Early NCAA Tournament exit just blip on the radar

By: Steve Miller – Staff Writer

I awoke Friday morning with a bad feeling—a feeling that knew something was amiss with the Dayton Flyers men’s basketball team—which had lost four of their last eight games leading up to the NCAA tournament. It didn’t sit well with me that head coach Archie Miller’s squad that had been soaring up until February couldn’t hit shots in the Atlantic 10 tournament and would be playing as favorites against Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange. That’s not the script the Dayton Flyers are used to in March.

It would be easy to sit here and sulk over the fact that a 21-3 record and a No. 15 ranking in the country turned into a dismal, but not-all-that-shocking, first-round NCAA exit in a matter of weeks, but that’s not what Dayton is about either.

I took a stroll Friday afternoon after the Orange had turned the 2014 tides on the Flyers, wondering what the streets on the south side of campus may have looked like had the script not been flipped. It was strangely peaceful. And we at Dayton understand more than anybody the reality of college basketball…just normally on the flip side. March happens.

Don’t worry, Flyer fans. In our Midwest region alone there were three teams that suffered worse upsets in the first round than UD did. No. 6 Seton Hall fell to No. 11 Gonzaga. No. 5-seeded Purdue threw away its game against No. 12 Little Rock. And, most notably, No. 2 seed Michigan State, a proven March juggernaut, fell to the lowly No. 15 Middle Tennessee. For us, that one hurts the most knowing that, had the Flyers overcome Syracuse, the only team standing between them and the Sweet 16 would have been a No. 15-seed.

Further, Gonzaga ended up knocking off No. 3-seed Utah in the second round, and is the Sweet 16 matchup for the winner of Syracuse and Middle Tennessee. If you’re following along, you realize that a double-digit seed from the Midwest region will be in the Elite Eight. It’s a cruel irony for the Flyers to say the least.

Don’t despair, though, because teams like West Virginia, California and Baylor had even higher expectations for the tournament and still incurred the wrath of relentless bracket busters. Even Miller’s brother and fellow coach, Sean Miller, took a fall when his No. 6-seeded Arizona Wildcats fell to No. 11 Wichita State.

Keep your heads up because 2017 is the year that will matter. Charles Cooke, Kyle Davis, Kendall Pollard and Scoochie Smith will all be seniors who, minus Cooke, have experienced the jubilation of a Cinderella run and the agony of tournament defeat. They’ll have a year of experience of playing as favorites and, for once, being favored in an NCAA tournament game. And of course they’ll have a burning desire to get back in the field of 68 and blaze their own trail as far as fate will take them.

One lousy month, or one tournament loss doesn’t taint what has happened in Dayton over the past few seasons, as senior Dyshawn Pierre explained following his career’s final game.

“There [has been] a lot of progression from my first year to my fourth year,” he said. “Not knowing where we were at my first year [to] becoming a winning kind of team, and expecting wins and expecting to make it far and having higher expectations for ourselves every single year.”

In Pierre’s freshman season, the Flyers had a losing record in the conference and lost in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament. They didn’t participate in any national postseason play. But given the nature of the past three years, 2013 is a distant memory.

Over the next two seasons, UD won five tournament games, losing in the 2014 Elite Eight to Florida and the 2015 Round of 32 to Oklahoma.

“Getting to the tournament three out of four years, I mean when I got here people would say that was highly unlikely,” Pierre said. “It’s unfortunate I have to go out like this, but at the same time I know that we’ll have great years to come.”

Yes, St. Patrick’s Day week may have been a whole lot more lively had the Flyers done normal Flyer things and won a tournament game or two. And yes, the 2015-16 season would have been remembered as one for the ages had there been a nice cherry to cap it off. But know that this is by no means the end of an era or the start of a slump. It’s a hiccup, a growing pain, on a journey to turn a little college basketball program from Dayton, Ohio, into a formidable power on the national stage.

For the first time, the Flyers are experiencing the sour end of the madness of college hoops. It’s a weird feeling, but a necessary stepping stone on that journey. Welcome to March.

Photo: Charles Cooke (4) will be one of four seniors on next season’s Dayton men’s basketball roster, along with Kyle Davis, Kendall Pollard and Scoochie Smith. The James Madison transfer led the team in scoring this season with 15.6 points per game. Photo by Ron Thaman.

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