After leading Dayton on a historic run through the 2019-20 regular season and winning National Coach of the Year, Anthony Grant had everyone around the UD program buzzing. For the first time ever, Dayton went 18-0 in conference play and 29-2 overall. Flyer fans were happy to drink the proverbial kool-aid as Dayton positioned itself to receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Of course, the 2020 tournament never came to fruition, but the future of the Flyers remained brighter than ever.
Now, three years removed from that magical season, reality has struck Dayton in the face. This 2022-23 season was supposed to be the year the Flyers reemerged on the national scene. A preseason top 25 team and favorite to win the Atlantic 10, expectations were as high as ever. Playing against the worst A-10 in over 20 years, some thought Dayton could run through the conference en route to a comfortable seed in the NCAA tournament. Despite this, Dayton failed to sniff bubble consideration and once again found itself on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. Frustration around the program continues to grow, and rightfully so. It has now been six years since the Flyers appeared in the NCAA tournament, when Archie Miller took Dayton dancing in four straight seasons.
In his six seasons at Alabama and six seasons at Dayton, Anthony Grant’s teams have only earned two at-large bids to NCAA tournaments. A mere two-for-twelve is disappointing enough, but it’s especially troubling at basketball programs with more than enough resources to make the NCAA tournament on an annual basis. In other words, Grant’s teams have done a lot of underachieving. Making the tournament less than 17% of the time wouldn’t cut it at a lot of programs around the country. It certainly shouldn’t cut it at a school like Dayton, whose stated expectation is to make the NCAA tournament year in and year out. While a plethora of excuses can and have been made, results are all that should matter at the end of the day. When it comes to national relevancy and program advancement, winning really is everything.
That said, let’s dive further into the philosophies and statistical performance of Grant’s teams. First off, to give credit where credit is due, we’ll start with the defense. Grant has long emphasized the defensive side of the ball and this year’s Dayton team featured a high level defense. The Flyers finished No.11 in the country in scoring defense, holding opponents to just 60.8 points per game. Great, right? Not quite. Without Obi Toppin and Jalen Crutcher pushing the pace, the Flyers’ offense has become one of the slowest in the country. Out of 363 D1 teams, Dayton finished the 2022-23 season ranked N0. 348 in possessions per game. That’s right, the Flyers played at one of the slowest paces in the entire country this year. If you were wondering why Dayton’s offense felt like watching paint dry at times, that stat explains why. (It also helps skew the team’s defensive scoring numbers; thus a part of the reason they ranked 11th in the country).
In addition to the slow play, Dayton ranked No. 244 in total scoring offense this year. The Flyers’ inability to execute down the stretch on offense proved to be their demise in a multitude of games. This season, Dayton lost a total of six games in which it once led by double-digits. None more painful than the season finale against VCU, when the Flyers surrendered an 11-point lead in the second half of the A-10 tournament championship. A game in which Dayton failed to record a single made field goal in the final 10 minutes of play. Furthermore, by my count, the Flyers lost seven games this year in which the betting odds implied over an 80% chance of victory.
I say all that to make this point: a slow brand of basketball almost always benefits the underdog. By creating fewer possessions in a game, the more talented team has less opportunities to exploit its talent edge. This makes it easier for the underdog to keep the game close heading into the final few minutes. Because Grant elects to play a slow brand of basketball, Dayton practically invites its opposition to hang around. As we saw again this year, many teams with inferior talent forced close contests and were able to come out on top against the Flyers. Compounding the problem, Grant is not known as a good in-game or end-of-game coach. He is below .500 in his career in games decided by five points or less, and I think everyone would agree his strength has historically been on the recruiting side. While recruiting is important in order to gain a talent edge, the edge only matters to the extent a coach can exploit it. Unfortunately, Dayton has failed to properly exploit its advantages far too often under Grant. In my opinion, the Flyers will continue to do less with more as long as they have a coach who insists on playing a slow, archaic brand of offense.
To conclude, I think it’s easy to say everyone wanted Anthony Grant to succeed at Dayton. We all hoped that 2019-20 season was more than lightening in a bottle. We all wanted a coach who graduated from Dayton to come back and make NCAA tournaments annually. But in the end, one-for-six in at-large tournament bids doesn’t cut it. At least, it shouldn’t cut it at a place like Dayton. Between the fanbase and UD Arena, the Flyers have a lot going for them. More-so than the vast majority of college basketball programs. If making NCAA tournament appearances on a yearly basis truly is the goal, then there’s no reason to continue settling for less.