At least early on, the national spotlight has left Dayton with Obi Toppin off to the NBA. Anthony Grant and the Flyers hope that’s only temporary, and with the longtime coach having built a true national contender within three years, there’s certainly reason for long-term in optimism.
In the sort term, the spotlight that’s left in Dayton will shine squarely on Jalen Crutcher, who becomes one of the most intriguing mid-major players in the entire country.
Few, if any, players were as synonymous with their team as Toppin was with Dayton in 2019-2020, and went beyond being a high usage player. The dynamic redshirt sophomore gave the Flyers a punch of legitimacy and national intrigue even before their record proved how dangerous they were.
An Obi windwill? A one-handed put back that smothers the arena mic? That’s one way to wiggle your way into the highlights as a mid-major.
But, Dayton, being the historically strong program that it is, isn’t solely a function of one lottery prospect. The reins to keep that momentum going fall on the player who was, in a way, already holding them.
Crutcher may have been one of the most overshadowed players in the country nationally last year, yet that didn’t mean he didn’t rack up accomplishments. The Dayton point guard was an all-league first teamer, and finished in the top 10 in the A-10 in both points (15.1) and assists (4.9) per game, as well as made three pointers (72). No Flyer, including Toppin, played more than Crutcher last year, which has been a theme during his three-year career in Ohio.
The Memphis native was a part of Grant’s first recruiting class after de-committing from Chattanooga when Matt McCall left for UMass in 2017. He had his coach’s trust immediately, playing 26 minutes in his debut — a one-point win over Ball State — and entering the starting lineup seven games into his career. He’s essentially been ensconced in that spot ever since.
Grant talked about that season with the Dayton Daily News last year.
“Jalen kind of got thrown into the fire as a freshman and had to step into a major role,” Grant said. “The team was going through some growing pains, but he handled everything thrown at him and has just gotten better and better. No moment is too big for him.”
Electric, lottery-bound teammate or not, Crutcher flashed the big-game chops during the Flyers’ historic 2019-20 campaign. He was one of the A-10’s best all-around players, bringing a mix of steady ballhandling, playmaking and reliable outside shooting to the second-most efficient offense in the country. That was on display in big road wins against Richmond (24 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists), VCU (18 points, 8-8 FT) and Rhode Island (17 points, 5 assists).
And it was especially on display in a thriller in St. Louis in mid January. In what would be one of the Flyers few competitive league games, Crutcher hit go-ahead free throws multiple times in the closing minute of overtime, before planting the following dagger on the Billikens.
JALEN CRUTCHER ❄️❄️— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 18, 2020
No. 13 @DaytonMBB survives in OT!pic.twitter.com/LnokdaZMCA
There are some players that know the situation Crutcher is stepping into.
Northern Iowa point guard Wes Washpun virtually doubled his scoring output and, literally, shot the Panthers into the NCAA Tournament a year after the program lost an All-American in Seth Tuttle. Washpun became one of the most heavily relied-on players in the Valley his senior year and the center of a 23-win UNI team that got hot late and ran the table in Arch Madness.
Similarly, Jordan Ford became a scoring machine to lead Saint Mary’s to the NCAA Tournament the year following the departure of an All-American of their own (Jock Landale) and program icon point guard in Emmett Naar. Ford went from supporting cast on a 30-win team, to putting up 21.1 points per game as the focal point of a Gaels team that was able to overcome those big-time personnel losses and scrape into the field.
Understandably, Washpun and Ford didn’t lead their teams to the heights of the respective previous seasons in Cedar Falls and Moraga. But they also didn’t let the loss of world beating players sink their programs in the short term.
The Flyers will likely slot into the mid-to-upper tier of the A-10 next season as Crutcher is flanked by Ibi Watson and Rodney Chatman in an experienced, sweet-shooting backcourt. Whether the senior can put a similar bow on what’s already an impressive career will be one of the top stories to follow during the 2020-21 season.