Beach vacations can, among other things, be used for self-reflection. With time melting by and the lull of the surf in the background, you might just learn something about yourself.
That’s just what two mid-major powers will hope to do in the Bahamas in November. A loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field features Dayton and Middle Tennessee, a pair of flagship programs with ringing questions despite coming off very different seasons.
The Flyers — who open the tournament against Butler — enter an important season under second-year coach Anthony Grant. They went 14-17 last season and struggled to stop anyone from scoring. Opponents shot nearly 40 percent from three against UD, which contributed to the A-10’s second-least efficient defense. This must have been jarring for Flyers fans, as Archie Miller’s teams routinely bottled up opposing offenses.
The step back, however, was inevitable as Grant inherited a roster that was losing the most successful senior class in program history. That said, the UD alum likely has to show immediate progress at a program accustomed to winning games.
The defense should rebound quickly given Grant’s track record at Alabama and VCU, and senior forward Josh Cunningham — who stayed healthy last season — should be one of the more productive players in the A-10.
“I thought he had a really good year for us last year,” Grant said. “We asked a lot of him and put a lot on his back in terms of what we expected. We’re going to keep the expectations high for him. As a guy that’s our only senior, a fifth-year senior, I think he’s more than ready to handle that workload.”
Dayton did lose Kostas Antetokounmpo, as he will try and realize the potential behind his last name in the G-League after an uneven season. The Flyers also lost experienced forward Xeyrius Williams to transfer, and will be relying heavily on players either coming off redshirts (Ryan Mikesell, Obi Toppin) or in their first year (Frankie Policelli, Dwayne Cohill, Jhery Matos).
It could all turn out great for UD, but uncertainty abounds, and the A-10 should be watching the Flyers’ trajectory under Grant closely. The league has seen coaching changes in significant spots the past few years (Miller, Will Wade, Dan Hurley), and though it put three teams in the tournament last season, it looked like a one-bid league far longer than it should have. The conference needs Dayton as a standard bearer, and a positive run through the Battle 4 Atlantis would be a sign Grant can keep momentum going.
C-USA is in the exact same spot with Middle Tennessee.
The Blue Raiders meteoric rise is in a holding pattern after Kermit Davis left for Ole Miss. Put aside the NCAA Tournament success; MT averaged 25.5 wins per year over the past seven seasons, which is an insane figure.
The program lost more than just its head coach this offseason. Program icon Giddy Potts graduated, as did reigning C-USA POY Nick King and two other key seniors. The Blue Raiders also lost a handful of players to transfer, including point guard Tyrik Dixon. Davis was candid about the situation he was leaving behind.
“We’re losing some really good players this year and so it’s going to be, even if I stayed, it’s going to be a rebuilding thing next year,” Davis said. “So fans [have] got to go back to being patient and keep working, but it’s going to be in good hands.”
Those hands belong to Nick McDevitt, who is coming off a great five-year run at UNC Asheville. He checks plenty of boxes, having made the NCAA Tournament, racked up gaudy league records in recent years and developed exciting players like MaCio Teague and Ahmad Thomas.
Expecting another league contender with all the turnover is unreasonable. For his part, McDevitt has gotten off to a good start, bringing in intriguing transfers such as C.J. Jones (Arkansas) and DeAndre Dishman (Eastern Kentucky) that’ll be eligible in 2019-20. But should the Blue Raiders show any kind of competitive pulse in a loaded field (they open against site favorite Virginia), it’ll be a great sign for the program and C-USA.