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2023-24 Atlantic 10 Team Preview: Dayton

2. Dayton Flyers

Last Season: If there is one crowning achievement that Dayton can be married with, it’s the fact they’ve now hit the 20-year mark of not winning the conference tournament — the last time being 2002-03 (shoutout to Oliver Purnell). Last season was Dayton’s best chance to win an A-10 tournament that wasn’t canceled because of a pandemic under Anthony Grant. They didn’t have the college player of the year, but DaRon Holmes II is about as close as you’ll get to Obi Toppin. He likely would’ve been the A-10 player of the year had his team not sputtered into injury hell: their entire backcourt of Malachi Smith, Kobe Elvis, Mike Sharavjamts, Koby Brea, and RJ Blakeny all missed time — Smith missed tons of time with bum ankles but was able to finish the season, and Elvis went down mid-season and never returned.

While they did what they could to overcome injuries, the Flyers didn’t live up to their lofty expectations because of how often gameplans changed: Grant enjoys utilizing size and athleticism as he has in the past. He’s always had big, strong guys at every position who bruise and batter opponents in a meticulous system. This season was no exception, but with all the injuries it forced Dayton to play as one of the slowest teams in college hoops — 354th in adjusted tempo which is 10 spots lower than 2021-22. Going 0-3 in the Battle 4 Atlantis against very beatable high-majors (Wisconsin, NC State, and BYU) was appalling. In ways more than one, it also served as a precursor to what was in store. 

Alas, the Flyers limped (literally) their way to the conference tournament championship. There was no Kobe Elvis because he was injured and Sharavjamts was battling knee injuries which limited his contributions entirely. Dayton was taking care of business against Saint Joe’s until the Hawks rallied in the final five minutes. One loose ball that was ruled off St. Joe’s allowed Dayton to squeeze by 67-62. The semi-final game was a heavyweight bout with Fordham. The Flyers fell asleep to start the second half until they woke up in the final five minutes and ended up winning by 10 in a true slugfest. VCU was the other finalist — not only was it a sour ending, but VCU won by 12 playing Dayton’s game and took the A-10 crown right out of their reach.

On top of coming up just short, there was transfer smoke around much of the roster in the final two weeks of the regular season. Camara elected to head for the NBA when he walked on senior night — something that nobody knew until a few hours before. He led an exodus as some Flyers who were expected to stick around were shown the exit. Grant retained most of his guys, including Holmes, but needed to replace key bench guys in what may be a last-ditch effort to win while he still has Holmes on the roster.

Returnees: DaRon Holmes, Malachi Smith, Kobe Elvis, Koby Brea, Zimife Nwokeji, Brady Uhl

Out: Toumani Camara, RJ Blakeny, Mike Sharavjamts, Mustapha Amzil 

In: Isaac Jack, Enoch Cheeks, Javon Bennett, Marvel Allen, Jaiun Simon, Petras Padegimas, Nate Santos

Potential Strengths: 70% of Dayton’s identity is its overwhelming size. 90% of why Dayton is successful post-Toppin is because of Holmes. He’s an overwhelming force in the post who can hit mid-range jumpers and occasionally the long ball on a 31% clip (albeit 0.6 attempts per game). Defensively he’s as good an anchor you’ll find in the country — he ranked 29th last season in block percentage in all the NCAA and was a menace on the offensive glass, grabbing offensive rebounds a whopping 2.9 times per game. The potential all-American will likely be putting up 20 and 10 (or close to it) if Dayton is to maintain their consistency.

His support system is an experienced guard rotation that is all fast, strong, and thrives in pick-and-roll situations. Smith is the primary ball handler with an amazing first step. Elvis is projected as a shooter who can also create for others, but he’ll need to remain healthy if Dayton is to excel. Brea will also maintain his role as a tall shooter offering a big body on the wings for defense. It was obvious that Dayton needed ball handlers given how thin the guard rotation was. Each time Smith or Sharavjamts would be on the bench, the team’s offense was stagnant at times and didn’t flow freely. Grant added a proven ball handler in Enoch Cheeks, formerly of Robert Morris, who has grown in his three seasons: Last season Cheeks was a plus defender and had a breakout year putting up career highs in points (15.4), steals (1.8), blocks (1.3), assists (3.5), and rebounds (4.4). Javon Bennett joins from Merrimack, the former NEC rookie of the year, who will contribute on both ends with his speed.

