Dayton Flyers: The best and worst of 2021-22 regular season

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Dayton Flyers highlights: DaRon Holmes II scores 20 vs. Davidson on March 5, 2022

UD takes 22-9 record into A-10 tournament this week

Dayton Flyers coach Anthony Grant had not faced a question about his team’s NCAA tournament resume all season until Saturday.

For most of the season, Dayton hovered so far from the at-large discussion thanks to three early-season losses in a row to UMass Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay, it didn’t make sense to get Grant’s thoughts. The only path to the big dance seemed to be through the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.

That still appears to be the case this week, though the Flyers have 22 victories, including seven in their last eight-regular season games, and maybe the most confusing resume in college basketball. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the most famous bracketologist, has kept Dayton among the at-large contenders on the wrong side of the bubble, not totally erasing them from his daily update even after the La Salle loss, which caused many other experts to do just that.

With the regular season ending Saturday, it was finally time to see what the Dayton coach thought about his team’s chances on Selection Sunday. Grant was asked after an 82-76 victory against Davidson at UD Arena what he makes of the Flyers’ resume as it relates to the NCAA tournament or whether he wants all the focus to be on winning three games in three days at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., where the A-10′s automatic bid will be on the line.

“I think if we win our next game, and we keep doing that, it’ll take care of itself,” Grant said.

That next game comes at 6 p.m. Friday. Dayton (22-9) will play in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Friday against No. 7 seed George Washington (12-17, 8-9) or No. 10 seed Massachusetts (14-16, 7-11).

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After losing three games in November, Dayton lost two games in each of the next three months to finish with the second-best regular-season record of the Grant era. Only the 29-2 team of 2019-20 did better. That team had secured a NCAA bid — maybe even a No. 1 seed — by the time the A-10 tournament arrived but didn’t get to play a single posteason game because of the pandemic. This team will need to win at least two games in the A-10 tournament to have a chance on Selection Sunday, and that might not be enough. Winning the whole thing would end all doubts.

Before moving on to the postseason conversation, here’s a breakdown of how the regular season went for Dayton:

MVP and best rookie: Freshman forward DaRon Holmes II entered the program as the highest-ranked recruit to pick UD this century. He surpassed the hype, becoming the first true freshman to lead the team in scoring (11.9 points per game) in school history.

When the A-10 announces its annual awards Tuesday, Holmes likely will become the second Flyer to be named the A-10 Rookie of the Year three years after Obi Toppin became the first as a redshirt freshman in 2019. Holmes could also make the A-10 first team. Toppin was the first A-10 freshman to make the first team since Lamar Odom in 1999.

KenPom.com lists Holmes on a five-man first team along with Davidson’s Luka Brajkovic and Hyunjung Lee, George Mason’s Josh Oduro and Virginia Commonwealth’s Vince Williams.

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Dayton Flyers highlights: Koby Brea makes go-ahead 3-pointer to beat Davidson on March 5, 2022

Most improved player and best sixth man: Koby Brea averaged 2.9 points in 17 games as a freshman last season, averaging 14.1 minutes per game. He played a bigger role at the end of the season, averaging 7.0 points in the last three games, and he has become a consistent scoring threat at the end of this season, too. He has averaged 14.0 points in the last six games.

Overall, Brea has averaged 8.0 points in 20.1 minutes per game. He started the first two games of the season but has come off the bench the last 29 games and embraced that role.

“I like it because a lot of times teams go on a run on us in the first couple of minutes,” Brea said, “and I’m able to come in and just bring everybody up a little bit and keep everybody’s heads up. When I’m able to help the team go on a little run and help the team out, it’s just a great feeling because I feel like it impacts the game on a different level.”

Brea impacted games in a major way from behind the 3-point line. In A-10 games, he was the best 3-point shooter in the conference (38 of 79, 48.7%). He also made one of the biggest shots of the season, a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute against Davidson.

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Dayton Flyers highlights: Toumani Camara scores 11 vs. Richmond on March 1, 2022

Best new transfer: After two seasons at Georgia, Toumani Camara committed to Dayton last April. Most fans and UD basketball experts figured he would be Dayton’s best player this season because he would be the most experienced player on the roster, and he wasn’t far behind Holmes in the race for team MVP in part because of how well he played once the A-10 games started.

