Last season's Dayton Flyers were December's children (and not necessarily everybody's). A team with eight underclassmen made a lot of noise during the holiday season in 2007, knocking off Big East schools Louisville (Dec. 8) and Pitt (Dec. 29) and making regular appearances in the Weekly Watch. But that was before the Flyers disappeared into the morass of the Atlantic 10, finishing 8-8 in conference and settling for a deep NIT run instead of a spot on the Big Bracket.
UD hasn't made an appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2004, and hasn't won a game there since 1990, but there are early indications that the Flyers are better-positioned to follow through this time around.
Dayton spent the weekend at the eight-team Chicago Challenge in suburban Hoffman Estates, Ill. Thousands of red-clad fans who bused in from Ohio watched their team overcome a record-breaking 0-for-24 3-point shooting performance (players swore it was the ball) with a 17-rebound advantage to edge SEC squad Auburn in overtime on Friday. Less than 24 hours later, Dayton shot close to 53 percent overall and upset No. 15 Marquette in the event's de facto championship game, 89-75. They go into Tuesday night's home game against Troy of the Sun Belt at 6-0, their best start since that last NCAA team in 2003-04.
The centerpiece of Dayton's resurgence is 6-foot-8 sophomore Chris Wright, who backed up top-100 ratings from recruiting services with big numbers last season before spending two and a half months recovering from a severe ankle injury. Now fully healed and ready to make his mark, he double-doubled in both weekend games, unleashing a ferocious 13-point, 13-rebound performance against Marquette.
During the star freshman's absence last season (the Flyers were 13-1 with Wright in the lineup, .500 without), finding scoring options behind now-departed guard Brian Roberts was an issue. But this year's team is deep and dangerous. Junior guard Marcus Johnson (11.3 ppg) is chipping in, and the roster is full of role players and fresh legs. The Tigers and Golden Eagles both found out that Dayton flies at opponents in waves -- 11 players are averaging double-digit minutes in the early going.
"We play 12 guys, and we're going to keep doing that," said sixth-year head coach Brian Gregory. "We're going to keep guys fresh. We're going to have three double-figure scorers, and everyone else is going to have six or eight points."
But the key difference on this season's team is a marked increase in intensity on the other end of the floor. The wins over power-conference schools are there again, but the Flyers' survival of the A-10 gauntlet and return to the NCAA tournament likely will hinge on its ability to maintain its early defensive momentum. After six games, Dayton has allowed just 34 percent from the floor, the eighth-best figure in Division I.
UD's perimeter D has been stifling: Only 27 percent of 3s have fallen, and teams usually have trouble just getting as far as the arc. A full 26 percent of opponents' possessions have ended in turnovers so far, the 17th-best mark in the country. A season ago, the injury-addled Flyers finished near the bottom of their conference in nearly every defensive statistic.
"We're still in the process of finding this team's identity, but it's being founded on our defensive toughness," said Gregory. "We played hard last year, but there's a different level of intensity we're playing with now. We have some hard-charging guys and they really love to play that way. We're still a little young, and they may make some mistakes, but if they play as hard as they have so far, the good is definitely going to outweigh the bad."