Practice will begin for the Dayton Flyers in the first week of October. That first practice isn’t the milestone it once was because teams have practices during the summer and individual workouts throughout September. The offseason isn’t a season so much as a weekend here and there.
Dayton can practice up to 30 times in a 42-day period before the season opener, which falls on Nov. 7 for the Flyers. The sprint to March begins then with 31 regular-season games — one more than typical for Dayton — in four months.
While fans know what to expect from Josh Cunningham and see promise in the other returning starters — Trey Landers, Jordan Davis and Jalen Crutcher — there’s a lot they don’t know about the 2018-19 Flyers. With three players transferring (Xeyrius Williams, John Crosby and Jordan Pierce) two turning pro (Kostas Antetokounmpo and Matej Svoboda) and the one senior (Darrell Davis) graduating, there’s almost as much mystery surrounding coach Anthony Grant’s second team as his first.
Here are five questions Dayton faces as the season nears:
1. Is nine enough?
Dayton enters the season with nine scholarship players: the four returning starters; Obi Toppin and Ryan Mikesell, both of whom practiced but didn’t play last season; and newcomers Jhery Matos, Dwayne Cohill and Frankie Policelli. Dayton also has three transfers — Ibi Watson, Rodney Chatman and Jordy Tshimanga — who will sit out this season before debuting next season. That leaves one scholarship open.
It’s not unusual for Dayton to not have a full roster of 13 scholarship players. Most seasons it has at least one player sitting out as a transfer or for injury or academic reasons. Last season, it had 10 available scholarship players. In the 2016-17 season, Archie Miller’s final year at Dayton, the Flyers had 11.
Dayton had 12 available scholarship players in 2015-16 with Cunningham sitting out the season as a transfer. The 2014-15 team famously had only seven — and that’s counting walk-on turned scholarship athlete Bobby Wehrli — for most of the season. Even the Elite Eight team in 2013-14 had one scholarship open.
In summary, Dayton can win with nine players, but if injuries mount, its roster depth will be a concern. Cunningham is the one player the team can’t afford to lose for any length of time. When he wore a walking boot in a photo posted to Twitter on Sept. 2, fans started to panic, but it appeared to be a minor injury — players wear the protective boots for even small issues these days — because Dayton has featured Cunningham in social media posts since then, and he’s not wearing a boot.
The Flyers need Cunningham’s talents and his leadership.
“He’s a very big leader,” Toppin said. “Every day in practice, he brings it. He motivates everyone to work harder. Even when we don’t have practice, he tells us to get in the gym, work.”
2. Who’s the backup point guard?
Crutcher, who averaged 9.2 points and 4.4 assists per game, had the most productive freshman season by a Dayton player since Dyshawn Pierre in 2012-13. He took the starting job from Crosby in the seventh game of the season, lost it in December for a three-game stretch and regained it for good when Atlantic 10 Conference play began.
Crosby transferred to Delaware State in August and will sit out this season before playing his final season. That leaves Dayton without a second point guard who has played in college.
Asked in July who his backup would be, Crutcher said he didn’t know yet. “There’s a lot of guys,” he said. Cohill, a 6-foot-2 freshman from Holy Name High School in Parma Heights, would be one candidate. He can play point guard or shooting guard.
3. Who will start?
It’s hard to imagine Cunningham, Landers, Crutcher or Davis not starting the season opener against North Florida on Nov. 7. That means one spot is up for grabs.
Mikesell, a 6-7 redshirt junior forward, started 23 games as a sophomore but didn’t play last season after undergoing surgeries on both hips. If you had to bet on the fifth starter, he would be your guy. Last year, Grant started the five returning letter-winners in the opener: Darrell Davis, Cunningham, Williams, Crosby and Landers.
If Dayton wants its biggest body on the court to pair with Cunningham at the start of games, Toppin could earn the nod. Matos, a 6-6 guard, has the experience of having played two years of junior college basketball. That could make him an option.
4. What newcomer will contribute the most?
Of the four players who have never worn the Dayton uniform, Cohill has the best resume. He was a top-150 recruit in the class of 2019. He finished his high school career with 2,182 points, ranking 31st in state history.
However, the guess here is Toppin. If he can stay on the court and avoid foul trouble, he’ll have little trouble finding playing time because Dayton needs his size. He generated buzz in August with his play in a pickup game that featured several pro basketball players, but a stronger indicator of his potential comes from Grant, who has had nothing but good things to say about Toppin’s progress in the last year.
“Obi has transformed,” Grant said in June. “I think he’s gained anywhere from 25 to 30 pounds of good weight. He’s done a really good job.”
» UPDATE: What the Dayton roster looks like now
5. How much will the defense improve?
Dayton’s offense wasn’t perfect last season. The program’s highest turnover percentage (20.2) since 2013 and worst 3-point shooting (33.7) since 2009 limited its effectiveness, though it was the second-best shooting team in the country inside the paint (59.5 percent) and was capable of putting up big numbers, such as in a 106-79 victory against Virginia Commonwealth.
What hurt Dayton the most in a 14-17 season was its defense. In 18 A-10 games, Dayton’s opponents shot 47.8 percent from the field. That ranked 13th out of 14 teams. The Flyers’ 3-point defense ranked last (39.2).
If a year in the program help Crutcher and Davis play more physical and if the coaches develop confidence in the entire bench, allowing the Flyers to spread the minutes more than they did last season when it wasn’t uncommon for starters to play 35-40 minutes, the defense should rise from the basement of the conference.
“It kind of wears on you,” said Landers about the minutes he played. “At the end of the day, you’re going to try to fight through it, but you’re not always going to be 100 percent. I don’t make no excuses. We did what we did. But it’s a learning experience.”
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