Dayton Flyers: Five factors that could determine team’s fate this season

Dayton's Jalen Crutcher scores against Rhode Island in the first half on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, at the Ryan Center in Kingston, R.I.
Dayton's Jalen Crutcher scores against Rhode Island in the first half on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, at the Ryan Center in Kingston, R.I.

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

Credit: David Jablonski - Staff Writer

UD will try to build on 29-2 season but will need newcomers to contribute

The 2019-20 season ended at the airport for the Dayton Flyers in March. That’s where they were when the NCAA tournament was cancelled three days before Selection Sunday, shattering their last hopes of experiencing any of the madness of March.

A flight from New York City to Dayton preceded many different trips home — except for center Jordy Tshimanga, who remained on campus in Dayton because he couldn’t travel home to Canada — for all the players. They didn’t see each other for four months. Lately, it has been the opposite story for the the returning players and newcomers, who are all stuck in a bubble of sorts together as they try to navigate a 2020-21 season that will be shadowed by the same thing that ended the previous season: the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is one of the closest teams I’ve been on," redshirt senior guard Ibi Watson said, "just basically because of the fact that we can’t do too much other than hang out and chill in the rooms. It’s been great building that chemistry, and I definitely see that translating to the court.”

The University of Dayton campus experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in August and September. That brought workouts to a halt for a couple of weeks and set the tone for the months ahead.

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Avoiding positive COVID-19 tests, staying out of quarantine and maintaining some semblance of a normal schedule may determine who rises in the rankings this season as much as talent and experience. Of course, just the idea of college basketball being played at all, considering what happened March 12, will dominate the sports headlines Wednesday when the season begins for teams across the country.

For Dayton, the return of basketball begins the process of healing. The pain of the cancelled postseason, which could have ended with the program’s first NCAA championship, will linger forever. It will be one of the great what-ifs in college basketball history. Only time can heal that wound, and the clock keeps ticking.

“To say the least, we’re excited about the upcoming season and looking forward to getting started,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said Nov. 12 during Atlantic 10 Conference Media Days. "We’re two weeks away from kicking off college basketball. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to get out there and compete. It goes unsaid but certainly these are unprecedented times in terms of how the season ended last year and getting our group back together and trying to build toward this season.

“Our guys have made a lot of sacrifices like everybody across the county in terms of doing the things we need to do to get prepared and try to keep our campus and our community and our team and individuals safe. Kudos to our guys. I think they’ve done a great job. We’re about three weeks into practice. We’ve got a good mix of veterans and young guys we’re trying to bring along and get prepared for the year.”

This will be Anthony Grant’s fourth team. The Flyers have improved in each of his seasons, winning 14 games and then 21 and 29. If that trend continues, they’ll improve by nine victories this season and win 38 games, which isn’t going to happen because even the NCAA champion isn’t going to play that many games in this shortened season.

No one expects Dayton to be as good this season as it was last season, but it can still contend for an Atlantic 10 Conference championship and a NCAA tournament berth. Here are five factors that could determine Dayton’s fate:

1. Adapting to life without Obi Toppin

Jalen Crutcher and Toppin arrived on campus about a week apart as Grant’s first recruits in the spring of 2017. They became friends off the court and a great duo on it, connecting on numerous alley-oop passes over the last two seasons.

Toppin was the consensus national player of the year last season and also became the first Dayton player to win the A-10 Player of the Year award. Now it’s Crutcher’s turn to chase those kind of accolades.

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Crutcher has increased his scoring average in each of his three seasons (9.2 to 13.2 to 15.1) and may do so again, though he’s got help in the backcourt with Watson, Dayton’s top sixth man last season, and the other returning starter, redshirt senior guard Rodney Chatman. Both will play big roles in the offense, though opposing defenses may focus on stopping Crutcher, who’s ready for the challenge.

“I don’t let anything get to me as far on and off the court,” Crutcher said. “I just stay poised.”

