Dayton Flyers basketball: Four reasons to be excited about 2021-22 season

Anthony Grant’s fifth team has potential but inexperience

Don Donoher sat down at UD Arena in early September to talk about the history of the building he called home for 20 seasons as a head coach and for decades since as a fan. A lone worker started the process of sanding the court in an otherwise mostly empty building as Donoher, the winningest coach in Dayton Flyers history, sat on a folding chair in one corner, above the 200 section.

A silent UD Arena is a rare experience. On winter days when more than 13,000 fans crowd into it, the noise brings the building to life. That was missing last season, of course, with attendance restrictions limiting the size of the crowds to fewer than 200. Donoher was one of the few fans with tickets and sat in the 300 section for two games — just another fan but not a face in the crowd because there was no crowd.

The last four seasons, Donoher had an extra reason to cheer. One of his players, Anthony Grant, got his old job in 2017 and took it to a new level in his third season by winning 29 games. The pandemic robbed Grant and the Flyers of the chance to make an even bigger splash in the postseason in 2020, and it affected the 2020-21 season in ways that were hard to calculate.

The pandemic is still here, but college basketball is back. Teams across the country started practice in the final days of September. They get 30 practices in a 42-day stretch before the season begins in November.

Here are four reasons to get excited about Dayton’s season, which starts Nov. 9 with a home game against Illinois-Chicago:

1. The thrill of the unknown

With seven newcomers among 13 scholarship players, only one senior — though Elijah Weaver isn’t considered a senior because last season did not count against anyone’s eligibility — and no one who has played a game in front of packed UD Arena, this is a new chapter for Dayton basketball.

No one knows what to predict, even those closest to the program, though they are optimistic about the future.

“Sounds like he’s recruiting very, very well,” Donoher said of Grant, “and that’s that’s the nature of the beast. He’s put together a wonderful staff. He works at it.”

The national college magazines all predict Dayton won’t finish in the top four in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Lindy’s Sports predicted Dayton will finish fifth. Athlon Sports predicted Dayton will finish sixth. The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook ranked Dayton seventh in the 14-team conference.

“I would say in college basketball, you want to be experienced,” Grant told Blue Ribbon, “and we’re inexperienced in terms of guys who have played with each other or have played college basketball for extended periods of time.”

Fans trying to guess who will start for Dayton this season have plenty of company.

“I’m still figuring us out,” Grant told The Athletic in September. “I couldn’t tell you right now our starting five. I couldn’t tell you right now who I think will be our top three scorers, or anything like that. All of it is a work in progress.”

The uncertainty excites Larry Hansgen, the longtime voice of the Flyers on WHIO Radio. To a certain extent, he’s had that most seasons. No one expected Dayton to finish 29-2 in 2019-20. No one expected the 2020-21 team to take a step back and finish 14-10 with three veteran guards, including one of the best players in school history, Jalen Crutcher, leading the rotation. The 2021-22 season just has more unknowns than any recent season.

“This is probably selfish on my part,” he said, “and I’m sure the coaches don’t share this type of enthusiasm, but I am really excited about a year in which I don’t know. To me the beauty of sport — and that’s why all of the years they’ve tried to keep gambling out, to not have it be pro wrestling where the outcome is scripted in advance — is you buy a ticket, you turn on the radio, you turn on the TV and you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the beauty of sport, and that’s what we’ve got this year.

“To me, wow, that’s really exciting. I’m not looking at the schedule and saying, ‘They should win this game. They would win this game.’ I don’t know. I have no idea. I think this team has as much chance of losing to Alabama State as they do beating Kansas. That may sound ludicrous, but I’m serious. Coaches love to know what’s going to happen. Maybe some of the fans want to know what’s going to happen. But personally I’m excited not knowing and showing up every day and seeing what happens.”

2. The return of the fans

Restrictions on indoor gatherings last season in Ohio prevented Dayton from packing UD Arena as it had every season since 1969. Those restrictions are no longer in place. The crowds will return in Dayton and at college basketball arenas across the country.

Hansgen expects the crowds to improve everyone’s experience — not just the players and not just everyone in the arena. Even the people watching at home will benefit from seeing fans cheering. There will be no need for pre-taped crowd noise, which took over arenas and stadiums a year ago.

“It’s going to add to my experience,” Hansgen said. “I think it’s going to help me do a better job. Last year was a tough year. I’m not complaining about it, but it was not fun and it was exhausting at times.”

