A John Denver song played in the Cronin Center on Wednesday as several members of the Dayton Flyers shot baskets on an off day for the team one day after a 72-48 victory at Massachusetts.
“Country roads, take me home.
“To the place I belong.
“West Virginia, mountain mama.
“Take me home, country roads.”
It would have been a strong guess to say Chase Johnson, the newest member of the team and a native of Ripley, W.Va., had picked that song, but no, it was Ryan Mikesell, the redshirt junior forward from St. Henry.
“It’s a good song, though,” Johnson said.
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Johnson, who transferred to Dayton in January, has found a new home in Ohio with the Flyers after two seasons with the Florida Gators. It’s never an easy thing for a young athlete to sit out an entire season, but Johnson has company on the UD bench with three other transfers who have been with the program since last spring or summer: former Michigan guard Ibi Watson; Rodney Chatman, who played point guard at Chattanooga for two seasons; and Jordy Tshimanga, a 6-foot-11 center who spent the last two seasons at Nebraska.
All of them traveled different roads to Dayton but picked the school for similar reasons. It felt like home.
“It was easy but it was hard,” said Johnson of his decision. “I knew what I was looking for. It wasn’t like high school. I knew I wanted loyalty — somewhere where I could be really comfortable — and this place had everything. It was a big plus for me. I love it here.”
Those four players, who talked to local media Wednesday for the first time since the start of the season, sit next to each other during Dayton home games, along with Jhery Matos, whose first season with the Flyers was cut short by a foot injury after six games.
Dayton fans look at that group and imagine the future. If the Flyers can do what they’re doing this season with eight players — they were 19-9 and in second place in the Atlantic 10 Conference at 11-4 entering the final three games of the regular season — what could they do with a full roster in Anthony Grant’s third season?
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The five players posed for a photo together in the same outfits — red Dayton shirts and black pants — before a game against Saint Louis on Feb. 23. Tshimanga captioned the photo on Twitter with three simple words: “In due time.” In short, the transfers don’t want anyone dreaming of the 2019-20 season as long as this season is still alive.
“I’m not focused on next year right now,” Tshimanga said. “I’m just thinking about what we can do to help the team get better. The season’s not over yet, and we’ve been doing really great, so the goal for this year is, like everyone else: win a national championship. And I think we have a chance to do that. So just focus on this year and work on that. Next year will come eventually.”
That’s the attitude Grant wants the players to have. The four transfers are participating in practice and running the scout team.
“These guys have an opportunity to help our current roster maximize their opportunity and get better themselves,” Grant said. “That’s great maturity on their part to understand that.”
Dayton loses one scholarship player from the current team: redshirt senior forward Josh Cunningham, the leading scorer the the last two seasons. If Cunningham, who played his freshman season at Bradley, maintains his scoring lead over Obi Toppin, it would be the eighth straight season a transfer has led the Flyers in scoring. Cunningham has followed Southern Illinois transfer Kevin Dillard, Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert and James Madison transfer Charles Cooke. Each of those players also led the Flyers in scoring for two seasons.
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It will be hard to predict which of the new transfers will have the best chance to inherit that scoring role. Watson received limited playing time in two seasons at Michigan, scoring 82 points. Injuries plagued Johnson in his freshman season at Florida and again early this season. He appeared in six games in two seasons. Tshimanga didn’t play a big role at Nebraska, averaging 4.5 points in two seasons.
Chatman is the only player in the group who has played a consistent starting role. He averaged 16.4 points and 5.6 assists as a sophomore before transferring to Dayton last May. His old team is 12-18 this season. The future is bright for his new team, but so is the present.
“It’s been good being able to help the guys out now get to where they are now, sitting (second) in the conference,” Chatman said. ” We’re just trying — all the redshirts — to help the team out so we can win a conference championship this year.”
Chatman, Watson and Tshimanga will be eligible to play at the beginning of next season. Johnson will have to wait until December after the end of the first semester. Watson said missing this season has been easier because he has company.
“It’s nice to have people going through the same thing you’re going through,” Watson said. “We all push each other to get each other better and to help the team get better for each game.”
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