Photo courtesy of Griffin Quinn.
Dayton men’s basketball started getting attention even before the season started. After a much improved 2018-19 season, there was a palpable hype building up on campus.
Redshirt sophomore Obi Toppin headlined a roster filled with returning veterans and promising new transfers. Students got their first view of the team during an open practice, hosted in the preseason.
“Stopping in and seeing the practice, everyone was shooting well and the defense was incredible for a practice,” sophomore and Red Scare social media director Kyle Brun said. “There were definitely some moments where you could see the early season rust, but it looked like they were going to be way more competitive than they had been in the last couple years.”
In the preseason, the Flyers were picked to finish third in the Atlantic 10, but fan expectations going into the season were high. There were even some whispers that this could be Dayton’s best ever team.
Dayton looked the part to start the season, dispatching Indiana State, Charleston Southern and Omaha to start the season. The real test however was yet to come – Dayton was headed to Maui for the Maui Invitational.
Dayton had a relatively weak non-conference schedule, but Maui was an opportunity to prove themselves against some of the country’s top teams and they didn’t disappoint.
“I think that the Maui tournament was the turning point in the season when everyone saw that we could compete with and beat big name teams,” senior and Red Scare chief of staff Michelle Smith said.
Dayton handily took care of Georgia and Virginia Tech before losing to Kansas overtime in the finals. Kansas ended the season as the No. 1 team in the country. ESPN announcer Jay Bilas uttered a phrase that would soon become a catch-phrase within the Flyer Faithful – “Dayton is legit.”
Dayton came away from Maui with a No. 19 ranking and Dayton fans came away with a new level of excitement.
“It was not hard to see that the hype was building, and it was building quickly,” Brun said. “We started selling out games within 15 minutes, and our ticketing system was not really meant to handle the traffic.”
As Dayton continued to rise in the rankings, Flyer Mania continued to take hold of the community.
“Sitting in the student section this year was one of the most exhilarating experiences,” Smith said. “The energy the students brought radiated throughout the whole arena and created the amazing atmosphere that everyone references when discussing UD arena.”
The Flyers only elevated their play for A10 competition, winning game after game. Some highlights included a 22-0 run that led to a victory over rivals VCU, and two close wins over a tough Saint Louis team.
“That 22-0 run was absolutely absurd,” Brun said. “The roof was just being absolutely blown off of UD Arena.”
See also- Dayton Women’s Basketball Delivers a Championship Despite March Madness Cancellation
The season all culminated in a visit from ESPN’s College Gameday on the final day of the regular season, a monumental moment for Dayton fans.
“Gameday was one of my favorite experiences as a UD student,” Smith said. “The amount of students that came, the energy they brought and the amazing posters they created made the experience so amazing. That day we showed the nation that not only the team but the Flyer fan base is legit.”
Fresh off of College Gameday, the Flyers put on a show of their own, beating George Washington 76-51 on senior night. The win included maybe the most exciting moment of the season – two back-to-back dunks from Toppin including one between the legs.
“I will never forget Obi’s back to back dunks,” Smith said. “The fact that it was the last game of my senior year and I was watching the best player UD has ever seen made that moment all the more special.”
Unknowingly, this was the last time that Dayton fans would get to watch the historic team. The A10 Tournament was cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and March Madness followed suit – prematurely ending the best season in Dayton basketball’s history.
“Being a senior, having to leave campus, and finding out that the tournament was cancelled was heartbreaking,” Smith said. “Everything was happening so fast that it took a day or two to process and accept that the season was over… This will be one of the biggest ‘what if’ opportunities that we missed out on experiencing.”
In the postseason, the Flyers were showered with awards. Toppin won AP’s College Player of the Year and head coach Anthony Grant won Coach of the Year, giving the program a lot to be proud of.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a proper cap on the season, but it is a bit of validation,” Brun said. “Dayton is on the map, people have been watching and the talent and impressive leadership haven’t been overlooked.”
Despite the unsatisfactory end, Dayton finished ranked No. 3 in the country, and gave fans a season they would not soon forget.
“We were extremely disappointed,” Brun said. “But the ending doesn’t take away from the magical season and the experience that we had in UD Arena.”