Camara averaged 11.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 17 A-10 games. He shot 45.7% from 3-point range (16 of 35) after he shooting 16.7% (4 of 24) in 13-non-conference games.

Camara’s importance was never more evident than when Dayton lost 62-60 at La Salle on Feb. 26 with him sidelined by a knee injury.

Dayton also hit the jackpot with another transfer, Kobe Elvis, who played last season at DePaul. He averaged 8.7 points while shooting 39.2% (38 of 97) from 3-point range.

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Dayton Flyers highlights: Malachi Smith in ESPN Events Invitational in November 2021

Best new point guard: After three seasons with Scoochie Smith running the point and four with Jalen Crutcher manning the spot, Dayton’s future looks to be in sure hands. Following an injury-plagued preseason, Malachi Smith earned the starting job in the fourth game of his freshman season against Austin Peay.

Smith ranks third on the team with 9.2 points per game. With 56 steals, Smith broke Derrick Dukes’ freshman mark of 48, set in 1990-91. He also has 167 assists. That’s the ninth most by any player in school history, and he’s 23 away from tying Juwan Staten’s freshman record, set in 2010-11.

Most underrated player: Along with Holmes, second-year guard R.J. Blakney was the only player to start all 31 games. He averaged 6.4 points and 3.5 rebounds and shot 38.7% (29 of 75) from 3-point range.

Best-run play: Blakney also had one of the biggest baskets of the season: a dunk off with 1.2 seconds left off an alley-oop pass from Smith in a 55-53 victory at Richmond in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

Best new record: Holmes blew past Steve McElvene’s single-season school record for blocks (55) with 71 in 31 games. He tied the single-game school record of six blocks three times.

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Highlights: Amzil's shot and Dayton's celebration after victory over Kansas on Nov. 26, 2021

Best victory: Dayton beat No. 4 Kansas 74-73 on a buzzer-beater by Mustapha Amzil on Nov. 26 in the semifinals of the ESPN Events Invitational in Orlando, Fla. Kansas (25-6) ranks seventh in the NCAA Evaluation Tool.

Worst loss: Dayton was outscored 14-3 in the last four minutes and lost 87-81 to Austin Peay on Nov. 20 at UD Arena. The Governors finished the season 12-17 and beat no other team ranked in the top 200 of the NET.

Best team performance: Dayton beat Virginia Commonwealth 82-52 on Feb. 2 after losing 53-52 at home to VCU on Jan. 5. VCU, which did not have leading scorer Vince Williams in the second game against Dayton, won its next eight games before losing its regular-season finale 69-65 at Saint Louis on Saturday.

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Worst team performance: Dayton lost 78-59 at home to Lipscomb on Nov. 17. Lipscomb finished the season 14-19 and beat no one else in the top 200 of the NET. Dayton lost this game by 19 points, and its next four losses — to Southern Methodist, Mississippi, VCU and George Mason — were by a total of 18 points.

Best stat: In A-10 games, Dayton led the league in scoring defense (57.8). Even counting all games, Dayton had the lowest opponents’ scoring average in the conference (60.6). It’s the first time Dayton has led the A-10 in scoring defense.

Worst stat: Dayton shot 68.2% from the free-throw line, ranking 293rd in the nation. It’s the program’s worst mark since the 2015-16 season (66.8).

Worst injury: Elijah Weaver was Dayton’s leading scorer on the season when he suffered a wrist injury in the 11th game of the season at Virginia Tech. He was never the same and eventually had to undergo season-ending surgery March 4.

Most surprising rotation change: Zimi Nwokeji was Dayton’s second-leading returning scorer (5.9) behind Mustapha Amzil (9.9) but has not found meaningful minutes all season, except for a brief stint in the La Salle game when Camara was sidelined. He averaged 19.9 minutes last season as a redshirt freshman and is playing 4.9 minutes per game in 14 appearances this season.

Nwokeji had early-season injuries that slowed his progress this season, and Grant said in February, “He’s got some guys ahead of him that are pretty good players. It’s a combination (of things). One thing I’m really pleased with is he’s a great human being. He comes every day with a great attitude, great work ethic. Whatever you ask of him, he’s willing to do. Like anyone else, you want to play. The ability to sacrifice for your team, to understand the opportunities you have with this team and what this team is capable of, he’s done a terrific job of that. You never know when the opportunity is going to present itself.”

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