A group of local kids paraded through the Dayton Flyers locker room after the game Wednesday at Massachusetts. They were in and out quickly, probably slapping hands with the winning players.
Three years earlier on Dayton’s last visit to the Mullins Center, those kids would have met the Atlantic 10 Conference’s biggest rockstars of the last decade. Dayton had a nationally-relevant team that won its last 20 games and climbed to No. 3 in the Associated Press top-25 poll. A 71-63 victory at UMass marked the 14th straight victory in that streak.
This 2022-23 Flyers had similar potential but did not live up to the preseason hype in November and December, thanks in part to a series of injuries, and have been trying to make for it ever since. A 72-54 victory against the Minutemen didn’t get Dayton back into the NCAA tournament conversation. What it did was keep Dayton in the running for the A-10 regular-season championship while providing another example that this team will be hard to beat at the A-10 tournament in two weeks.
The 2019-20 Flyers wrote their story in the regular season because the pandemic cancelled the postseason. Three years later, the Flyers will have the chance to do the opposite and make up for their early-season failures in Brooklyn.
First, for Dayton (19-9, 11-4) there’s the matter of the final stretch of the regular season, starting with 6 p.m. Saturday home game against George Mason (16-12, 8-7).
“We’ve got three more games left,” point guard Malachi Smith said Wednesday. “We’ve just got to finish it out.”
Dayton played UMass with its entire roster of returning players from last season for just the second time this season. R.J. Blakney was back in action after missing the last two games and four of the last seven. He scored four points in 13 minutes and had one of the best dunks of the night in the second half.
“First of all, it’s great having him back,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “I thought he looked good. He got winded, which is to be expected. But it’s great to have him back, and I think as he gets himself back in rhythm, he’s certainly going to help us down the stretch.”
The Flyers did play UMass without freshman guard Mike Sharavjamts, who stayed home with an illness. They’ll need all their bodies when the A-10 tournament starts in two weeks. Dayton will secure a top-four seed with one more victory. That would mean it would open play in the quarterfinals March 9 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“The more guys we’ve got, the better it is for all of us,” guard Koby Brea said. “He’s a great asset for us, a great teammate on and off the floor.”
George Mason comes to Dayton after three straight victories against Rhode Island, George Washington and La Salle. Prior to that, It had not strung consecutive victories together in A-10 play, though four of its losses were by four points or fewer.
The Patriots were picked to finish fifth after placing ninth last season. Senior forward Josh Oduro, an A-10 first-team selection last season, was a big reason why. He’s the best big man in the conference next to Dayton’s tandem of DaRon Holmes II and Toumani Camara.
Oduro outplayed Holmes and Camara last season in a 50-49 victory at George Mason. He scored 14 points on 4-of-11 shooting, while Holmes and Camara combined for 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
Oduro has scored 1,299 points in four seasons. His scoring average dropped from 17.7 to 15.9 this season, though his field-goal percentage improved from 52.9 to 56.1.
Dayton follows the George Mason game with its final home game at 7 p.m. Tuesday against La Salle. It will be the 44th straight sellout at UD Arena.
“It’s always said coming to the end because you’re not going to see that crowd for a while,” Brea said. “But we’re going to make the best of it. It’s going to be an awesome environment.”
George Mason at Dayton, 6 p.m., ESPNU, 1290, 95.7
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