Grant likes versatility of Dayton’s 2021-22 roster

Flyers have almost an entirely new team two years after 29-2 season

Dayton Flyers head coach Anthony Grant and assistant coaches Ricardo Greer and Darren Hertz traveled to Chicago to see the Bulls play the New York Knicks on Thursday night.

The trip had three purposes. It was a chance to see former Flyer Obi Toppin in person, but the Bulls were also honoring the careers of one of their former players, Joakim Noah, who played for the Florida Gators when Grant and Hertz were on Billy Donovan’s staff. The presence of Donovan, who’s in his second season as the Bulls head coach, was another reason to attend the game.

Noah, who retired in March, played for the Bulls from 2007-16. He was a part of Florida’s national championship teams in 2006 and 2007. Grant experienced the first title run with Florida before taking his first head coaching job at VCU in 2007. He coached Noah for two seasons.

“He’s one of my all-time favorites in terms of who he is as a person,” Grant said, “and obviously the impact that he had on our program and and the legacy that he left as a student athlete there.”

Toppin scored five points in 13 minutes in the fifth game of his second season. He’s averaging 8.6 points in 17.8 minutes per game after averaging 4.1 points in 11.0 minutes per game as a rookie. The Knicks improved to 4-1 with a 104-103 victory against the Bulls.

Two seasons ago, Toppin led Dayton its best regular season ever. The Flyers finished 29-2 and 18-0 in the Atlantic 10 Conference, rising to No. 3 in the Associated Press top-25 poll.

That seems like ages ago in part because no one from that team who played in the regular season remains with the team. Only two players, Zimi Nwokeji and Moulaye Sissoko, from the current team were on the roster in the 2019-20 season. Nwokeji joined the Flyers in early January that season. Sissoko played in the exhibition game against Cedarville in 2019 and practiced with the team all season but redshirted.

Of the 13 scholarship players on the 2021-22 roster, only two more players were playing college basketball two seasons ago. Toumani Camara was a freshman at Georgia, and Elijah Weaver was a freshman at Southern California. Nine of the Flyers were either juniors or seniors in high school two years ago.

That makes the preseason all the more important. Dayton scrimmaged West Virginia last weekend and will play Cedarville in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. Monday at UD Arena.

“Outside of maybe a couple of our walk-ons, and a couple of guys that redshirted, none of our players have ever played in front of a packed arena on campus or even in an opponent’s arena,” Grant said Thursday during A-10 media days. “So this will be a brand-new experience. Our focus right now is on being able to try to make sure we’re as prepared as we can be for the games that are coming. We still have some work that we’ve got to do in terms of getting our system in place, but I think the guys are really excited about the upcoming season. I know they’re excited about getting the chance to play some outside competition. We’re in our fourth week of practice now. So around this time guys get tired of playing against each other, and they want to see some outside competition.”

The scrimmage and exhibition will give the coaches a chance to figure out what lineups and rotations work best. Dayton does have five returning players — Weaver, Nwokeji, Mustapha Amzil, R.J. Blakney and Koby Brea — who started multiple games last season, but all their roles will change with the departure of four senior starters: Jalen Crutcher; Ibi Watson; Jordy Tshimanga; and Rodney Chatman.

“We’ve been able to kind of mix and match in practice,” Grant said. “We were able to play an outside scrimmage the other day that kind of gave us a look at some different combinations. I go back to the fact that we have a relatively new group that’ll be new to us and new to college basketball. I think we’ll discover that as the season unfolds a little bit and as we get to play some games, we certainly feel one of the strengths of our team is that we have versatile pieces. We have guys that can play multiple positions. We have some good length and good size, good skill sets. So trying to figure out the different groups and different combinations that we can play together, there’s some variety there that we’ll discover as the season unfolds.”

Two of the most intriguing players on Dayton’s roster are Camara and freshman DaRon Holmes, the highest-ranked recruit to pick the Flyers this century. Camara, a 6-foot-8 forward, averaged 12.8 points and 7.7 rebounds last season as a sophomore at Georgia.

Grant was asked specifically about the progress of those two players on media day.

“The impression so far has been really really good,” Grant said. “They both are extremely hard workers. They have a consistency of about them in terms of the way they approach every single day. They give good effort. They’ve got an ability to pick things up really well. They’re both really talented players.

“For Toumani, having two years of experience in college basketball, he’s in a role where he has an opportunity to be a leader for us. He’s a veteran. He brings it every day on both sides. Even though he’s probably one of the more experienced, older guys on our team, he’s still learning and he still wants to learn and he’s still eager to try to get better.

“For DaRon, obviously coming in with the accolades that he did, being a top-50 player in the country, I have been really impressed with his humility, his work ethic, his desire to continue to try to improve and get better. He’s just learning the game. Every day, there are just different things that he’s able to pick up from myself and our staff, whether it be on the court or through film. He’s been really good.”

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