The Dayton Flyers saw most of the rest of the country start playing basketball last week and couldn’t help but be a little jealous.
“We were all texting each other and saying, ‘Dang, this team is playing. I wish we could,’” Dayton redshirt senior guard Ibi Watson said. “It made us a little more hungry and gave us time to get healthy and prepare more and more. At the end of the day, we used it to our benefit.”
The season opener almost always serves as a tuneup for Dayton. It’s a second exhibition game of sorts because Dayton schedules an opponent it knows it can beat. That wasn’t the original plan this season because Dayton’s first schedule started with it playing Wichita State in the Crossover Classic.
That game fell through as did an exhibition game against Cedarville University. Bellarmine and Alcorn State couldn’t play Tuesday because of COVID-19 issues. That’s how Dayton and Eastern Illinois found each other, and while the Panthers were better than most of Dayton’s first opponents in recent years, they suffered the same fate, trailing from start to finish at UD Arena, rallying late but losing 66-63. Dayton has won 16 straight season openers.
The Flyers opened the game with a 21-7 run and led by as many as 16 points in the second half. Jalen Crutcher made two free throws with 12 seconds to play, and then Josiah Wallace missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The manner of the victory wasn’t as important as the fact that Dayton was playing at all. It didn’t finalize the game with Eastern Illinois until Monday afternoon.
“James Haring and Darren Hertz and Neil Sullivan, those guys did an unbelievable job of just leaving no stone unturned,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “It was the fourth opponent we thought we would start the season with. In the world we live in with COVID, we have to understand we don’t control this. Things can change really on an hourly basis. That’s what we’ll be facing going forward. Those guys worked tirelessly to get us an opponent. We’ll grateful we were able to play our first game.”
The opening game always answers some questions and creates others. Here are three questions and answers from Tuesday.
Q: Who started the game for Dayton?
A: As expected, Dayton started the five returning players: guards Crutcher, Ibi Watson and Rodney Chatman, forward Chase Johnson and center Jordy Tshimanga.
All together, counting this season, those players have 23 seasons of experience between them, though everyone except Crutcher has sat out a season and Johnson saw limited time in his first three seasons because of injuries.
All of the starters except Tshimanga played more than 30 minutes. The starters carried the load because Dayton’s newcomers weren’t ready to play major minutes against a veteran team. Eastern Illinois ranks first in the country in experience, according to KenPom.com, while Dayton ranks seventh thanks mostly to those five starters.
“We knew there’d be a level of physicality and toughness they would play with,” Grant said. “The idea was to get the game won. We started really well. I thought somewhere around the 12-minute mark, the momentum changed and the game changed. We hit a lull.”
Q: Who else contributed for the Flyers?
A: Freshman guard Koby Brea was hurt and didn’t play. Grant hopes he can return soon but didn’t specify what kind of injury he has. Freshman guard Lukas Frazier did not play. The third freshman in the 2020 class, guard R.J. Blakney, was the first player off the bench and played about three minutes in each half.
Blakney and redshirt freshman forward Moulaye Sissoko were the only reserves to score. Each had two points in their UD debut. It was the first career basket for both.
Redshirt freshman Zimi Nwokeji also made his Dayton debut but played only two minutes in the first half.
The surprise was walk-on guard Christian Wilson playing just under 13 minutes. He had one turnover and a steal. Grant has played walk-ons over scholarship players before — Jack Westerfield in the 2017-18 season, for example — so Wilson isn’t the first to get playing time.
“I thought Christian did a good job,” Grant said. “What we ask of Christian is to come in and spell some of those veteran guys. The main thing Christian gives us is a familiarity with our system. He understands what we want, especially on the defensive end.”
Q: What are this team’s strengths and weaknesses?
Dayton’s offense thrived the last two seasons because it mastered efficiency inside the paint. It ranked second in the country in 2-point field-goal percentage two years ago and first last season. Much of that success had to do with Obi Toppin, who’s now playing for the New York Knicks.
At times in the opener, Dayton’s offense looked just as capable. It made its first eight shots from the field and shot 57.7 percent in the first half. Watson led the Flyers with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Johnson, playing in his first game in almost a year, scored 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Tshimanga had 10 points and eight rebounds.
However, Dayton committed too many turnovers (15) and got beat 13-6 on the offensive boards, which was sometimes a problem last season. Dayton did not make a field goal in the last five minutes and missed the front end of two 1-and-1 opportunities in the final minute.
That allowed Eastern Illinois to go on an 11-0 run and scare the Flyers and the few fans in attendance. There were fewer than 300 because of Ohio Department of Health restrictions on indoor gatherings during the pandemic.
Despite the poor play down the stretch and the near upset, Dayton reveled in being back on the court with the Flyer Faithful watching for the first time since March 7.
“It’s been a long wait for our guys,” Grant said. “I know they were excited. We’re grateful Eastern Illinois was able to make this happen on such short notice. We’re happy to get one under our belt. We had spurts where we played well and spurts where we showed we have a lot to prove.”
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