As Kevin Dillard goes, so goes the University of Dayton men’s basketball team.
And the Flyers will need the redshirt senior point guard at his best offensively as UD starts Atlantic 10 play against ranked opponents in back-to-back games for the first time since the 1993-1994 season. Dayton will play No. 24 Virginia Commonwealth tonight at the Siegel Center in Richmond, Va., before hosting No. 14/17 Butler on Saturday, Jan. 12, at UD Arena.
“Yeah, this is probably the most excited people have felt about an A-10 regular season in a long time, and rightfully so with the additions of VCU and Butler,” Dayton head coach Archie Miller said. “I think both teams have had excellent non-conference slates.
“If you look at them right now, they’re positioning themselves for at least top-4 seeds, at-large berths. They’re contending for an A-10 championship. They’ve looked that good.”
Recently though, Dillard hasn’t. At least when shooting the basketball.
In his last four games, Dillard has been 12-for-45 from the field and 4-for-21 from the 3-point line. The Homewood, Ill., native said his shooting slump is nothing more than not taking enough time to knock down open shots.
“I’ve just got to take my time and knock them down,” Dillard said. “That’s on me. I’ve just got to relax and shoot it.”
In the six games this season when Dillard has been at his best shooting the ball, he’s been 32-of-58 from the field (52 percent) and 13-of-26 from behind the arc. The Flyers are 6-0 in those games, outscoring their opponents by a combined margin of +87 points.
In UD’s other eight games, Dillard is 26-for-93 from the field (28 percent) and 9-for-38 from the 3-point line (24 percent). In those eight games, Dayton is 4-4.
Miller believes, over time, Dillard will find his shooting stroke again. But, until then, he’s happy with the way Dillard is playing within the context of the rest of the team.
“He’s seen a lot of different defenses,” Miller said. “You go through these pockets during the season. I think he’ll get himself out of this.”
In two of the last three games, Dillard has had at 10 assists in Dayton’s two victories over Murray State and UAB.
Dillard has also been attacking the basket more, drawing fouls and making opposing defenses pay at the foul line. He’s 31-for-35 from the free throw line in his last four games.
“I feel like I need to get back to getting high-level assists anyway,” he continued. “That’s not on my mind really. Happens to the best of them where you’ll have shooting lows. … As long as we’re winning, I’m fine.”
Looking at the box score of the Murray State, it would appear Dillard had another bad shooting night, going 5-for-15 from the field. And while he went 0-for-9 from the field in the game’s first 30 minutes, Dillard shined in crunch time.
When the Flyers needed a spark to make a run to victory, Dillard went 5-of-6 from the field and 2-of-3 from behind the 3-point line in the final 10 minutes. He scored 16 of his 18 points during that late-game push.
Dillard, ever the modest player, gave credit to his teammates for helping him out as other teams have started using more help defenses on Dillard in hopes of slowing him down.
“There’s a little bit of pressure, but my teammates are doing a good job of helping me out,” he said. “They do a good job of taking some of the pressure off me by making shots, making plays. We’re going to need everybody on board to do something for the team.”
Dayton will need a team effort against a VCU defense that leads the nation in steals per game (13.5) and turnover margin (8.8). The Rams, led by Shaka Smart who was the director of basketball operations at UD from 2001-2003, are also ninth in the nation in scoring margin at +19.3 per game.
“For us, right now, to have VCU as our opener on the road is obviously going to be a very difficult challenge,” Miller said. “They present a lot of difficult challenges. But, at the same time, we want to be on this stage where I’ve always said our program wants to be in big games. Big plays are going to need to be made in the most hostile environment we’ve seen so far.”
As for Dillard, he said he’s been encouraged to continue to shoot as the shots will eventually go in, but until then, he’ll make sure to keep the rest of his game at high level as he’s done consistently so far this year.
“Usually when you get down to league play, it’s harder play, better scouting, things like that,” Dillard said. “You really have to pay attention to details and make sure you’re sharp in everything that you do.”