Dayton lost productive size to the portal (Amzil and Camara) and has only received limited contributions from Zimifie Nwokeji during his time at Dayton. Off the bench, he’s fine as a backup rim protector and rebounder but isn’t one to hold down starting minutes. That’s where Buffalo transfer Isaac Jack comes into play: A 6’11” sophomore who shot a wild 66% from the field (mostly inside the paint), but adds to Dayton’s size narrative. He’s also an effective offensive rebounder for a younger player, grabbing 1.8 offensive boards per contest. Nate Santos transferred in from Pitt who is the closest replica to Camara that Dayton will find physically. He’ll add size and a versatile element of in-and-out play while getting a chance to contribute to winning. 

Grant also secured a few freshmen who will get valuable experience behind some established vets. Marvel Allen is their biggest name with a strong reputation: he hails from the factory known as Montverde Academy and is a top-150 recruit who originally committed to Georgetown before Patrick Ewing was dismissed. Allen is a scorer and a bigger point guard who can get after it on defense. Petras Padegimas (6’8”) and Juan Simon (6’7”) may see limited time in a packed frontcourt, but they’ll have some awesome mentors to bring them along.

Potential Weaknesses: You can point to health as something that Dayton needs to watch. Their backcourt was destroyed last season because of bum ankles and busted knees which completely disrupted their rhythm. Grant got quite lucky that he was able to have 95% of his personnel — except Elvis — for the A-10 tournament even if some of those guys were playing at 80% or on time limits. Camara and Holmes carried them to the championship, with Holmes winning tournament MVP and Camara being a damn good Robin until the championship game. But it was obvious that health suppressed how effective these other guys could be. Smith and Elvis have to remain healthy if this is going to work. Both need to also hit double-digit scoring averages as well to make up for the lost production. 

Outside of Cheeks, most of Dayton’s depth is either unproven or complementary pieces. Smith is mostly a ball-handler and playmaker who isn’t asked to score. Elvis is the top wing threat in theory but hasn’t been on the floor as much, Brea mainly remains as a set shooter — it’s not that any of them can have a night, it’s can they be more consistent. Someone needs to step up and be an assertive scorer next to Holmes in some capacity. Cheeks could be that guy, but he’s coming from the Horizon League. Bennett is coming from the NEC which is one of the worst conferences in all of college basketball. Are either of them ready for the A-10? Freshmen are always a gamble nowadays even if a top-150 kid (Allen) goes to a school like Dayton. 

This critique may be a little from left field, but the pace of play needs to be emphasized. It has less to do with the pace Dayton plays at, but rather being prepared to play in an uptempo game. The Flyers were exposed a bit to full-court pressure for a lack of ball-handlers, and in some instances, caused Dayton to lose games. Their entire A-10 tournament run saw all three teams that play at fast paces almost beat Dayton: Joe’s (74th), Fordham (53rd), and VCU (142nd) all used their speed to their advantage to counter the snail’s pace — they finished dead last in the A-10 in terms of pace at 63.6. While some of it was out of necessity, the Flyers haven’t been within the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo since 2020-21. It also doesn’t help when their overwhelming size can’t function offensively. Per, Malachi Smith made Dayton +3.19 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. If they want to run the league with all these athletes, playing a high-octane style with deeper guard depth is the way to go. 

Outlook: It doesn’t matter who is running the Dayton program — Purnell, Brian Gregory, Archie Miller, Anthony Grant — Dayton is expected to compete. They are expected to win the conference each season or make the NCAA tournament at minimum. Holmes alone makes the Flyers a contender in what may be the weakest A-10 in a very long time. They’ll be right at the top of the A-10, and no question they’ll secure the double bye. From an administrative standpoint, Anthony Grant winning 20 games is no reason to panic for now. Many programs would kill for the consistency that Dayton gets, so I advise fans who are ready to throw him off the train: be careful what you wish for. To reiterate, this may be the last chance Dayton has to win the A-10 while Holmes is around. If Dayton can’t make the NCAA tournament this season, and Holmes declares for the draft, there will be trouble in Ohio.