Dayton relies on a rotation of 12 players who change in and out of the game frequently. (Streeter Lecka/Getty)
MEMPHIS – The No. 11 Dayton Flyers are the houseguest who won’t leave, the kind of company who lingers even after the keg is kicked, the dishes are done and the hosts are putting on their pajamas.
Dayton entered the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament as the epitome of the anonymous underdog. They played 12 players in the first half, none of whom average more than 12.5 points per game. Even in the Atlantic-10, the Flyers players didn’t individually distinguish themselves, as no Flyer made the league’s first or second team.
But after blistering No. 10 Stanford, 82-72, in the round of 16 here on Thursday night, Dayton (26-10) earned its first spot in the Elite Eight since 1984. They got here thanks to a relentless offense predicated on speed, selfess passing (19 assists) and substitution patterns that resemble hockey line changes.
Stanford looked so overwhelmed at times that it wouldn’t have been surprising for coach Johnny Dawkins to try to insert former Stanford defensive back Richard Sherman, who was sitting behind the Cardinal bench. (Or at least consult Condoleezza Rice, who was sitting behind Sherman).
So how exactly how does team that started 1-5 in Atlantic-10 play find itself 40 minutes from the Final Four?
Well, America, let’s meet the Flyers. They have a crowd-surfing president, a coach with impeccable bloodlines and a rabid fan base -- Dayton has been in the top 30 in NCAA attendance for the past 16 years.
“We’re known right now throughout the nation as the ‘Cinderella team,’” said Dayton forward Dyshawn Pierre. “But we really believe that we are an elite team and we can compete with anyone in the country.”
And it’s the players who’ve helped Dayton win 13 of its past 15 games. They’re so interchangeable that nine played double-digit minutes on Thursday night. Let’s meet the guests who won’t leave and yet have managed to make an indelible impression.
Khari Price, 5-11 sophomore point guard (Slidell, La.) – After Dayton parted ways with heralded point guard commit Jevon Thomas (now at Kansas State) in April 2012, the Flyers staff recruited Price from grainy game film and a spring open gym in Slidell. He’s from Salmen High School, same as Chris Duhon.
Devin Oliver, 6-7 senior forward (Kalamazoo, Mich.) – He’s the closest thing Dayton has to a star (11.9 ppg, 7.5). Attacks like the rim with an alacrity that makes you think his next meal depends on him finishing. Just ask Stanford’s Stefan Nastic, who picked up his fifth foul in Oliver’s path on one of the game’s key plays. Oliver celebrated in the locker room by watching YouTube videos of Dayton’s campus celebrating: “It’s like a peace rally,” he laughed.
Dyshawn Pierre, 6-6 sophomore guard (Whitby, Ontario) – Played grassroots ball on CIA Bounce with Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis. Who’d have thought Pierre – who goes by Air Canada – would hang around longer in the NCAAs than his fellow Canadians? He was a late qualifier dug up by assistant Kevin Kuwik. He earned a Baylor offer after torching the Bears on a summer exhibition tour.
Matt Kavanaugh, 6-10 senior center (Centerville, OH) – The Flyers have four capable centers on their roster. Kavanaugh scored 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 18 minutes against Stanford’s trees inside. Not a coincidence that when Dayton started 1-5 in the A-10, Kavanaugh missed four of those games with a concussion. He embraces the line changes: “We play 40 minutes as fast and intense as we can.”
Jordan Sibert, 6-4 junior guard (Cincinnati, OH) – He transferred from Ohio State to Dayton and became engrossed in Coach Archie Miller’s shooting program in his year off. He improved from a 26-percent three-point shooter at Ohio State to a 43-percent shooter this year at Dayton. He goes by the nickname “Smooth” and backed it up with 18 points on Thursday.
Vee Sanford, 6-4, senior guard (Lexington, Ky.) – A transfer from Georgetown who came on the recommendation of former Hoyas assistant Kenya Hunter. He traded a lesser offensive role this year for team success, embracing his identity as the sixth man. He will never pay for a beer in Dayton again after hitting a running 10-footer to beat Ohio State in Round of 64.
Jalen Robinson, 6-9, sophomore forward/center (Columbus, Ohio) – Originally committed to West Virginia. He played for legendary Satch Sullinger at Columbus Northland High School, where his teammates included Jared Sullinger, Trey Burke and current frontline mate Devon Scott. He’s long, athletic and flashes herky-jerky post moves.
Devon Scott, 6-9, sophomore forward/center (Columbus, Ohio) – Once committed to Cincinnati, Scott epitomizes one of the secrets of Dayton’s success – quality big-man depth. Kuwik calls him a “space eater” and “battler.” When Stanford cut the lead to six in the second half, Scott’s old-fashioned three-point play extended the lead to nine. Stanford never got that close.
Scoochie Smith, 6-2 freshman point guard (New York, NY) – Only his family calls him his birth name, Dayshon. His nickname came from his late grandfather, although no one is sure why. (It may have been to set up this epic Bill Raftery call.) Recruited by Dayton assistant and Brooklyn native Allen Griffin, and shows the requisite city fearlessness. No turnovers in 22 minutes against Stanford.
Alex Gavrilovic, 6-9 junior forward/center (Strasbourg, France) – Originally committed to Providence before Clearinghouse issues. He’s considered No. 12 in Dayton’s 12-man rotation, as he’s one of four players who can play center. Not too many high-major teams that can do that.
Kendall Pollard, 6-6 freshman forward (Chicago, Ill.) – Postseason success shouldn’t be a surprise, as he won four state titles in Chicago Simeon’s fabled program. Scored 12 points in 14 minutes off the bench against Stanford, a far cry from back-to-back scoreless one-minute performances in February. “I really feel like we can trust him,” Miller said.
Kyle Davis, 6-foot freshman point guard (Chicago, Ill.) – Won a state tile at traditional Chicago-area power Morgan Park last year. His identity on this Flyers team is as a defensive stopper, as he’ll likely see spot duty on Florida start point guard Scottie Wilbekin on Saturday.
Those are your Flyers. Overlooked, underrated and by Friday night one of just eight teams left in college basketball. If their relentless style can last 40 more minutes, they’ll be the toast of America next week. For now, they’re happily anonymous. But rest assured, they don’t plan on leaving the party anytime soon.
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