No one will forget the thrilling finish in Anthony Grant's first game as Dayton head coach a year ago. Josh Cunningham's basket in the final second against Ball State saved the Dayton Flyers from their first season-opening loss in 12 years.
Dayton won 78-77, and while that game ranks among the most memorable in UD Arena history, fans hope for no such drama at 7 p.m. Wednesday when the 2018-19 season begins with a home game against North Florida.
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The Osprey begin the season ranked 230th in the Ken Pomeroy ratings. Dayton ranks 96th. However, North Florida could challenge Dayton because it returns five starters, and it can shoot from the outside. It ranked 52nd in the country in 3-point percentage last season (37.5), and Dayton ranked 326th in 3-point defense (38.3).
“They’ve got a veteran group, and they’ve got several guys who can really shoot the basketball,” Grant said. “They’re a really explosive offensive team. A lot of the things we learned in the Capital game hopefully we can take some of those lessons and be better defensively as we open the season.”
After talking for months about their focus on defense in the offseason, Dayton watched Capital make 7 of 8 shots in the first eight minutes in an exhibition game Friday.
“Everyone was kind of upset, but we knew we were going to pick it up a little bit,” Dayton point guard Jalen Crutcher said. “Capital ran their plays very well.”
Capital shot 44.4 percent (8 of 18) from 3-point range. Dayton opponents topped 40 percent 10 times in 31 games last season.
North Florida’s top outside shooters are: JT Escobar (91 of 214, 42.5 percent); Garrett Sams (55 of 140, 39.3); and Ivan Gandia-Rosa (76 of 206, 36.9). Even its top big man, 6-foot-8 forward Noah Horchler, can shoot (23 of 66, 34.8).
The program still uses the #BirdsofTrey hashtag on social media as it did in 2015 when it made 14 of 32 3-pointers in an 86-71 loss at UD Arena.
“For us, it starts with our ability to guard the ball, to pressure the basketball and not put ourselves in situations where we have to give bad help,” Grant said. “A lot of the mistakes we made the other day were just being in the wrong position. We have to make sure we have the awareness we need to have defensively, the alertness, the discipline to do the things we need to do so we’re not in bad situations and giving up open looks.”
Dayton defenders, Crutcher said, want to “make them put the ball on the floor and make it hard on the shooters.”
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While Dayton has played North Florida once, Grant faced North Florida four times during his six seasons at Alabama, winning each game by double digits.
“Coach (Matthew) Driscoll and I have known each other for years,” Grant said. “Great guy, great coach.”
North Florida is one of only five teams in college basketball that returns five starters, and it is the only team in that group with no seniors.
“This is the best team we’ve ever had from the bottom to the top,” Driscoll told the Florida Times-Union, “and we’ve had some talented teams.”
North Florida at Dayton, 7 p.m., Spectrum Sports, FM 95.7, AM 1290 WHIO