Men’s basketball rookie class recap their first season

This season’s recruitment class — Malachi Smith, DaRon Holmes II and Kaleb Washington — were ranked 21st in the nation. Photo of Holmes II by Keegan Gupta, Flyer News.

Juliette Connors | Contributing Writer

There’s no denying that the rookie class on the University of Dayton basketball team is a talented group.
Ranked 21st in the nation, they were UD’s strongest recruitment class yet. I sat down to speak with Malachi Smith, DaRon Holmes II and Kaleb Washington about their first season with the Flyers. 

Due to the pandemic, neither Holmes II or Smith were able to do an in-person visit to the University before committing. However, both said that communication with the coaches and what they knew about the culture of the school was enough to know that Dayton was the fit for them. 

“Before I committed, I knew that Dayton had a really good support system,” Smith stated. “The fans always bring the hype at the home and road games, and that support was one of the main things that appealed to me.” 

Washington, who did get the opportunity to visit, agrees that the fanbase at Dayton played a major role in his commitment. He stated,

“When I went on a visit here, everybody was going crazy. The tour guide told me all about the community and how supportive it is. DaRon [Holmes] and I talked about it over Instagram, and we ended up committing at almost the same time.’”

There was also an instant connection with the coaching staff, particularly because of what Holmes referred to as their “players-first mentality”- they truly want what’s best for the individuals on the team. All three of the players agreed that Coach Grant has helped them progress in an athletic, academic and mental sense.

The trio shared some memorable moments over the course of the season. 

“Beating Davidson at the final home game was one of my favorite memories,” said Holmes. “When the atmosphere is like that in the arena, it really helps out our team. The home game environment is amazing.” 

Smith agrees that the fan show out has a big impact on performance, claiming that the crowd’s energy helped the team to win a couple of games when movement on the court got sluggish. The Flyers completely sold out all of the 17 home games at the arena, a new record for the school. When leaving that home setting, it can feel a little different on the court.

Holmes explained that during the Kansas game at the ESPN Events Invitational tournament, the arena was packed with Jayhawks fans, which provided a chaotic and challenging environment.

The Flyers defeated the now-national champions, at the time ranked 4th in the nation, with a thrilling buzzer-beater. Holmes, Smith, and Washington reflected on how meaningful the historic win was for the team.

 “That win really showed that we’re capable of beating tough teams like that. We were one and three going into that tournament, so that was a major point where we shifted gears,” said Holmes. 

“After that game, water was flying everywhere, I was getting tackled, and Coach Grant was going crazy. He’s a chill dude, so seeing that, we knew we really did something,” said Washington, laughing as he reflected on the post-game emotions. “The energy during the game was intense. We were down by a point when the last time out got called, and everyone was a little bit down. I went to Mali and I said, ‘keep your head up. Don’t let anybody see you look defeated.’”

That type of encouragement between the players and their peers has been crucial for their success over the course of the year. 

The three players live in one of the standard freshman dorms on campus, in a hallway full of regular students, and have developed close friendships with them.

 “We got the coolest hallway,” said Washington. “We’ve got soccer players, baseball players and nonathletes, and I really connected with all of them, they’re all super cool. When I see them, automatically, they lift my mood. They’ve helped keep all of us positive and excited.” 

“Our floor is a community,” agreed Smith. “We’re all so tight, and we hang out all the time.” 

When it comes to teammates, they share an extremely close-knit bond.  “Off the court, we’re always with each other, laughing and playing around, and that close connection is there in the games,” said Smith.

“When you have a team that bonds with each other really well, great things happen,” emphasized Holmes. 

The freshmen are already decorated with accomplishments. Holmes ranked first nationally in freshmen for dunks, sixth overall, was awarded A-10 rookie of the week five times, as well as A-10 Rookie of the year, and received spots on the A-10 All-Conference and Defensive Teams. Holmes explained that his strategy when approaching games was to treat them all equally, giving everything he’s got regardless of who the opponent was. 

“Being able to represent Dayton in that way is pretty cool,” he said when asked what receiving the awards meant to him. “We’re doing things as a team to put ourselves out there on the map. I’m really excited about it, but it’s key to stay humble and locked in as well.” 

Smith, who was injured before the start of the season, lost 5 weeks of practice time but still ended the season with four A-10 Rookie of the Week titles, as well as a spot on the A-10 All-Rookie team. He was also named the tournament MVP of the Espn Events Invitational in the fall.

 “Honestly, I didn’t expect that I’d be getting rookie of the week awards and didn’t even think I’d play much because of my injury. My coaches and teammates saw the work I put in and trusted me, and that gave me confidence to play,” Smith said.

“Toumani Camara was a leader throughout the season and he trusted me with the decisions I made in games, so he also really helped me with my confidence.  My brother was a great support system too, he played here and knew everything about college basketball, so after games he’d text and call me to tell me what I could do better. And those awards made my mom happy, so you know that made me happy, too.” 

Smith recently faced another injury in the conference tournament game against Richmond, badly rolling his ankle. He attempted to run it off and sought getting back into the game, but both him and his trainer knew that wasn’t the best idea.

“Right now I’m just doing rehab and trying to get back to 100%, getting hyped for next year and to be a part of a top 25 team. I can’t wait,” Smith added.

Washington, who struggled with knee issues in the middle of the season, was also able to stay resilient through his injuries.

 “Keeping confidence in myself helps a lot,” he said. “Seeing other players who got injured but then returned and were able to play the same helped too. I don’t let myself down.” 

Washington, who got the chance to display his talent in the NIT game against Toledo, is looking forward to seeing more time on the court next year. 

Within 12 minutes he scored five points, got a rebound, an assist, and scored the last three points of the game. “I’m preparing for next season by putting in time in the weight room, improving my skills, and working to keep getting smarter and improving my IQ,” he said. “I’m just so excited to go out there and play.”

For Washington, the biggest lesson he’s learned from his time at UD is that always maintaining awareness of himself and his surroundings, not only within basketball, but outside of it, too, is essential.

“I’ve really learned that you get out what you put in,” said Smith. “It’s like going to school, if you’re just showing up and not paying attention, you’re not really going to know what to do. In basketball, if you put the work in and train your body the right way, it’s going to show in the game.”

And for Holmes: “The biggest lesson I learned? To have fun.”

For more sports news like Flyer News on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@FlyerNews & @FlyerNewsSports) and Instagram (@flyernews).