Jalen Crutcher and Obi Toppin didn’t take long to reconnect in front of fans after six months of doing so only in the Cronin Center gym. Just over two minutes into an exhibition game Saturday against Cedarville University, Crutcher threw an alley-oop pass from half court to Toppin, who dunked it with ease and then paused to give the student section an extra second to applaud before getting back on defense.
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“Jalen’s always going to find me on those passes,” Toppin said. “It was a great pass.”
Toppin set a Dayton Flyers single-season record with 83 dunks last season, and Crutcher assisted him on 37 of the dunks. Toppin and Crutcher, the first two recruits of the Anthony Grant era, committed to Dayton 10 days apart in May 2017 and enrolled at UD the following month.
Two years later, Toppin and Crutcher are poised to lead Dayton back to the heights it reached in the final season of Archie Miller’s tenure, but they’ll have plenty of help along the way. They are two of 11 scholarship players on the 2019-20 roster. Ten of them — everyone except injured redshirt junior center Jordy Tshimanga — played double-figure minutes in the 93-60 exhibition game victory.
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For the first time in Grant’s three seasons, Dayton has the depth and the talent to compete not only in the Atlantic 10 Conference but on a national level, something they will do later this month at the Maui Invitational. Before they face the biggest tests of the season, Dayton plays three heavy underdogs, starting with Indiana State at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Here are three questions entering the 2019-20 season opener:
1. What will Toppin do for an encore?
No player in recent Dayton history has received as much preseason hype as Toppin. He was one of 50 players from across the nation named to the watch list for the Naismith Trophy, college basketball’s top award. He was also nominated for the Karl Malone Award and the Lute Olson Award. A number of NBA Draft experts see him as a first-round pick if he decides to leave after his redshirt sophomore season.
Toppin averaged 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds last season. He averaged 17.1 points per game in Dayton’s last 12 games. Continuing that upward trend isn’t a given — especially with the added pressure that comes with so many preseason accolades.
“I don’t think that’s easy for any kid,” Grant said. “Any time you’ve got a lot of people telling you what their expectations of you are, that’s not really good for anybody, whether that’s a kid or an adult. What we try to do is be honest with him. Obi’s a great kid. He realizes he’s a sophomore on the court this year. He’s played less than 50 games over the course of his career. He has a lot of room for improvement. We think he’s a really good player, but we don’t think he’s scratched the surface of how good he could be yet.”
2. Can Dayton stay healthy this season?
The Flyers rarely reach the season opener with all their players available. This year, Tshimanga remains sidelined with knee pain as the season begins. Last year, Josh Cunningham missed the opener after injuring his wrist in practice. Two years ago, the only player out for the first game was Matej Svoboda, who was sick.
Kendall Pollard was the injured Flyer at the start of the 2016-17 season. The year before that, Dayton started the season without Dyshawn Pierre, who was suspended. The list goes on.
Dayton battled injuries throughout the offseason, but Grant said Monday “knock on wood, we’re as healthy as we’ve been. We’ve just got to continue to grow. No team is going to be at its best in the first week of November. We’re a team that hopefully has a lot of room for improvement and will continue to get better and take every experience and learn from it.”
3. Does Indiana State have any chance of an upset?
The Sycamores have suffered five straight losing seasons and have played in the NCAA tournament once (2011) in the last 18 seasons. However, they have had surprising victories in each of the last three seasons. They upset Butler 72-71 in 2016. They routed Indiana 90-69 in Archie Miller’s first game as head coach in 2017. They knocked off Colorado 72-67 last November in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
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The player to watch from Indiana State is Tyreke Key, a 6-foot-2 junior guard who led the Missouri Valley Conference with 17.3 points per game last season.
Indiana State coach Greg Lansing called Dayton a deep and athletic team.
“They can do a lot of things,” Lansing told the Indiana Statesman. “They have a guy that’s touted as one of the top-25 players in the country. (They’re) well coached. (They’re) a hard-playing group. I think both of us will go into that game knowing a little bit about each other, but you’re going to have to put your feet into the fire and find out real quick.”
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