If somebody had told you on March 15 of 2015 — the date Alabama fired Anthony Grant after a disappointing six-year tenure — that Grant would win a national championship in the next five seasons, the only reasonable conclusion one could’ve come up with is that he’d do so as Billy Donovan’s top assistant at the University of Florida.
After all, Donovan hired Grant to return to UF as his assistant less than a month after he was issued a pink slip in Tuscaloosa. Unfortunately for the Gators, Donovan’s iconic tenure at UF ended two weeks later when he took the Oklahoma City Thunder’s head-coaching job.
Grant had been Donovan’s top aid at Florida for 10 years, winning a national title in 2006 before taking the head-coaching gig at VCU. He played a vital role in recruiting many of the pieces that led the Gators to back-to-back national championships — the only program to do so since Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner led Mike Krzyzewski’s 1991-92 Duke teams to repeat championships — when UF won it all again in 2007.
In that same 2007 Tournament when Florida cut the nets down with a win over Ohio State in the finals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Grant led the Rams to an NCAA Tournament victory over Duke when Eric Maynor hit a game-winning jumper in the finals seconds.
In Year 2 at VCU, Grant’s Rams lost a first round game in the NIT. He had VCU back in the NCAA Tournament in the third season of his tenure, but the Rams lost by one to UCLA when Maynor missed a potential game winner at the buzzer.
Alabama then came calling, but Grant’s six-year reign produced only one NCAA Tournament appearance and three trips to the NIT. When Donovan went to OKC, he took Grant with him as one of his assistants.
Grant was with the Thunder for two seasons before Archie Miller left Dayton to replace Tom Crean as the next head coach at Indiana. With a vacancy at his alma mater, Grant became a head coach for a third time in 2017.
As a player from 1984-87, Grant helped the Flyers to two NCAA Tournaments, including a trip to the 1984 Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion, Georgetown.
Year 1 at UD in 2017-18 was a struggle, as the Flyers limped to a 14-17 record. Dayton went 21-12 overall and 13-5 in Atlantic-10 play last season, only to bow out of the NIT in the first round.
Expectations for this season were high, as Street & Smith’s preseason publication picked the Flyers to finish second in the A-10. Lindy’s preseason mag predicted UD to finish third in the A-10.
Like a female resembling Emily Ratajkowski or Brittney Palmer, I fell hard for the 2019-20 Flyers the instant I laid eyes on them against Georgia for a noon Eastern tip at the Maui Classic a few days before Thanksgiving.
Dayton mauled Georgia — a talented team with future lottery pick Anthony Edwards, who would light Michigan State up the next day — 80-61 as a three-point favorite. Grant’s team raced out to a 43-25 halftime lead, led by as many as 25 points, and coasted to victory.
The Flyers held Edwards, who had 37 points, six rebounds, four steals, three blocked shots and two assists to spark the Bulldogs from a 21-point halftime deficit and cut the Spartans’ lead to three before eventually losing 93-85, to a season-low six points and forced the freshman sensation to commit three turnovers without dishing out an assist.
In the Maui Classic semifinals, Dayton crushed Virginia Tech 89-62 as a four-point ‘chalk.’ The Flyers darted out to a 49-31 intermission lead and collected their fourth consecutive spread cover. Obi Toppin drained 10-of-14 field-goal attempts, including 3-of-5 launches from 3-point land, and finished with 24 points and eight rebounds.
As it has turned out, the Hokies’ rebuilding season after losing head coach Buzz Williams, star center Kerry Blackshear, first-round NBA Draft pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker and a pair of double-figure scorers in Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill, has turned out better than expected. Mike Young’s first Va. Tech team is 14-7 overall, 5-5 in ACC play, has a win over Michigan State and was No. 56 at KenPom before losing its last two games on the road (to fall to No. 72).
Dayton advanced to face Kansas in the Maui Classic finals as a four-point underdog. The Flyers led nearly the entire game and never trailed by more than two points in regulation, but the Jayhawks were able to force overtime.
Bill Self’s team captured a 90-84 victory in OT, taking the cash when it took its biggest lead of the game with free throws in the final seconds. Nevertheless, I was left convinced Dayton would beat KU on a neutral court seven out of 10 times.
Since then, Dayton (19-2 straight up, 12-9 against the spread) has lost only once. The Flyers jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first half of a neutral-site game against Colorado at United Center in Chicago.
However, the Buffaloes trimmed the deficit to four by halftime. They eventually won a 78-76 decision in overtime when Colorado’s D’Shawn Schwartz scored five points in the last 27 seconds, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Since that setback in the Windy City, Dayton has won 10 consecutive games. Fifteen of the Flyers’ last 18 victories have come by double-digit margins.
UD’s two losses have come in overtime to Kansas, which is No. 4 in the NET rankings and No. 1 at KenPom, and Colorado, which is No. 17 in the NET rankings and No. 21 at KenPom.
Eight of Dayton’s 19 scalps have come against KenPom Top-100 foes. The Flyers are unbeaten in five true road assignments, including wins at Saint Louis (No. 87 K-Pom) in overtime, at Richmond (No. 73) and last night’s 73-69 victory at Duquesne (No. 92), which was the Dukes’ first home defeat of the season.
Other impressive wins by Dayton (No. 5 at both K-Pom and in the NET rankings) include a 78-68 win over Saint Mary’s (No. 33) in Phoenix, a 71-58 home win over North Texas (No. 62) and a 79-65 home triumph over VCU (No. 43).
If we’ve learned anything in the first three months of this season, it’s that the 2020 NCAA Tournament is wide open. Bracketville’s latest update was on Monday, but the website had Dayton pegged as a No. 3 seed. The latest ‘Bracketology’ report from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi (on Tuesday, 1/28) also had the Flyers as a No. 3 seed.
