Josh Cunningham wouldn’t bite. Given the opportunity to talk about the beach and the pools and 80-degree temperatures the Dayton Flyers will see this week in the Bahamas, he gave the quote repeated over the years by numerous Flyers.
“It’s not a vacation,” Cunningham said Saturday after a 90-81 victory over Purdue Fort Wayne at UD Arena. “It’s a business trip. We’re not there for (the beaches). We’re there for basketball.”
Ryan Mikesell said the same thing in 2016 before Dayton left for California to play in the Wooden Legacy. Former Dayton coach Archie Miller took it a step further in 2014 before Dayton played in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, calling it a “very serious business trip.”
Considering the quality of the Battle 4 Atlantis field, this is not only a very serious trip for Dayton but a difficult one. The Flyers (3-0) play Butler (3-0) in the first round at 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPNews) at Imperial Arena, a ballroom turned into a basketball facility at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island. Here’s a preview of the tournament:
Favorite: No. 4 Virginia (3-0), the only top-25 team in the field, returned three of its top four scorers from a team that earned the top overall seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament and then became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. The Cavaliers play Middle Tennessee State (3-1) at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2) in the final first-round game.
Dark horse: Butler (3-0) routed the Miami RedHawks and Detroit before beating Mississippi 83-76 on Friday. Like Dayton, it hasn’t played away from home. Butler ranks 31st in the Ken Pomeroy ratings and is one of four teams in the tournament receiving top-25 votes. The Bulldogs were picked to finish eighth in the Big East.
Dayton’s chances: The Flyers face long odds in the first round. KenPom.com gives them a 26 percent chance of beating Butler. They would be an even bigger underdog in the second round Thursday against Virginia if the Cavaliers advance.
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Winning two games in this tournament — however it happens — would be a success for Dayton, which at No. 100 in the Pomeroy ratings is the second-lowest ranked team in the field, ahead of only No. 165 Middle Tennessee State.
However, coach Anthony Grant liked what he saw from his team in the first three games.
“I like being 3-0,” Grant said Friday. “Every game we get to learn from. Our guys have done a very good job of being able to take the things we’re talking about that we need to do to get better and stay grounded. (Playing Purdue Fort Wayne) was a challenge, having not played for a week, just the way the week went. Then obviously we’ve got the trip where we’ll be gone for a week, heading to the Bahamas. When you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, people always want to take them to the past or they want them to predict the future. For them to be able to stay focused on what we had to take care of today, that was a challenge for us. I thought we were able to overcome the adversity that hit us, handle the distractions that surrounded us all week and be able to focus in on who we had today.”
Best first-round game: Oklahoma (3-1) plays Florida (2-1) in the first game of the tournament at noon Wednesday (ESPN). The Sooners (2016) and Gators (2014) have both reached the Final Four in recent seasons.
Most likely championship matchup: Virginia playing Wisconsin (3-0) in the final at 2 p.m. Sunday would not suprise anyone. The Badgers, who open with Stanford (2-1) at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN or ESPN2), have the best victory this season of any team in the tournament, having won 77-68 at Xavier on Nov. 13.
Best-case scenario for Dayton: The Flyers would want to beat Butler, Virginia and Wisconsin. Those teams rank 31st, fourth and 14th in the Pomeroy ratings.
Worst-case scenario for Dayton: The key in these tournaments every year for Dayton is winning the first game. They have not done that the last two seasons, and instead of playing UCLA and Clemson in the semifinals of the Wooden Legacy and Charleston Classic, they lost to Nebraska and Hofstra and played Portland and Ohio in the consolation bracket. While Middle Tennessee would be no pushover if Dayton faces it in the second game, it would be a big step down from a strength-of-schedule standpoint from Virginia.
Best player: Wisconsin senior forward Ethan Happ ranked seventh on a CBSSports.com preseason list of the top 100 players in college basketball. He’s averaging 18.3 points per game and scored 30 against Xavier on 15-of-23 shooting.
Best freshman: Florida point guard Andrew Nembhard ranked 23rd in the 2018 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com. He has started the first three games, averaging 7.7 points and 5.7 assists.
Winningest coach: Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has a record of 621-395 in a 33-year career. In his first seven seasons with the Sooners, they reached the NCAA tournament five times.
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Dayton connections: If Dayton plays Florida in championship or consolation round, it will pit Grant against the team he helped lead to the national championship in 2006. He was an assistant on Billy Donovan’s staff from 1996-2006. Two of his assistant coaches, Darren Hertz and Donnie Jones, were part of both national championship teams at Florida (2006 and 2007). A Dayton-Virginia matchup in the second round would be interesting for Dayton assistant Anthony Solomon, who played for the Cavaliers from 1983-87.
Dayton history: Dayton played three teams in the field — Stanford, Florida and Oklahoma — in the NCAA tournament during the Archie Miller years. Dayton beat Stanford in the Sweet 16 in 2014 in Memphis before losing its next game to Florida. Oklahoma rallied in the final 10 minutes to beat Dayton in the second round in Columbus in 2015.
Dayton hasn’t played Virginia since 1987, Middle Tennessee State since 1965 or Wisconsin since 1961. Dayton and Butler last played in 2013, the only season Butler was in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
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