Grant on Dayton’s offseason ahead: ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do’

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Dayton vs. VCU: Jalen Crutcher's last basket on March 5, 2021

Flyers will be young in a league with two big favorites next season

The Dayton Flyers wore new T-shirts as they warmed up for games during the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament in Richmond. They read simply, “Just Us Flyers,” on the front.

Those three words might be referring to the tight bubble Dayton has experienced since last summer. Dayton avoided a COVID-19 shutdown on the way to a 14-9 season, thought it saw its schedule change often because of other teams’ positive tests. Teams that head to Indianapolis later this month for the NCAA tournament will be stuck in a bubble — or controlled environment — for as long as they remain alive in the Big Dance.

Dayton won’t have to worry about that, though it would have loved to have had that problem. It exited the A-10 tournament in the quarterfinals Friday with a 73-68 loss to Virginia Commonwealth at the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va.

A long offseason awaits — unless the NIT calls — and much of the focus will be on the 2021 recruiting class that will need to contribute early and often if Dayton is going to contend in the A-10 and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017. Despite that influx of talent and the improvement Dayton’s freshmen showed down the stretch of this season, it will not be considered one of the favorites in the conference next season.

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St. Bonaventure and Virginia Commonwealth, the top two seeds this season and the two A-10 teams most likely to earn a trip to Indianapolis whether or not they claim the A-10 championship at UD Arena on March 14., are poised to be just as strong in the 2021-22 season if not stronger.

“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said Friday. “The league is extremely strong. There are several teams that return a lot of key pieces. Obviously, some teams have a chance to go through this postseason and make some noise. The league was really deep this year with a lot of talented players and coaches.”

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Dayton vs. VCU: Turnovers doom UD in A-10 tournament

All four top seeds advanced to Saturday night’s semifinals: No. 1 St. Bonaventure; No. 2 VCU; No. 3 Davidson; and No. 4 Saint Louis. Dayton finished 0-3 against VCU and was 4-0 against the other three teams. That sentence sums up Dayton’s inconsistent season as does this one. None of the four remaining teams lost to the bottom seeds, Saint Joseph’s and Fordham, as Dayton did.

Dayton has faced big question marks entering every recent season. In Grant’s first season, Dayton had to replace four senior starters from Archie Miller’s last team. In his second season, Dayton had all the pieces to compete for a NCAA tournament berth — with Obi Toppin making his Dayton debut and Ryan Mikesell returning from hip surgeries — but struggled to put them together in non-conference play and settled for a NIT bid. Dayton welcomed four transfers to the rotation in the 2019-20 season, and everything came together as the team won 29 games.

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Following up on that season was always going to be difficult, and that was certainly the case this season. Dwayne Cohill’s season-ending injury in October hurt, as did Chase Johnson’s departure after five non-conference games.

Even considering those setbacks, this team disappointed. It never found the consistency that a team with a four-year starter in Crutcher and three fifth-year seniors — Rodney Chatman, Ibi Watson and Jordy Tshimanga — should have had. All those players saw their average turnover numbers increase, and that was the stat that plagued Dayton all season. It ranked last in the A-10 in turnover margin (minus 2.61 per game).

On the other hand, it’s hard to place too much blame on a team that achieved a level of success just by playing games when so many teams weren’t.

“Since July, we’ve asked them to make some unbelievable sacrifices to stay together to be able to have a season,” Grant said, “so we can do what we love to do. They did that in an unbelievable unselfish way. Like any season, you go through stuff. You go through highs and lows. These guys, from the beginning to the end, they got better. The way they cared about the guy next to them and understood the sacrifices, I’m grateful for that.”

Dayton still has one scholarship open for the 2021-22 season. Its recruiting class ranks 12th in the nation, according to Rivals.com, and includes DaRon Holmes, a 6-foot-8 forward who ranks 36th in the 2021 class, plus Kaleb Washington, a 6-7 forward who’s a four-star recruit, and two promising guards: Malachi Smith and Lynn Greer III.

The players who debuted for Dayton this season — R.J. Blakney, Zimi Nwokeji, Mustapha Amzil and Koby Brea — all gained experience and showed flashes of talent. Another newcomer, Elijah Weaver, earned a starting role when Chatman was hurt but played a diminishing role down the stretch and saw only nine minutes of action in the two A-10 tournament games.

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Dayton should have enough talent with those players and the incoming freshmen next season, but it’s going to be a young group with Weaver and Cohill, assuming he returns healthy after tearing his ACL in October, being the only four-year players.

Dayton coaches may try to find help in the transfer market this spring. There’s always a chance that one of the current Flyers leaves the program so they could have more than one spot to fill. Dayton has seen one player transfer each of the last three years, and it will be one of the storylines to follow as the offseason begins.

Whatever happens between now and next season, Dayton’s recent success on the recruiting trail provides optimism that better days are ahead.

“I think the future is bright for this Dayton team,” Crutcher said. “The freshmen played a lot of minutes. They got a lot of experience. The young guys got better from the beginning of the year. I think they’re going to be good.”

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Dayton vs. VCU: Postgame press conference (March 5, 2021)