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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 13 Dayton Flyers

The Flyers can dwell on what could have been or they can embrace what looks like one hell of a team in 2020-21.

George Washington v Dayton Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

2019-20 Record: 29-2 (18-0 Atlantic 10)
Key Returning Players: Jalen Crutcher (G, Sr.), Ibi Watson (G, Sr.), Rodney Chatman (G, Sr.), Chase Johnson (F, Jr.), Jordy Tshimanga (C, Sr.)
Key Losses: Obi Toppin, Trey Landers, Ryan Mikesell
Key Newcomers: R.J. Blakney (G/F, Fr.), Koby Brea (G, Fr.), Luke Frazier (G, Fr.), Moulaye Sissoko (C, Fr.), Zimi Nwokeji (F, Fr.)

If dozens of programs across the country were screwed out of a chance to compete in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, you could say the Dayton Flyers were royally f***ed. Their 2019-20 season was a once-in-a-lifetime ride, driven by a talent that comes to a school like Dayton once in a generation. Obi Toppin led the Flyers through an unbeaten Atlantic 10 season and an undefeated record overall in regulation games. They were destined for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and had as good a shot as anyone to win the national championship.

Seeing them not even get a chance because of a pandemic that was beyond their control was gutting.

Dayton fans had every right in the world to spend their summers in a socially distanced pit of self-despair, but once the calendar flips to Nov. 25 and the regular season gets underway, I implore them to pick their heads up and look to the not-so-distant future.

The Flyers don’t figure to be a 1 seed this year or even the Atlantic 10 favorites — though we could have said the same last November. That’s just fine. They’re still going to have a heck of a team that should be squarely in the NCAA Tournament conversation come March. Letting last season’s disappointment dull any excitement for this year would be a disservice to a talented team and a proven coach, and you would be missing out on some of the most exciting players in the A-10.

Key non-conference games:


Dec. 5 vs. SMU
Dec. 12 vs. Mississippi State
Dec. 19 vs. Ole Miss

It’s impossible to criticize a team at this point for pulling out of an MTE (multi-team event), but Dayton really could have used some quality games in the Crossover Classic. The Flyers had been slated to face Wichita State in the first round then either nationally ranked Creighton or South Dakota State the next day. Instead, the best game currently on their non-conference slate is against SMU, which Blue Ribbon picks to finish third in a so-so AAC. Ole Miss could contend for the top half of the SEC as well, so that won’t exactly be a cake walk heading into conference play 11 days later.

3 Things to watch:

The A-10 Player of the Year

A lot has changed in Dayton from eight months ago, but the Flyers still have the best player in the conference. Instead of Toppin, this time it is Jalen Crutcher. With Toppin overshadowing him last year, Crutcher was perhaps the most overlooked player in the nation — at least by people who don’t put off plans to watch Friday night Atlantic 10 games on NBC Sports.

The first-team all-conference pick was the catalyst to college basketball’s second-most efficient offense, according to KenPom. Crutcher averaged 15.1 points and 4.9 assists per game and, like the rest of his team, gave few possessions away. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.39 was good for 34th in Division I, and he ranked in the top three of the A-10 in offensive rating, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. Crutcher also shot 42% from three and 87% from the line.

This year, with three of Dayton’s top five scorers gone, Crutcher is going to have to maintain his ruthless efficiency while finding ways to better optimize the talent around him. There’s no Toppin in the frontcourt, but there is a now-healthy Chase Johnson. Trey Landers is gone, but Ibi Watson is not. Dayton’s recruiting class comes in with gaudy scoring numbers from high school, but how that translates to the college level is anyone’s guess. Crutcher will be the guy on the court tasked with making his teammates better.

That shouldn’t be a problem.

New frontcourt roles

With Crutcher and (to a lesser extent) Watson in tow, Dayton has as good a backcourt as any in the Atlantic 10. It’s still unclear, however, how the Flyers will fill the frontcourt gap that Toppin and Ryan Mikesell left. Jordy Tshimanga proved effective in limited playing time last year and will need to make a leap in 2020-21 for the Flyers to be successful. Head coach Anthony Grant seems to think the fifth-year senior is up to the task, telling the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook:

“Having the experience he has, his size, his physicality and really one of the best teammates I’ve ever had as a coach, he’s another guy I think is primed for a breakout year.”

Chase Johnson played in only eight games last year before missing the rest of the season with post-concussive stress syndrome. Before he left, he shot 79 percent from the field in a bench role.

After those two, Grant will have to rely on freshmen in the frontcourt. Moulaye Sissoko looked good in the one exhibition game he played last season before taking the rest of the year as a developmental redshirt. Zimi Nwokeji has also been around the team despite never seeing real playing time. He joined the program second-semester last year and should be ready for game-action right away.

Efficiency

As indicated above, Dayton’s offensive efficiency numbers last year were eye-popping. In addition to their second-ranked offense overall, the Flyers led college basketball in effective field goal percentage (59.7) and two-point percentage (62.3), and were second in the Atlantic 10 in three-point percentage (35.4).

Those numbers will certainly take a hit without Toppin, who was as much of an offensive guarantee as anyone, but there are still areas that this Dayton team will be able to control. Crutcher (42%), Watson (39%), and Rodney Chatman (36%) will keep Dayton near the top of the league from beyond the arc, and the backcourt-dominated team should keep the turnovers down.

Dayton was also a top-tier defensive team last season, ranking 38th overall in defensive efficiency, which was also second in the A-10. They key to the Flyers’ defense is also the x-factor for the team as a whole.

X-Factor:

Rodney Chatman

Chatman’s offensive numbers are fine (7.7 PPG, 3.2 APG), but he’s made more of a name on the other end. He has been Dayton’s best backcourt defender and started to build his reputation as a downright pest going back to his days at Chattanooga. His role will be amplified even more knowing that Dayton won’t be the unstoppable monster it was in 2019-20. Chatman seems to expect that, describing last March’s disappointment to the Dayton Daily News:

“I could have pouted and sulked. I used it as motivation to keep working because I want to be in that position again. I want to make it to the NCAA tournament again. I understood I had another year.”

If he can keep the intensity on defense and maybe up his offensive production just a tad, he can be a key piece to a team loaded with potential.