Welcome to awards season at Mid-Major Madness! Obviously, we expected to roll these out after a thrilling tournament packed with mid-major wins but nonetheless, we’ll continue today with Coach of the Year.
The 2019-20 Dayton Flyers may well go down as one of the biggest “what if’s” in the history of college basketball. Maybe that’s hyperbole, but these are strange times.
We never saw the seemingly inevitable No. 1 seed launch its tournament run in its home state with arguably the best player in the country. But there was a lot we did see this season: 29 wins, a transcendent offense and undefeated run through a sticky mid-major league. Based on all that (and more), Anthony Grant is the 2020 Mid-Major Madness Coach of the Year.
Coach of the Year: Anthony Grant
29-2 (18-0 A-10)
No. 3, AP Top 25 (final)
Regular season A-10 champion
Runner up, Maui Invitational
20-game winning streak to end season
Grant had his finest season in his 12th year as a Division I head coach, but that wasn’t a given. Coming off a 21-12 (13-5) campaign in 2018-19, Dayton was pegged a respectable-if-not-spectacular third in the A-10’s preseason poll.
The calculus changed almost immediately.
The Flyers rode a sweep of a season-opening, three-game home stand into the Maui Invitational, the program’s first appearance in the premier non-conference tournament since 2013. Grant’s team turned heads on the island, using a blistering offense to rip off blowout wins over Georgia and Virginia Tech before a thrilling overtime loss to Kansas.
Other than a neutral site loss to Colorado, that would be Dayton’s only setback of the regular season. They notched a big non-conference win against Saint Mary’s in Phoenix before running through a resurgent A-10 unblemished. It was the Flyers’ first undefeated season since joining the A-10 in 1995, and their 20-game winning streak to close the year was their first in a single season since 1952.
The gaudy numbers were fueled by one of the country’s most exciting, and efficient, offenses. Dayton finished second in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom, and was dangerous shooting the ball from all over the court. While the Flyers didn’t play at a particularly fast pace, the team’s style did not resemble the plodding, defense-centric squads that ground out wins for Grant over seven years at Alabama. He was dismissed in Tuscaloosa in 2015 amid criticism that his teams weren’t exciting. That certainly wasn’t the case in 2019-20.
The biggest storyline in Dayton’s historic season was without a doubt Obi Toppin (20.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 63.3 FG%). The redshirt sophomore dunk factory was virtually unstoppable in the paint, and an athletic force on defense. Grant helped lay the groundwork for Toppin’s explosion when he landed the New York native in 2017 after a year in prep school caused a rush of interest in the late-blooming prospect. Lohud.com wrote about his sudden ascent at the time.
On the court, he averaged 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists playing on the wing against elite competition. Toppin’s ability to showcase his length and skill on a team with six seniors now committed to Division I programs transformed his recruiting. He earned more than a dozen offers, including Georgia, Oklahoma State, Mississippi State and Rhode Island, and actually visited Georgetown days before the school dismissed head coach John Thompson III.
”He just needed more exposure,” Mt. Zion head coach Rodrick Harrison said. “He had just turned a corner after his senior year. Everyone realized that one more year of school could do it for him. It did. He got a lot better. He gained some weight. We definitely thought he was a Division I player. There wasn’t a situation where we thought anything less.”
It wasn’t, of course, a one-man show. Grant was also responsible for recruiting junior point guard Jalen Crutcher, who was an offensive force (15.1 PPG, 4.9 APG, 42.4 3P%) in his own right and likely overshadowed slightly by Toppin. In total, all of Dayton’s major contributors were signed by Grant besides seniors Trey Landers and Ryan Mikesell, both of whom went from little-used players as freshmen under Archie Miller, to vital cogs as seniors under Grant.
Also receiving votes: Joe Gallo (Merrimack), Chris Jans (New Mexico State).