and keeping him in peak condition.
“I knew I was going to hold up really good,” Cunningham said. “To me, Mike is the best athletic trainer in college basketball. He does great work. If you’re not ready, he’s not going to force you back out here.”
Cunningham didn’t want to take any time off after the end of last season when the Flyers lost their first Atlantic 10 tournament game to Virginia Commonwealth, finishing 14-17 in coach Anthony Grant’s first season.
The coaches made him take a break, however, because of his heavy workload. He averaged 31.6 minutes per game, a number that would have been higher if he had not battled foul trouble at times throughout the season.
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The short break after the season and the rest of the work Cunningham has put in this offseason has him healthy and ready for the coming season.
“I feel like I’ve never been hurt,” he said. “I feel fine.”
Cunningham also feels good about the team’s chances. He’s one of four returning starters. He’s the only senior among the 11 scholarship players. He’s also the only experienced big man returning from last season.
Dayton does get Ryan Mikesell, a 6-7 redshirt junior forward, back after he missed last season after undergoing two hip surgeries. Obadiah Toppin, a 6-8 redshirt freshman, and Frankie Policelli, a 6-7 freshman, also provide size.
As the captain, one of Cunningham’s jobs will be helping those young players navigate their first season in college basketball.
“We’ve just got to go out and fight and give it our all every night,” he said. “We can’t give up on anybody. We’ve got to take our defensive and offensive mindset on the road with us, not just at home. I feel our connection and bond is unbreakable. I feel that carries onto the court.”
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