Josh Cunningham didn’t want to look too far ahead into the 2018-19 season when he discussed the start of the college basketball season last week.
The trip the Bahamas, multiple games in New York City, 16 games at UD Arena, all that can wait. Cunningham lived in the moment last week as he anticipated the first official practice, which comes Thursday for the Dayton Flyers.
“It’s my last year, my last first college practice,” Cunningham said. “It’s surreal right now, but I don’t really look at it like that. I just look at it as another opportunity. It’s just an opportunity and a blessing that I’m still here and able to play basketball.”
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Cunningham underwent knee and shoulder surgeries after arriving at Dayton in 2015. After sitting out the 2015-16 season, he suffered an injury in the second game of the 2016-17 season and missed 21 games. Last year, for the first time since his freshman year at Bradley, he played a full season. He was Dayton's best player then and remains its best player — and only scholarship senior — as the new season approaches.
While Cunningham has worked on his all-around game throughout the offseason with the goal of being the best basketball player he can be, he also has focused on being a more vocal leader on and off the court.
“I’m trying to take more of that role on my shoulders,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham served as the team’s only captain last season. Coach Anthony Grant said last week he hasn’t named a captain or captains for this season. Another possibility would be Ryan Mikesell, who would be a senior if he hadn’t missed last season after undergoing surgeries on both hips.
Like Cunningham, Mikesell will take five years to play four, and he can't wait to get back on the court Nov. 2 for an exhibition game against Capital and Nov. 7 in the season opener against North Florida. That's the thing he missed most a season ago.
“On the bench, it’s different,” Mikesell said. “You’re just watching. You can’t really help out. You can talk back and forth, but getting in front of the fans and playing and affecting the game, that’s the part I missed.”
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Cunningham, Mikesell and Trey Landers are the only scholarship players remaining from Archie Miller’s last team in 2016-17. Five players from that Atlantic 10 championship team graduated: Scoochie Smith, Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard, Kyle Davis and Darrell Davis. Xeyrius Williams, John Crosby and Sam Miller transferred.
Mikesell said it will be a new team for him when he takes the court for the first time. His role will be similar. He’ll be expected to play on the wing and in the post, making the most of his versatility.
“I’ll be used to do a lot of things,” Mikesell said. “Knocking down shots. Making plays for other people. Defensively, I want to be able to guard multiple positions. I don’t want to be a liability. I want to be able to guard the best player.”
Mikesell sees versatility and length as two of the team’s biggest strengths. He’s 6-7. Cunningham is listed at 6-8, an inch taller than last year, which is likely a case of him being measured in shoes this year and not last year. Obi Toppin is 6-9 on the roster, though he said he was 6-10 in the summer. Freshman Frankie Policelli is also 6-7.
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"We have guys who can guard one through five," Mikesell said. "I think we might be switching a lot on defense. We've got a lot of guys who can play multiple positions in case there is foul trouble, injuries and what not. Guys can play different roles."
Although five of Dayton’s nine players didn’t play last season, all will be motivated by what happened in Grant’s first season: a 14-17 record that stopped Dayton’s streak of 11 straight winning seasons.
“That’s the biggest motivation,” Mikesell said. “We didn’t even get to .500. The previous two years, we made it to the NCAA tournament and won the A-10 championship. That’s enough motivation for me. The team, I know is hungry, and we’ve been working really hard this summer. Hopefully, that hard work pays off when the season comes around.”