Of course, the experience inside the arena won’t be the same as it was two years ago. There’s a mask mandate for indoor public spaces in Dayton and at the University of Dayton.

“All of our staff will be fully masked,” said Scott DeBolt, director of UD Arena. “All of our workers will be fully masked. We will ask every patron to be fully masked when they walk in the building. We don’t want to be the mask police once they’re inside the building. People have to understand that there may be a situation with someone sitting next to them that takes their mask off during the game, and if they’re actively eating or drinking, that’s one thing. If they’re not, that’s another. But to try to manage 13,000 people as other venues have seen, it’s virtually impossible.”

3. The potential of the newcomers

Dan Sullivan, a Dayton grad who runs the weekly Talking Out Lowd podcast, predicted in the summer on his show Dayton would finish 24-7 in the regular season. Two Dayton fans joined him on that episode. Justin Hinders predicted a 23-8 finish. Jeff Pfeiffer predicted a 26-5 record.

If those seem like rosy predictions for a team that graduated its top two scorers, Crutcher and Ibi Watson, and returns no double-digit scorers, there’s a reason for the optimism. Dayton brought in perhaps the best transfer in the A-10, Georgia forward Toumani Camara, as well as the highest-ranked freshman, forward DaRon Holmes.

Holmes is a part of the highest-ranked 2021 recruiting class, which includes guards Malachi Smith and Lynn Greer III and forward Kaleb Washington.

Two former Flyers who know the team as well as anybody like the potential as well.

“They have a chance,” said Brooks Hall, who ranks 26th in Dayton history with 1,404 points and now is one of Hansgen’s partners on the WHIO Radio broadcasts. “I don’t know that we’ve had a team with this much potential. I’m talking about (recruiting) rankings. That’s the good. The bad is all it is is potential. It looks good on paper, but there are so many variables about chemistry and how quickly they adjust.

“Do I think this team will be very good moving forward to next year? Absolutely. Just this year, specifically, you don’t know how quickly guys are going to adjust to the speed of the game and the physicality. All those things are unknown. Now I think they’ll be top four in the league. I think the people that are thinking that they’ll be bottom half of the league are nuts because at the end of the day, potential in the A-10 translates better than potential in the Power Five. It’s less guesswork.”

Keith Waleskowski, who ranks 22nd in Dayton history with 1,515 points and rotates with Hall as Hansgen’s radio partner, agrees.

“The difficulty is you’ve got a bunch of new faces, trying to learn a new system, while trying to learn how to play with each other,” he said, “and it’s a lot to take in. They’re relatively young. Some of them have experience, but one season of experience is not the same as three seasons of experience. That’s what makes it such a big question. You’ve got guys that are capable. We’ve got guys that really have a lot of individual talent. How it comes together as a team, I think that’s to be determined. Built into the schedule are opportunities. How they handle them could give them a lot of confidence. It could jump start what they do the rest of the season.”

4. The talent of the returners

Five of Dayton’s six returning players started multiple games last season. Forward Mustapha Amzil started 15 games, and he’s the team’s top returning scorer with 9.9 points per game.

The most important returning player might be Weaver because he could take over the point guard position played by Crutcher the last four seasons and by Scoochie Smith the three seasons before that. Dayton hasn’t had to worry about that position for years. Now it’s got a former top-50 recruit, Weaver, poised to start, though he’ll have competition for the job.

Weaver averaged 5.4 points in 18 games and made 10 starts. In three seasons — the first two of which were spent at Southern California — he’s averaged 2.2 assists and 1.7 turnovers per game.

“I actually think Weaver is really good,” Hall said. “He showed glimpses of it. It’s tough for any guard to come in and be impactful on a team dominated by Crutcher and even Ibi. You’re playing with a lot of pressure. You’ve kind of got a leash on you. You don’t have the same leash as Crutcher and Ibi. Now he’ll get an extended opportunity.”

Weaver shot 36.1 percent (13 of 36) from 3-point range, making 4 of 4 in the final game, a first-round NIT loss to Memphis. If he can turn into a consistent threat from long range, he’ll be even more dangerous.

Amzil is the team’s top returning 3-point shooter. He shot 38.2 percent (26 of 68).

“I think he fits the system well,” Waleskowski said. “He’s similar to myself. He’s not super athletic. He’s not going to wow you with his physical skills, but he gets the job done. If he continues to build on that and not have any type of sophomore slump, especially now that there’s film out there on him, he can be big.”

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