By: Daniel Massa – Sports Editor
With late-December home wins over Furman (70-50), Miami of Ohio (64-63) and Arkansas (85-81 in overtime), the Dayton men’s basketball team (16-3, 6-1 Atlantic 10) entered conference play with a 10-2 record and remained on the cusp of earning a spot among the top 25 teams in the nation.
Following their conference opening 66-58 win at Duquesne on Jan. 2, the Flyers garnered a No. 25 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25, the program’s first ranking of the 2015-16 season.
However, the program’s familiar struggles while playing as a ranked team resurfaced less than a week after the recognition. Dayton first took care of business at home, dismantling Massachusetts 93-63 on Jan. 6. Six Flyers scored in double-figures against the Minutemen, led by redshirt junior guard Charles Cooke, who had 18 points and four rebounds.
Three days later, however, the team traveled to Philadelphia to face the La Salle Explorers, who were mired in a seven-game losing streak and had only seven available scholarship players at the time. La Salle came away with a 61-57 victory over the Flyers, dropping Dayton to 12-3 overall and 2-1 in conference play.
La Salle employed a slow-paced strategy to help offset its lack of depth, often holding the ball on offense until the shot clock showed single-digits before running a play. The strategy worked, flustering Dayton on both ends of the floor. The Flyers shot a season-low 31 percent from the field, including 28 percent from 3-point range, while La Salle was more effective, shooting 43.5 percent. Dayton also missed eight free throws.
UD has rattled off four straight wins since the La Salle loss, including two home wins over conference contenders Davidson (80-74) and George Washington (77-70) in the same week, a road win at St. Bonaventure (85-79) in which Dayton led by as many as 31 points, and most recently a 64-50 win at Fordham on Sunday. Head coach Archie Miller’s squad still boasts a solid 16-3 record and sits in second place in conference play, one game back of VCU.
As is evident in the team’s play since the loss to La Salle, Miller did not let the loss affect the Flyers’ focus going forward. If anything, it helped sharpen the team’s future efforts.
“We could also not have won the last three games if it weren’t for La Salle, and I think you’ve got to take the silver lining,” Miller said Thursday prior to the Fordham game. “I think La Salle is a game that we took a hard lesson from of being together and playing the right way, and I think that’s what we’ve been stressing the most since we returned. I think we’ve played some pretty consistent ball, offensively sharing it and defensively playing really hard. We just have to sustain it for longer stretches.”
In his fifth year at the helm of the Dayton program, and fifth year coaching in the Atlantic 10, Miller is used to the challenges conference play can pose.
“I think it’s been off to a regular competitive league,” Miller said of the conference one-third of the way through the conference season. “I think through the first six [games] right now it’s been what we’ve expected, very competitive.”
Dayton was already in a good position nearing the end of nonconference play, and was able to add one of its best players at the end of 2015. Senior forward Dyshawn Pierre returned to the team for the second semester after serving a university suspension first semester stemming from a sexual assault allegation against him. He made his season debut against Arkansas on Dec. 30, playing 33 minutes and scoring 11 points in the win.
“We’re getting better, and I think part of it is Dyshawn is getting more comfortable with his teammates and he’s getting his legs under him,” Miller said.
Through eight games, Pierre is averaging 14 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in 32.8 minutes per game.
“A-10 play so far, it’s been good,” senior forward Dyshawn Pierre said. “We’ve been doing really well so far, but obviously that one loss to La Salle kind of stings. I think everyone felt like we shouldn’t have lost that game. We had a meeting after that La Salle game [that] kind of cleared the air and [declared] that it was a new season from now on. Just take it game by game.”
Dayton will play its next two games at home, starting Wednesday against the Saint Louis Billikens at 7 p.m. The Flyers will then get a chance for revenge when La Salle comes to town on Saturday at 2 p.m.
MBB Photo Caption (MG8475): Senior forward Dyshawn Pierre returned to the men’s basketball team Dec. 30 after serving a university suspension during the first semester. Dayton has gone 7-1 since his return. Chris Santucci/Multimedia Editor