Unlikely roster comes together to help Dayton return to NCAA tournament
A year ago, as Dayton cut down a trio of high-majors on its way to the Elite Eight, Brian Frank was in a cubicle in Cleveland, bored and missing basketball. He had graduated the previous summer from Kent State, where he spent three years as a walk-on forward for the Golden Flashes, and then opted, not without hesitation, to forsake entering the coaching field in favor of a project manager position at the Cleveland Clinic. But that hoops itch persisted, so a few months later Frank scratched it, setting in motion a whirlwind.
In October, Frank told his high school coach that he wanted to be a graduate assistant for a college team. The next day, his coach got drinks with Flyers assistant Tom Ostrom and mentioned his former pupil’s ambitions. A week later Frank was in Dayton interviewing for a position on Archie Miller’s staff. Two weeks later he took the job and moved to town. On the first day of practice, Frank was knocked to the ground while holding a pad during post-up drills and broke his wrist. By the time it healed the Flyers were so shorthanded that Frank was pressed into action every practice, no longer just holding pads or occupying space during drills but banging in the post during scrimmages and knocking down threes for the scout team. He was, improbably, a basketball player again.
“All of a sudden, here I am,” Frank said on the eve of the Atlantic 10 title game last Saturday, recapping his year outside the Flyers locker room at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “And here we are. It’s kind of crazy how things fall in place.”
Indeed. If it seems at all odd for a mere NCAA tournament berth to seem like a triumph just 12 months after a team came within 10 points of the Final Four, consider how much of Dayton’s past year has been defined by things falling out of place. First came the college game’s usual turnover, with two starters graduating and a third transferring last spring. Then in September, the NCAA ruled incoming center Steve McElvane a partial academic qualifier, meaning he could practice but not play in games. Three months later, the team’s only two big men, Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson, both 6'9", were dismissed from school after their alleged involvement in a burglary. In early January, Ryan Bass, the team’s reserve point guard, was shut down for the season due to concerns over concussion-related symptoms. With forward Detwon Rogers inactive all year due to a knee injury and what Miller has described as “an academic situation,” the Flyers entered conference play with only six scholarship players, three of whom are underclassmen and none of whom are taller than 6'6".
What followed is one of this season’s most remarkable coaching jobs. With a lineup that, according to kenpom.com, ranks 325th nationally in height (as weighted by playing time), 222nd in experience and and 337th in bench minutes, Miller’s Flyers finished 25-8—including an eight-game winning streak after the December dismissals—with victories over Georgia Tech, Ole Miss and VCU. Despite its lack of size and its dire need to avoid risking foul trouble, Dayton has the best defense of Miller’s four-year tenure (ranked 38th nationally in efficiency). On offense, the Flyers use the quickness and versatility of their small-ball lineup to spread the floor while getting to the free throw line at the third highest rate in the country while ranking 27th in two-point field goal percentage.
“No one is allowed to look to the left and the right and say we don’t have this, we don’t have that,” says Ostrom. “We focus on what we have.”
As Frank can attest, that inward focus can breed creativity. Practices have been kept between 50 and 70 minutes in order to keep players fresh without sacrificing intensity. Jeremiah Bonsu, a 5'11" student manager, was promoted to a roster spot in February. And Frank has been joined in his unexpected scout team duty by fellow graduate assistant Brian Walsh, a former Akron guard who also graduated in 2013, and assistant coach Allen Griffin, who played four years at Syracuse. Though the former point guard says he has gotten “fat and old” since starting for the Orange in the 2001 NCAA tournament, there is little room for weariness. “No matter how achy I am,” says Griffin, “no matter how sore we are as a staff, we’re out there, all hands on deck.”
“Sometimes we’ll screw up a play and Archie will get pissed but it’s like, what do you expect?” says Frank. “It’s a couple GAs, an assistant coach, and one guy that was added to the team like two weeks ago.”
What causes Miller greater headaches are the normally mundane predicaments of managing player fatigue and foul issues: With so few reinforcements available, what should the threshold be for a spell on the bench or a skipped practice? And for how long should a player sit out? “When you do all that,” says Miller, “you can't have your players look at you like you don't know what you're doing. And at times you feel like, 'I don't know what the hell I'm doing.' That's the truth. At the end of the day, as long as you give them confidence and they believe in what they're doing then you're fine.”
The absences of Scott, Robinson, and McElvane left Dayton the most bereft in the post. Junior forward Dyshawn Pierre, a slashing 6'6" wing last season, has been pressed into duty at the four spot and excelled, averaging 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while grading as a strong defender. At the five, Kendall Pollard, also 6'6" and 210 pounds, was named the A-10’s most improved player, as his stat line exploded from 2.2 points in 8.5 minutes per game last season to 12.8 points in 29.0 minutes this year.
And then there is junior Bobby Wehrli. A 6'6" former all-state volleyball player and high school teammate of Wooden Award favorite Frank Kaminsky’s in Naperville, Ill., Wehrli went to Dayton to study engineering, emailed the coaching staff about walking onto the team as a freshman and spent the last two seasons handing out towels and high fives on the Flyers’ bench. After the dismissals in December, Wehrli left behind the bench for the low post and has averaged 14.3 minutes per game, knocking down the occasional three and earning a surprise one-semester scholarship in January.
“It’s the old saying: be ready when your number’s called,” says Ostrom. “Nobody could have predicted it, but when his number was called, Bobby was ready.”
The makeshift group of forwards' first big test came in a Dec. 23 game Miller points to as the season’s turning point: a 75-61 win over Georgia Tech and its frontcourt of Charles Mitchell (6'8", 269 pounds) and Demarco Cox (6'8", 276). "It was almost like, 'Well, I feel bad for you guys,'" says Miller. "I watched those guys go out there and play like they were on fire. At that point they gave themselves confidence like, 'We're good. You don't have to worry about us.'"
More predictably dependable has been the team’s guard play, where All-A-10 first-teamer Jordan Sibert (16.5 points per game) has been the stalwart alongside point guard Scoochie Smith and a pair of emerging, unrelated Davises (Kyle, a crafty sophomore scorer, and Darrell, a reserve freshman). Darrell, who averages 18.6 minutes per game, is the only player in the Flyers’ rotation aside from Wehrli to average fewer than 28, but with his team-best 43.8 percent three-point stroke (minimum 25 attempts) brings an invaluable skill when he is on the floor.
And then, of course, there is the value of his simply being on the floor in the first place. In the NCAA tournament's First Four game on Wednesday against Boise State, the Flyers fell behind 50-41 with just over six minutes left before finishing the game on a 15-5 run to win 56-55 and move into the second round. Pollard led Dayton with 17 points, while Sibert, who was plagued by foul trouble all evening, chipped in 15. It wasn't pretty by any means, but it's survive and advance, something the Flyers have become accustomed to over the last couple March's.
Dayton sports one of the field’s shortest rotations and smallest margins of error. But their entering it at all is a testament to those who have gotten them this far. “Without any of these seven,” says Ostrom of his team’s rotation, “we’d be a disaster.” And without the unexpected help of others, they probably wouldn’t be here.