The Dayton Flyers gathered one last time as a team March 12 at the Cronin Center after flying home from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Hours earlier, the Atlantic 10 Conference had cancelled its tournament at the Barclays Center. The NCAA followed with its decision to call off the big dance. Student manager Alex Reilly was getting a TV ready in the hotel for the players to watch Virginia Commonwealth and Massachusetts in the second round when the A-10 tournament was cancelled. Later that afternoon, he was standing on the tarmac unloading bags to be transferred to the charter flight when he heard the news of the demise of March Madness.
“Just how quickly everything happened was so surreal,” Reilly said. “It didn’t feel real in any way, shape or form.”
That’s why the team ended up gathering for the final time after 31 games, 29 victories, 2,480 points and 147 dunks. The Flyers hoped to cut down the net in Brooklyn and again next month after the national championship game in Atlanta. Instead, they went their separate ways to face an uncertain future with basketball only one of the concerns as the Coronavirus pandemic took over the country.
Before the players departed, coach Anthony Grant talked to the team one last time, and several of the players spoke, including seniors Trey Landers and Ryan Mikesell, who thanked his teammates, coaches and trainers for everything they had done for him in his career at Dayton.
“I won a lot of games as a Flyer,” Mikesell told the Dayton Daily News on Tuesday. “I made a lot of relationships and had experiences I’ll never forget. I just thanked everyone for that. It was a tough speech. It was emotional.”
No one could have predicted the abrupt ending to the season. Few also predicted the success this Dayton team found.
Picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Flyers won the league by four games. A team that received one vote in the Associated Press top-25 preseason poll finished the season ranked third. A player who didn’t appear on some lists ranking the top 100 players in college basketball, Obi Toppin, was named the national player of the year by several media outlets. Anthony Grant won several national coach of the year awards two years after suffering through the program’s first losing season in 12 years.
It was a dream season with a nightmare ending, another piece of heartbreak for a city on the mend after 12 months full of bad news.
“No city in America loves college hoops more than Dayton,” wrote Seth Davis, of The Athletic. “The Flyers were playing for the chance to help that city heal from a tragic shooting last summer. Now they’ll serve as one more sad reminder of what could have been.”
The great “What If” that will haunt this team forever doesn’t diminish what it did accomplish. Grant’s ability to keep the team focused as the wins mounted played a big part in Dayton’s success, but the camaraderie the Flyers displayed from November through March had an even bigger impact. They started building that chemistry last season and added to it through the offseason.
It was evident to any outsider seeing the players together for the first time that this team had a bond deeper than basketball. Mark Titus and Tate Frazier, of the Titus and Tate podcast, raved about what they saw at the team hotel in Maui in November. They saw a group of players who enjoyed each other’s company: on the beach and on the court.
Mikesell saw the same thing from a much closer view.
“Everyone stayed on campus in the summer,” he said. “All summer and into the preseason, we were with each other 24-7. We all lived in the same apartment complex. We had a group chat so if we wanted to get food or go to the movies or go to the mall, or whatever, we could just text the group chat and drive together.”
Mikesell also remembers a number of team-building exercises. One, in August, featured The Program, which has worked with more than 200 sports teams around the country. Its mission is to “help athletic organizations develop a championship culture.” It shared one image on Twitter of its day with the Flyers. The photo showed Grant standing at the edge of a swimming pool with the players in front of him in swim trunks.
Mikesell said they performed military exercises in the water, but nothing extreme. They were challenged to work together.
“We some guys who were bad in the water,” Mikesell said, “so we had to help each other out and talk to each other.”
That was just one example in a season full of experiences. Every one helped the team on its road to 29 victories.
“When you experience something like that, you kind of build trust,” Mikesell said, “and you have an understanding of what you have been through together. That led to our team chemistry. We got along really well on and off the court.”
With two exceptions — overtime losses to Kansas and Colorado — Dayton had few bad days or even bad moments all season. They avoided the bad loss in A-1o play. Everyone expected it at some point. Each of the four Dayton teams Archie Miller coached to the NCAA tournament between 2014 and 2017 stumbled multiple times in A-10 play.
This team avoided the pitfalls and had only true scare. It needed a last-second 3-pointer in overtime by Jalen Crutcher to beat Saint Louis 78-76. It won 11 of the 18 A-10 games by double digits.
“My mom’s a Dayton grad,” Reilly said, “and she always talks about how there’s one or two of those stupid games we drop. I’ve seen that. And we never did that this year. That’s a testament to these guys and all the hard work and preparation we put in and the ability to truly get up and get ready for every single game.”
