Josh Cunningham started the first two games of the 2016-17 season for the Dayton Flyers, missed the next 21 and then played the last nine. He estimates he was about 70-75 percent healthy during that time.
“Has this offseason been about getting back to where you were at the start of last season?” he was asked Wednesday.
“Yes and even better,” Cunningham said. “I feel like now I’m stronger. I feel like I’m 100 percent. Last year I came back. I knew I wasn’t 100 percent. Now I feel I’m ready to go.”
Even at less than 100 percent, the 6-foot-7 forward from Chicago provided enough of a boost get the Flyers over the hump in the Atlantic 10 race. He tore a ligament in his ankle after dunking in the final seconds of a victory at Alabama, had surgery three days later and then worked hard to return to action Feb. 10 at Rhode Island.
Cunningham finished the season with averages of 6.3 points and 2.9 rebounds.
“I just wanted to go back and give it my all for the team,” Cunningham said. “I’m very happy I came back. It gave me the confidence in my ankle to know I can come back out here and play on this and it’s nothing to worry about. I think I was probably a step slower just because I was hesitant about making moves and shifting to my left ankle.”
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Cunningham played double-figure minutes in five of the last nine games. He made one of the biggest shots in the Senior Night victory against Virginia Commonwealth.
Cunningham’s fall-away jumper, which he got off just before the shot clock expired, with 3:51 to play gave Dayton a 73-68 lead. The basket ended a two-minute scoreless streak and a 6-0 VCU run. UD clinched the first outright conference title in school history that night with a 79-72 victory.
Cunningham, now a redshirt junior, has used the offseason to work on his outside shot.
“Last year I didn’t shoot the ball,” Cunningham said. “The one shot against VCU was probably my first time shooting a mid-range jumpshot.”
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Cunningham has dedicated himself to shaping his body in the offseason. He wants to weight 225. He’s at 227.
“My goal was to lose weight, and I’ve lost weight,” Cunningham said. “I feel much better. I’ve slimmed down. I feel I’m back to being the old Josh, being athletic and mobile.”
New Dayton strength coach Casey Cathrall has helped Cunningham make progress in that area. Cunningham said the players do more explosive weightlifting: bench presses and squats, etc. He has added strength in his legs and upper body.
“He’s teaching us how to use our weight, how to shift from one side to the other side the correct way,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t know there was a correct way, but he’s showing us the correct way and I really appreciate it.”
In June, Cathrall praised Cunningham for pushing himself and his teammates in the weight room.
“I’m happy and proud of the way he’s come in and taken the weight room by storm,” Cathrall said. “He’s really working to change his mechanics. He’s a very ankle-dominated mover. We’re trying to get him to use his hips and glutes. When he does that, things like knees and ankles that have come up with him in the past, those will take care of themselves. He feels the best he’s felt in a long time.”
Cunningham also has impressed coach Anthony Grant with his work ethic and maturity.
“With the injury he sustained,” Grant said in July, “most of this offseason has been, ‘Let’s get your body right. Let’s get your skill set to where you can do the things we think you’re capable of doing from an offensive standpoint.’ He’s got a chance to be another guy who’s consistent for us in terms of what he brings scoring the basketball and defending multiple positions. He brings great energy to our team.”
Cunningham had to get used to the idea of a new coach when he first heard Archie Miller was leaving for Indiana. He lost his coach as a freshman, too, when Bradley fired Geno Ford in 2015. Cunningham transferred to Dayton that spring.
Cunningham thought, “Not me again,” when Miller left. He quickly shook off that feeling for the sake of his teammates.
“I was just like, ‘I’ve got to be the best for my teammates,’” Cunningham said. “They’ve never been through it before. I’ve been through it. I’ve got to be the big brother and them know everything is going to be fine. We’ve got to take this next coach and see what he’s about and buy into his system.”
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The Flyers have done that. Grant doesn’t yell as much as Miller, Cunningham said, but when he does, the players know he means business. All the coaches have already left their mark on the players.
“They’re amazing,” Cunningham said. “They teach us so much stuff, so many different things. They treat us not like basketball players. They treat us like human beings. We have so much respect for them. They take care of us. They want the best for us.”
Dayton has not picked captains for the season yet. It’s a good bet Cunningham will be one. His teammates voted him a captain last season even though he had not played a game with the Flyers. He sat out the 2015-16 season as a transfer.
The new Dayton coaches stress the importance of his leadership, telling Cunningham the young players listen to him and look up to him.
“I just try to embrace that role,” Cunningham said, “and be the best leader I can be to the young guys.”