2. Tshimanga’s ability to stay on the court

The 6-foot-11 redshirt senior center played double-figure minutes 14 times in 27 appearances, topping 20 minutes only once. He’s Dayton’s most experienced front-court player by a wide margin and will have to play a bigger role this season. Tshimanga has worked throughout the offseason on figuring out how to avoid foul trouble, which was the biggest reason he didn’t see more time last season.

“It’s been a combination of watching film and having conversations with him in terms of what puts him in a bad way when it comes to picking up those fouls,” Grant said. “It was an issue for Jordy last year, and we’ll need him to be on the floor for extended periods of time. It will be important for us as we move forward. More than anything else, it’s a mindset that we’re trying to instill in him. He needs to be smart and make sure he’s available.”

Dayton's Chase Johnson smiles during practice at UD Arena on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. David Jablonski/Staff
Dayton's Chase Johnson smiles during practice at UD Arena on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

3. Chase Johnson’s health

The 6-9 redshirt junior forward has appeared in 14 games and played a total of 134 minutes in three seasons. He spent two seasons with the Florida Gators and then one at Dayton. He medically withdrew from the university in January but returned to school and the program in the summer.

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All reports throughout the offseason have been positive. Johnson is the only other big man on the roster with any college game experience. If he becomes a major contributor, Dayton’s chances will improve dramatically.

“Chase looks great,” Watson said. “It looks like he didn’t miss a beat. He’s extremely athletic and can do a lot of things on the court that a lot of people can’'t do. It’s great having him back. He’s another guy that’s just a great teammate. On and off the court, he’s a guy you can rely on and you just enjoy being around. Chase has been huge. We’re excited to have him this year.”

Dayton’s Obi Toppin, left, talks to Moulaye Sissoko during a game against Cedarville on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, at UD Arena.
Dayton’s Obi Toppin, left, talks to Moulaye Sissoko during a game against Cedarville on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, at UD Arena.

4. Overall development of the frontcourt

In addition to Tshimanga and Johnson, Dayton will depend on two other big men who practiced last season as freshmen but redshirted: 6-9 center Moulaye Sissoko and 6-7 forward Zimi Nwokeji.

Sissoko had 12 points and nine rebounds in an exhibition game last season Cedarville. A week later, Dayton announced he would redshirt. At that time, he was the only freshman on the team.

Nwokeji joined the program in January after committing in December.

“We’re excited about the possibilities all those guys have,” Grant said. “As we begin to get game experience, that will help them even more. There’s no substitute for outside competition and getting a feel for what you have to do to help your team be successful.”

Dayton fans, including Ryan Mikesell's parents Reed and Lisa, center, cheer during the final minutes of a victory over George Washington on March 7, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff
Dayton fans, including Ryan Mikesell's parents Reed and Lisa, center, cheer during the final minutes of a victory over George Washington on March 7, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

5. Adjusting to life without fans

Dayton has relied on 13,407 fans or crowds close to that to push it toward many victories over the years. It won’t get that kind of support this season. There will be no more than 300 fans in the stands throughout at least the rest of the calendar year. The few tickets available will go to players' families, a limited number of students and invited athletic department guests,

“We have the best fans in the country,” Crutcher said. “We wish they could come out and see us play because we feed off their energy, but if they’re not in the gym, we’re still going to play hard for them.”

2020-21 ROSTER

Rodney Chatman, 6-1, 180, Sr., G

Ibi Watson, 6-5, 195, Sr., G

Luke Frazier, 6-5, 170, Fr., G

Koby Brea, 6-6, 174, Fr., G

Jalen Crutcher, 6-1, 175, Sr., G

Zimi Nwokeji, 6-7, 220, Fr., F

Moulaye Sissoko, 6-9, 250, Fr., C

R.J. Blakney, 6-6, 195, Fr., G

Jordy Tshimanga, 6-11, 278, Sr., C

Dwayne Cohill, 6-2, 180, Jr., G

Chase Johnson, 6-9, 226, Jr., F

Camron Greer, 5-7, 160, Sr., G

Christian Wilson, 6-1, 160, Jr., G

Elijah Weaver, 6-6, 205, Jr., G

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