Having one of the best players in the country helped. Toppin exceeded the hype as a redshirt freshman a year earlier, earning A-10 first-team honors in a season that saw him coming off the bench until February.
“I remember us having the conversation, ‘Should this guy be starting?’” said former Dayton assistant coach Donnie Jones, now the head coach at Stetson. “We had Josh Cunningham in the rotation. You didn’t want to play those two guys together. You wanted to rotate them sometimes.”
As Toppin continued to elevate his game, he forced the hand of the coaches.
“It was kind of hard to keep your most talented player on the bench,” Jones said. “Moving him into the front line was really the confidence Obi needed to grow.”
Jones coached with Grant on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida and saw similarities between Toppin and Joakim Noah, another efficient scorer who helped lead Florida to back-to-back national championships. Noah had spirit, leadership abilities, work ethic, grit and fight that set him apart from other players, and Toppin had the same attributes.
As this season began with Toppin as the unquestioned star, his teammates could have been jealous. The spotlight shined brightest on Toppin at the Maui Invitational, and he earned the majority of the headlines the rest of the way. No one was envious, however. Everyone accepted their role. That’s another reason Dayton won 29 games.
“We knew going into the year Obi was going to have a chance to be one of the best players in college basketball, and he proved that all season long,” Mikesell said. “As teammates, we knew he was a huge part of our team, and everyone else did a good job of feeding off him, and he was just as good at letting us know we helped him out throughout the whole season. He wasn’t going to get a big head or anything like that. He knew he needed help from us, and he did the same for us. There was kind of a give and take.”
No teammate had a bigger impact on Toppin’s success the last two years than Jalen Crutcher: his roommate and friend. They called themselves PB&J, which stood for peanut butter and jam (as in slam). Crutcher picked up right where his predecessor, Scoochie Smith, left off as the calm and cool point guard with a penchant for big shots.
Mikesell played his first two seasons with Smith and his last two with Crutcher.
“They both have this quiet confidence about themselves,” Mikesell said. “They’re very competitive at all times. I was telling Jalen before the year, one thing about Scooch is he was never afraid of anything. Jalen’s the same type of player.”
Five days before everything ended, Mikesell stood in the middle of the chaos on Tom Blackburn Court on March 7 as he answered a question about Grant.
Dozens of friends and family members of the players and coaches — not to mention a few random fans who joined the celebration — posed for photos, watched the team cut down the net and enjoyed what would turn out to be the final moments of the 2019-20 season. No one knew at the time Dayton’s 29th victory, a a 76-51 rout of George Washington on Senior Night, would close the door on a historic season.
The possible cancellation of the postseason was not in the back of anyone’s minds as Mikesell spoke to reporters after his 99th victory as a Flyer, marvelling at the job Grant had done in three short years.
“It’s been unbelievable what he’s gotten us to buy into,” Mikesell said. “Two years ago, we were 14-17 in his first year. Me and Trey were in the middle of it, and we didn’t know what to expect. We just hung with it. He did a good job of keeping us focused on the main thing. To see where it is now — we’re a top-three team in the country — it’s awesome.”
Dayton set the school record for victories in a season with that Senior Night win and tied the school record with its 20 consecutive victories. There was still a sense the best was yet to come, however.
"We want to make sure as a program, as a university and as a community, we stay focused on the task at hand," Grant said in the post-game press conference, "and what we have an opportunity to do. It's goal No. 1 we accomplished. Hopefully, we'll be able to appreciate what it was that we did, going 18-0 in the league, and then refocus and get ready for the challenge that lies ahead as we head to Brooklyn next week."
Dayton did get that one last road trip to Brooklyn. It left the Big Apple with dashed dreams but a lasting legacy. Mikesell saved the piece of the net he cut down on Senior Night. He has two A-10 championship rings and will get a third at some point this year. No other Flyer can say that. One day, down the line, he’ll showcase all the mementos at his home. He knows the bond created this season will last a lifetime even if the season will always have an asterisk.
“I guess I’m most proud of how we finished the season,” Mikesell said. “We ended the season on a 20-game win streak. For the most part, we were pretty consistent as a team. We’d go into a game and get up 20 points, and we might let a team come back and make it close, but for the most part, we took care of our business. I’m just proud of all the guys and their ability to buy in and understand their roles and be really good in their roles. That was why we were so good.”