Memphis defense will be big test for Dayton in first round of NIT

Flyers hope 15-day break will help them in tournament

The Dayton Flyers have a long history in the National Invitational Tournament — too long when you consider that for most of their history making the NIT has meant a failure to reach the NCAA tournament.

However, the NIT was the big show — long before the Big Dance became a thing — in the 1950s when Dayton was a regular participant and dominant force. The program made its first appearance in 1951. Back then, the news of Dayton’s selection broke not on an ESPN selection show but in the Dayton Daily News. Sports writer Joe Burns placed a long-distance phone to call Asa Bushnell, the chairman of the NIT selection committee, in New York City.

Bushnell told Burns to pass the news on to Dayton coach Tom Blackburn.

“Tell him to be of good cheer,” Bushnell said.

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The Dayton Flyers headed to Texas for their 26th appearance in the NIT on Thursday also in good cheer even though their NCAA tournament dreams died March 5 when they lost 73-68 to Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. Dayton (14-9) plays Memphis (16-8) at noon Saturday in the first round at UNT Coliseum on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. The game will be televised by ESPN.

“Even though it’s not the big tournament, it’s still something,” senior guard Jalen Crutcher said. “We can go out there and prove people wrong and show people that we’re really good.”

Here are three things to know about the matchup:

1. Both head coaches are leading their alma maters

Penny Hardaway, of Memphis, and Anthony Grant, of Dayton, have crossed path on the recruiting trail in recent years.

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for him,” Grant said. “I remember his days playing, and when he was with the Magic, I was still living in the state of Florida and watching his games.”

As coaches, Hardaway and Grant have a lot in common. Hardaway played two seasons for Memphis (1991-93) before beginning a long NBA career and then getting the Memphis job in 2018. Grant played for the Flyers from 1983-87 and returned to Dayton as head coach in 2017.

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Hardaway and Grant have taken their programs to the NIT twice. Memphis lost to Creighton in the second round in 2019. Dayton lost in the first round at Colorado that same season. Memphis was on the bubble when the 2020 NCAA tournament was cancelled, while Dayton was in contention for a No. 1 seed.

Hardaway’s goal is to take Memphis back to the level it was at when it reached the NCAA tournament 10 times in the first 13 seasons of this century. He has excelled in recruiting, building the nation’s top class in 2019 with five top-100 recruits, including three players still on the team: guards Boogie Ellis and Lester Quinones; and forward DJ Jeffries. Hardaway’s 2021 class ranks sixth in the nation.

Hardaway was asked to grade his performance when he talked to reporters Monday.

“The first year I had to play with Coach Tubby (Smith’s) team and who he recruited,” Hardaway said. “The following year James Wiseman gets on probation, Lester Quinones is hurt for six games and then DJ Jeffries is hurt for the remainder of the season, so I didn’t have my team and then the season gets cancelled. This year not having DeAndre Williams for the first seven games and then getting him back and then Alex Lomax gets hurt right before we get to the end of the season when we’re playing as good of basketball as any. As far as my tenure, it’s just been really unlucky what’s happened because we really haven’t had any footing, but as far as where we’re going with the identity of understanding who we are and how we’re going to play, I give that an A.”

2. Memphis has one of the nation’s best defenses

KenPom.com ranks Memphis No. 1 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Tigers rank 21st in scoring defense (62.9 points per game), 18th in turnovers forced (16.3) and second in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (27.1).

“We’re defending the way we’re supposed to defend,” Hardaway said. “Last year, we were No. 1 in the country, and this year we’re No. 1 in the country. So our defensive opportunities and situations are off the charts.”

3. Dayton will be well rested

The Flyers haven’t played in 15 days. The last two times they played in the NIT, they had a four-day break. The gap between games could be a good thing for Crutcher, who ranks fourth in the country in minutes played per game (38.1) and guard Ibi Watson, who ranks 17th (37.1).

“It’s very good for us to get these two weeks off,” Crutcher said. “I think our legs are much fresher now.”

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