Experience fundamental to UD men’s basketball’s success in unsteady season

To repeat the success of 2019-20, experience will be fundamental for the UD men’s basketball team. Photo courtesy of Keegan Gupta, Flyer News.

Peter Burtnett
Sports Editor

As the calendar passes the regular start of the men’s college basketball season, the Dayton Flyers have yet to play a game but are practicing and preparing for the season to start, whenever that is.

A key factor in that preparation is the experienced players who return from last year’s 29-2 team, which was one weekend away from a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before the COVID-19 sports shutdown occurred.

Of the returning starters, fifth-year seniors Ibi Watson, Jordy Tshimanga and Rodney Chatman, and senior Jalen Crutcher will be key starters for head coach Anthony Grant, and joined Grant in a media availability session Nov. 5.

In that session, Watson led off by highlighting the importance of building chemistry with the team and leading the young guys.

“Practices have been great so far,” Watson said. “We’re just, you know, trying to build chemistry with the guys who have already been here and then also help along, help lead the young guys and get them ready for what we’re trying to go, go do this year.”

The 6-foot-5 guard Watson, who averaged 22.6 minutes, 10.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game in 31 games played, has a lot of building expectations this year, and is considered one of the breakout candidates in the Atlantic 10, but doesn’t let the expectations get to him.

“Me, I just lose myself in each day,” Watson said. “I’m trying to get better. You know, my biggest thing is just trying to improve every single day. So, you know, I’ll just lose myself in that. I don’t really think too much about the expectations and just trust in my work and my teammates and my coaches and I’m, you know, I try to try to think of myself, less than just think about how I can help the team win.”

With the losses of National Player of the Year Obi Toppin and senior glue guys Trey Landers and Ryan Mikesell, the role of players like Watson and Jordy Tshimanga has increased. For Tshimanga, the excitement is building as the practices ramp up and the start of the season nears.

“(Practice is) going well, you know, we have a whole new different group of young guys as well,” Tshimanga said. “So we’re learning every day and just taking day by day, you’re ready in three weeks. I’m excited.”

Part of the adjustment in this tough time for someone with a personality like Tshimanga is adjusting to life in quarantine. 

“It’s hard, you know, because I’m a people’s person,” Tshimanga said. “I like to be out and about and see faces, talking to other people, you know, that’s that’s that’s what I live for, seeing happiness and I haven’t been seeing that a lot. So, you know, it’s been kind of down for me a little bit. But, you know, like everything in life. We have to adjust. So I’m trying to do that right now.”

Another adjustment will be on the court, where the 6-foot-11 center will likely be playing more minutes than his 9.8 minutes per game last year. Tshimanga averaged 3 points, 2.4 rebounds, and blocked 13 shots in 27 games played. 

Without the post players of Toppin and Mikesell, Tshimanga will likely partner with junior Chase Johnson in the frontcourt, but his experience will be an important part of the Flyers’ success this year. 

“Yo know, veterans and guys that’s been through it and nobody has been through what we’ve been through this year, you know, (with) COVID,” Tshimanga said. “Nobody in college, I think, for the past 50 years has been through this. So it’s new for everybody. You know that format is new for all of us. So we still are learning to adapt to it. But, you know, as far as a team, while we got a lot of veterans that know the game and that have played at this level for a couple years, they can help be kind of a mentor to the young guys in the group.”

By providing “tips and tricks” to young fellow post players like redshirt freshmen Zimi Ngokeji and Moulaye Sissoko, Tshimanga has provided positive reinforcements and been a voice for the young guys on the team.

Three of those young guys are true freshman guards Koby Brea and Luke Frazier, along with guard/forward R.J. Blakney. The experience of Rodney Chatman and Jalen Crutcher will be important for the growth of these young players this season.

For Chatman, he worked on his own game often this offseason, even without summer practices at UD. The 6-foot-1 guard from Lithonia, Ga., was able to workout at a church gym with his dad.

