Former Dayton student manager experiencing NCAA tournament for first time

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Alex Reilly: Former Dayton manager experiencing NCAA tournament with Cleveland State

Alex Reilly is a graduate assistant at Cleveland State

If the Dayton Flyers had returned to the NCAA tournament in 2021 after seeing their dream derailed by the pandemic in 2020, it would have been a storybook chapter for the program.

Instead only one person associated with the historic 29-2 season will get to experience the Big Dance in Indiana: Alex Reilly, a senior student manager at Dayton last year who’s now a first-year graduate assistant at Cleveland State.

“It means the world to me honestly,” Reilly said Wednesday. “Last year still hurts a lot, and it probably always will.”

One year ago this month, Reilly standing on the tarmac in New York unloading bags to be transferred to Dayton’s charter flight when he heard the news of the demise of March Madness. The A-10 tournament had been cancelled hours earlier while Reilly and the other managers were setting up TVs for the players to watch an A-10 game between Virginia Commonwealth and Massachusetts.

Now Reilly is with Cleveland State in the NCAA tournament bubble in Indianapolis. The team is staying at the JW Marriott downtown. It’s the hotel with the giant NCAA tournament bracket on the side.

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The JW Marriott hotel housing NCAA tournament teams in Indianapolis is pictured on March 17, 2021. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

The JW Marriott hotel housing NCAA tournament teams in Indianapolis is pictured on March 17, 2021. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Combined ShapeCaption
The JW Marriott hotel housing NCAA tournament teams in Indianapolis is pictured on March 17, 2021. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Reilly, who’s from Dallas, Texas, has kept in touch with other student managers this season. Henry Stark and Jack Walsh were senior managers with him on the staff last season. Marin Reis, Alex Roberts, Matthew Weckesser were the senior managers this season.

Roberts feels they’re all with him in spirt at the NCAA tournament.

“I was talking to Weck the other night, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I really wanted to do one of these with you because it’s just been an incredible experience.’ I feel so bad not only for the managers but the players, for Jalen (Crutcher), for Ibi (Watson), Rodney (Chatman), Jordy (Tshimanga), all those guys who put their heart and soul into it and don’t get to experience something like this. It hurts them. I just hope one of these days all those guys can experience something along these same lines.”

While Dayton prepared this week for a NIT first-round game at noon Saturday against Memphis in Denton, Texas, No. 15 Cleveland State (19-7) has been preparing in Indianapolis for a first-round game against No. 2 seed Houston (24-3). They play at 7:15 p.m. Friday at Assembly Hall in Bloomington.

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While most teams started arriving in the Indianapolis bubble last weekend or early this week, Cleveland State has been in Indianapolis since the first week of March. It beat Milwaukee 71-65 in the Horizon League tournament semifinals at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on March 8 and then beat Oakland 80-69 in the championship game a day later.

Neither of those games would have happened if not for 108-104 triple-overtime victory against Purdue Fort Wayne in the first round March 2 in Cleveland. The only game Reilly could compare it to was Dayton’s game against Saint Louis a year ago when Jalen Crutcher hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in overtime.

“Of course, that’s that’s going to be one of my favorite games of all time,” Reilly said. “At the same time, this was triple overtime. Algevon (Eichelberger) hit the big shot. TP (Trotwood-Madison product Torey Patton), Craig (Beaudion), Trey (Gomillion), just everybody making big plays to keep us alive and give us a chance. At the end of the day, that’s all we’re trying to do. We’re trying to give ourselves a chance. KenPom has us as the No. 1 one team in luck this year by a wide margin. But for us, we don’t see it as luck. We see it as things we practice every day. We practice those end-of-game situations. We practice winning the game.”

One of the favorite things Cleveland State does, Reilly said, comes at the end of practices when the losing team has to foul the team that’s ahead.

“The winning team has to yell, ‘Go win the game!,” Reilly said, “and they sprint down to the other end to a huddle. That’s part of our culture. It doesn’t matter what time in the game. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. You sprint. You huddle. You pull yourself together because you’re a band of brothers. You’re a family. And we’re going to win this thing together.”

Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates, who’s in his second year as head coach, took a program that was picked seventh in the Horizon League preseason poll to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 and for the second time in the last 30 years.

Gates was named the Horizon League Coach of the Year. Last season, Reilly worked under the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year and consensus national coach of the year, Anthony Grant.

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Reilly got the job on Gates’ staff in part because of his contacts at Dayton. James Haring, Dayton’s director of basketball operations, sent Reilly an email in the spring telling him to send an email to Chase Goldstein, the director of basketball operations at Cleveland State. Goldstein knew Brett Comer, Dayton’s director of player development, because Goldstein was a student manager at Florida Gulf Coast during Comer’s playing days.

Those connections helped Reilly land his first job after graduating from Dayton. He didn’t get to visit Cleveland State during the interview process because of COVID-19 protocols but got a sense of the promise Gates had brought to the program.

“I could tell there was something different up here,” Reilly said. “They were building something really special. Just the sheer amount of experience that they had on the staff was something that I really admired, and I recognized a lot of similar things in terms of how they respect the players and treat the program like a family. It felt like a similar atmosphere to what I had at Dayton, and I just I loved it.”

After Reilly got the job, Gates set up a phone call with Reilly and the rest of his family so he could meet them and talk to them about the program.

“It was really cool,” Reilly said, “and that’s what it’s been all year. It’s a family. We’re all moving through this thing together. We talked all year about how it’s really hard to do things, especially in COVID, when you’re in the bubble and following all the protocols, but champions are the ones who do the hardest things. Obviously, it culminated in a Horizon League championship, and now we’re looking to keep having fun out here.”

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