Wait for first game at UD Arena continues for Dayton Flyers

After exhibition game cancelled, UD hopes to play Tuesday against Alcorn State

Moments after his postgame press conference March 7 at UD Arena, Dayton Flyers coach Anthony Grant learned from a reporter he had won the Basketball Times National Coach of the Year award.

Other national awards followed for Grant, who led Dayton to a 29-2 record and 20 straight victories to end the regular season. What didn’t come for the third-year coach was a postseason and closure he and his program would have received by playing the other national championship contenders in the NCAA tournament. The season ended that night with a victory against George Washington on Senior Night.

The coronavirus pandemic robbed Dayton of the chance to play in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament and March Madness. That pandemic continues to keep UD from playing in a public setting. Its exhibition game Saturday against Cedarville was cancelled on Friday because of a positive COVID-19 test among Cedarville’s Tier 1 personnel, which includes coaches, players, trainers and other support staff.

That means Dayton will have to wait until 7 p.m. Tuesday when it’s scheduled to play Alcorn State in the first regular-season game of the year. Alcorn State opened the season Wednesday with a 90-59 loss to Alabama-Birmingham and plays at Kent State at 1 p.m. Saturday.

For Dayton, the game Tuesday will be the first chance to put the end of last season in the past as it starts to write the next chapter in the Dayton basketball story. For Grant, it’s a chance to see what he’s got against an outside opponent.

“The focus is really on us,” said Grant on Tuesday, speaking out the opportunity to play Cedarville when that game was still on the schedule. “Obviously, we’ve got some veterans, but we’ve got a group of young guys that’ll be getting their first taste of a real game and outside competition. It’s been one of those offseasons. Because of COVID and some other things, we haven’t really been able to do a whole lot in terms of scrimmaging among ourselves, let alone against outside competition.”

The few Dayton fans in the stands on Tuesday — there will be no more than 300 — and those watching on ESPN+ could see as many as four players in a Dayton uniform for the first time: redshirt freshman Zimi Nwokeji and freshmen Luke Frazier, Koby Brea and R.J. Blakney.

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If redshirt freshman Moulaye Sissoko plays, it will be his second appearance. He had 12 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes in an exhibition against Cedarville last season. Dayton won that game 93-60. Sissoko did not play the rest of the season because Dayton decided to redshirt him.

As of Tuesday, Grant didn’t know who would be available to play Saturday if his team had played Cedarville, saying that was to be determined.

“We’ve had a couple of minor things that have kept guys out,” Grant said. “We really haven’t had the chance to have the whole group together a whole lot over the past couple weeks. The guys are doing good. Thankfully, we haven’t been hit with the COVID protocol. We’ll take it for what it is and try to take it one day at a time and get ready for when we tip it off for real next week.”

Dayton’s starting lineup Tuesday could feature two three players who were in the starting lineup last season against Cedarville: guards Jalen Crutcher and Rodney Chatman, both of whom started all season, and Chase Johnson, who started the exhibition game and the regular-season opener before being replaced in the lineup by Trey Landers.

The other players most likely to start, assuming they’re healthy, are guard Ibi Watson and center Jordy Tshimanga, both redshirt seniors.

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Dayton begins the season with 10 scholarship players available. Junior guard Dwayne Cohill will miss the season after suffering a knee injury in October. Southern California transfer Elijah Weaver is sitting out the season. A 13th scholarship player, Mustafa Amzil, will join the team in December or January and could see action this season.

Grant will be interested to see what the newcomers do under the bright lights of UD Arena for the first time.

“It’ll be good to get a feel for some rotations and different guys playing together,” Grant said. “That’s been limited because we’re playing against each other every day. I think the guys are excited. They’re looking forward to getting out there, putting on the uniform for the first time and playing with teammates instead of against them. There’s a lot of things we’ll learn about ourselves.”

Dayton coaches, players and support staff members are now undergoing COVID-19 testing three days a week. Cedarville also had to pass three tests (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) before it could play Dayton. Coach Pat Estepp said Monday they passed their first round of tests. The testing will continue all season throughout college basketball.

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As of Friday, Dayton planned to play five non-conference games, though more could be added.

“It’s a day-to-day thing,” Grant said. “I don’t what we’ll add. I don’t know what we’ll lose. The more games we can play the better our team will get. Especially with a lot of young guys we have, we need outside competition. We need to play games.”

With its current schedule, Dayton doesn’t go on the road until its fourth regular-season game: Dec. 12 against Mississippi State at Atlanta.

“In light of what’s going on around the country,” Grant said, “we don’t mind the fact that we can start at home.”

TUESDAY’S GAME

Alcorn State at Dayton, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 1290, 95.7

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