“Yeah, so my finishing around the basket, you know, last year, I really didn’t have to focus on scoring a lot,” Chatman said. “So it wasn’t my thing, but you know finishing, getting to the rim, using the strength of my body, you know, to shield guys off…being more physical, creating more contact, drawing more fouls.

“And also just my shooting, catch-and-shoot and also off-the-dribble. That’s something I’ve worked on, and my play-making also, you know, I just worked on my all-around game, scoring, passing. 

“So really just using my body. You know, I have a big frame, big shoulders, so I’m just using that as my advantage to get, you know, smaller guards or not so strong bigs on my shoulder and just being able to finish.”

The final guard in the Watson-Chatman-Crutcher tandem is the 6-foot-1 guard from Memphis, Tenn., who leads returning players in minutes per game (33.7), points (15.1), assists (4.9), three-point field goal (42.4) and free throw percentage (86.9).

With many tabbing Crutcher as the A10 Player of the Year, the largest amount of hype rests in the hands of Clutcher – err, Crutcher – who knocked down several key shots in the closing seconds of games last year. The Memphis, Tenn., native has also been named to the Bob Cousy Award (best PG in college basketball) preseason watch list. 

“Just staying humble and staying poised like I always be on the court and off the court (is how I manage those expectations),” Crutcher said. “It’s mostly just staying poised.”

Part of staying poised is being ready for extenuating circumstances, which helps Crutcher (and the team) be ready for whatever comes next. 

“Yeah, definitely, that’s what Coach Grant’s been trying to install in us, like just, you know, making sure that we already, no matter what happens,” Crutcher said. “So we’ve just been coming to practice and trying to work as hard as we can and get better.”

Over his four years at UD, Crutcher has gone from a “soft-spoken” player to a true leader and will be a voice for the young guys on the team like fellow guards Brea, Frazier, and Blakney, and his role has changed “a lot.”

“It’s changed a lot because I have to use my voice, a lot more than I had, you know, in the years I’ve been here,” Crutcher said. “When I first came in, I was the younger guy. Now I’m the older guy so now I have to, you know, make sure they doing the right thing and make sure they are ready for when the game comes.”

For the young guys, meshing into Grant’s team has been a focus for the head coach, who said the process has felt like putting two different teams together.

“We’ve got a nice group of veterans that have experience and understand our system,” Grant said. “And then we’ve got a brand new group that really hasn’t been through it before. They’re still trying to figure out how to compete at this level and then learning a system offensively and defensively. 

“So it’s almost, you know, two different groups, two different teams. I’m trying to get them to balance each other out a little bit and then, you know, trying to think about how we can put some of the pieces together to become the best version of ourselves. So it’s still a process. I wish I couldn’t tell you that I right now on November 5 I have a lot of answers. I got a lot more questions than I do answers.”

Even with the questions Grant has, the team he has at UD is set to reach at least a taste of the success from last year. 

The likely rotation for the Flyers is three in the backcourt (Chatman, Crutcher, Watson) and two frontcourt bigs (Tshimanga and junior forward Chase Johnson), along with a deep but inexperienced bench.

At the guard position, the Flyers looked solid off the bench, especially with the return of junior guard Dwayne Cohill. However, an ACL injury has now sidelined Cohill for the entire season, leaving the Flyers with little experience off the bench.

Senior guard Camron Greer and redshirt junior Christian Wilson combined for just 43 total minutes played, and the Flyers are left with true freshmen Brea, Frazier, and guard/forward R.J. Blakney.

In the frontcourt, the Flyers have less depth and experience. With the return of Chase Johnson – who averaged 5.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 11.1 minutes per game in 8 games played – the Flyers return a forward with experience after playing parts of two seasons at Florida before transferring to UD in 2019.

Behind Johnson and Tshimanga are redshirt freshmen Zimi Ngokeji and Moulaye Sissoko, who have yet to play a minute for the Flyers. The 6-foot-7 Ngokeji and 6-foot-9 Sissoko will likely be bolstered by true freshman Blakney.

If each of the five projected starters (Chatman, Crutcher, Watson, Johnson, Tshimanga) remain healthy, the Flyers should be in a good position to finish among the best teams in the A10.

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