Both bracket gurus have Dayton playing in their home state (Cleveland) during the first weekend.
(Side Story: When I went to Memphis to watch my Gators send UCLA packing from the Tournament for the fourth time in less than a decade at the 2014 South Region semifinals, the Flyers beat Stanford that same Thursday night to set up an Elite Eight showdown vs. Florida on Saturday night. UF beat Dayton handily, but it had nothing to do with the crowd factor. AT LEAST 10,000 UD fans made the trek to Memphis. In other words, this program has an extremely loyal fan base that will travel well in the Tournament.)
When I consider teams capable of making six-game runs through March, I look for multiple factors. First, every championship team needs an absolute star (think North Carolina State’s David Thompson in 1974, Indiana’s Isaiah Thomas in 1981, UNC’s Michael Jordan in ’82, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing in ’84, IU’s Steve Alford in ’87, KU’s Danny Manning in 1988, UNLV’s Larry Johnson in ’90, Laettner in ’91 and ’92, Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in ’03, UConn’s Kemba Walker in ’11 and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis in ’12).
Dayton undoubtedly has ‘that horse’ that can carry them in Toppin, the redshirt sophomore out of Brooklyn who is averaging 19.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 blocked shots and 1.0 steals per game. Toppin is shooting at a 62.5 percent clip from the field.
The latest mock released on Jan. 24 from nbadraft.net has Toppin listed as the No. 4 overall pick in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft.
Another facet of a championship level team you look for is elite guard play — particularly ones that can ice tight games by making clutch free throws — and multiple shooters who can get buckets. In a six-game stretch, you’re bound to have at least one game where your star turns an ankle or gets into foul trouble, so you have to have dudes capable of stepping up.
Dayton has those dudes in junior point guard Jalen Crutcher, junior guard Ibi Watson, senior guard/forward Trey Landers, senior forward Ryan Mikesell and junior guard Rodney Chatman.
Crutcher is UD’s three-year starter at PG who garnered third-team All-Atlantic-10 honors last season, when he averaged 13.0 points, 5.7 assists and 4.0 RPG. He’s averaging a career-best 14.9 PPG and shooting at career-high levels, too, burying 47.9 percent of his FGAs, 43.3 percent of his treys and 82.4 percent of his free-throw attempts.
Crutcher scored seven of his team-high 21 points, including the game-winning 25-footer from beyond the top of the key at the buzzer, in the final 49 seconds of his team’s OT win at Saint Louis on Jan. 17.
Watson, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Michigan who had to sit out last year, is averaging 11.7 PPG. Watson has made 50.9 percent of his FGAs, 44.8 percent of his 3-pointers and 84.3 percent of his FTAs.
Mikesell is your vintage glue guy and senior leader. He does all the little things, collecting floor burns galore diving for loose balls, taking charges, hitting open shots when left open and crashing the boards at both ends.
As a junior last season, Mikesell paced the Flyers in free-throw percentage (80.0%) and was second in blocks, assists and steals. Mikesell is averaging 9.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.7 BPG while making 50.6 of his FGAs this year.
Chatman, another transfer from Chattanooga who was the Moccasins’ second-leading scorer in 2017-18 (13.3 PPG) before sitting out last season, is averaging 7.9 points, 3.6 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
Dayton lost Florida transfer Chase Johnson, who is out for the season as his career continues to be marred by injuries. The Flyers do have another big body, though, in 6-foot-11 Nebraska transfer Jordy Tshimanga, who doesn’t get many minutes but can get rebounds and has five fouls to give against potential foes in March with multiple post players who can score.
Is this team lacking a few things? Sure, and that conversation starts with NCAA Tournament experience. The Flyers have only one player with any of it, as Watson appeared in four games and scored five points in 13 minutes of action in Michigan’s run to the finals two years ago.
When Toppin isn’t in the game, Dayton’s rim protection can be a potential issue. But seriously, what team have you seen this season that doesn’t have a wart or two?
What isn’t a problem is scoring. Dayton is ranked No. 1 in the nation in FG percentage (52.8%), third in scoring with its 82.8 PPG average and No. 28 in 3-point accuracy (37.6%).
As of Jan. 30, DrafKings had Dayton with +650 odds to make the Final Four for only the second time in program history. (The Flyers made the 1967 finals but lost to UCLA.) DraftKings has UD with 30/1 odds to win the national title.
Also, the New Jersey based sportsbook has the Flyers with +250 odds to earn a No. 1 seed in the Tournament. They’re the -125 ‘chalk’ to win the A-10 regular-season title at DraftKings.
The reality is that bettors have already missed the boat — at least in terms of maximizing the value that once existed — on buying a Dayton futures ticket. Even after its impressive performance in Maui that sold me right away, gamblers had a week or two when the Flyers were 60/1 — and I’ve been told by colleagues that a few Vegas shops had them at 75/1 — to cut the nets down in Atlanta.
Whether you want to buy a 30/1 ticket is your call. Dayton’s next three games are at home, but potential losses loom in a pair of games against Rhode Island (No. 53 at K-Pom) and a trip to VCU. If the Flyers were to lose twice more, perhaps the oddsmakers could elevate their number North of 30/1 odds?
Whatever the case, assuming Toppin stays healthy, my pick to win the 2020 NCAA Tournament is the Dayton Flyers.
Look for Toppin and Crutcher to be the catalysts. As for Grant, he’s going to become one of the more improbable head coaches to win it all. It will vindicate him for what was a disappointing stretch at Alabama, and it’ll bring his alma mater its first national title.