Obi Toppin reflects on historic UD basketball season, looks ahead to NBA future

High-Flyer Obi Toppin reflects on his special season at UD and looks ahead to his future in the NBA and the draft, where he is projected to be a Top 10 selection. Photo courtesy of Keegan Gupta, Flyer News.

Peter Burtnett
Sports Editor

University of Dayton men’s basketball star Obi Toppin is training every day as he prepares for the NBA Draft, and took some time to reflect on UD’s historic 2019-20 season that was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a season where the Flyers went 29-2, a perfect 18-0 in A10 play and undefeated at home, Toppin averaged 20 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on the way to a litany of national awards, including the Karl Malone Award (Best Power Forward) and the vaunted Naismith College Player of the Year.

Toppin didn’t just post good numbers (63.3 percent shooting from the field, 39 percent from behind the 3-point arc) or win national awards, he was a catalyst for the Flyers’ historic season. 

Even as the Flyers continued to grab win after win, the doubters still crept in, questioning the level of competition and wondering whether Toppin was really as good as the highlight reels showed.

Facing doubt

That doubt became only stronger when the Flyers lost their opportunity to prove themselves against the “major” teams in the NCAA Tournament, where the Flyers were projected to be a No. 1 seed before the tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.

“Honestly, I was very upset, very emotional (when I found out the tournament was cancelled),” Toppin said.

“Everybody on our team was very emotional because we knew how much this season meant to us. We put in so much work in the off-season and in the non-conference that it kind of felt like a waste, like we were just throwing it away.”

Even with the cancellation of the tournament, Toppin said he felt the Flyers had a lot to prove going into the tournament.

“A lot of people were saying we can’t play against these big schools, we can’t play in the tournament because we’re a young team,” Toppin said.

“Whatever they were saying, we had a lot to prove when we got to the tournament, and I feel like we didn’t get the opportunity, even though we showed a lot, (like) going to Maui, going undefeated in our conference. I feel like we proved a lot…if we got to the tournament it would have been a lot better for myself and everybody else on the team… it would have opened the eyes of a lot of scouts for other players on our team to give them… better opportunities if we had gone far in the tournament.”

The doubt throughout the season gave the team an added edge and Toppin said the “smart, physical” A10 competition was downgraded by college basketball fans and analysts alike.

Finding an edge, winning awards

Now, as Toppin shifts focus towards his future in the NBA, he said the doubt he faced during his college career will “for sure” give him an edge as he trains and prepares for the draft, where he is projected by some to be taken as high as the No. 2 selection.

“People still doubt things that I do, and doubt things that our team did,” Toppin said. “So it’s just an edge for me to push even harder when I’m working out so that I can get better, so that I can get to the next level and prove to (the doubters) that I can do what they say I can’t.”

From receiving no Division I offers out of high school, spending a postgraduate year at Mt. Zion Preparatory School in Baltimore, Maryland, before sitting out a year after transferring to UD.

After facing the doubters even as he lit up the scoreboard and helped bring national attention (and ESPN’s College Gameday) to Dayton, Ohio, Toppin has had what he called a “roller coaster career” that made winning the national awards extra special.

“(Winning the Naismith Award) was definitely very special,” Toppin said. “I was very honored winning that award, and it meant a lot, just because of all the ups and downs that I’ve been through throughout this season, and my whole college career. I’ve been through a lot, like sitting out, not having really a winning season my freshman year of playing, to having the best season of Dayton’s (history).”

Brotherhood and a mentor

During the special season the Flyers had in 2019-20, Toppin said the best part of the season was the brotherhood the team created and the bond that was formed. The overwhelming response from Toppin was that each player on the court wanted to see everyone else succeed.

“Everybody on the team was just so close and so bonded,” Toppin said.

“And that’s what made us a very good team, because everybody was willing to follow directions and push each other. Like, everybody wanted to see each other succeed, and that’s why we were so successful. We always gave up good shots for a better shot, and (we) always loved to see another person score… we love to see each other succeed, and that’s what made us such a dangerous team, because everybody on our team was able to get the ball and facilitate or score off of that. The bond we created as a team on and off the court was just amazing.”

Another important piece of the Flyers success was, of course, their head coach Anthony Grant, who Toppin said he built up a close connection with. 

“Coach Grant was telling me every single day to be the same person that you are,” Toppin said.

“With my personality, it helps with a lot of things. The personality that I have and the work ethic that I have, he said if I continue having that same energy every single day on and off the court, I should be perfectly fine.”

Grant was also the person who called Toppin when he won the Naismith Award, which broke Toppin down.

“(Winning the award) really meant a lot,” Toppin said. “When coach called me and told me, ‘You won the Naismith,’ I almost broke down in tears, just because I knew how much it meant, it was crazy.”

A special day, for team and fans

The players and coaches on a team are part of what makes a season successful, and Flyer fans won’t soon forget the special season led by Toppin, his teammates, and Grant. But perhaps more than the players and coaches who create them, the moments and memories of games (or gamedays) stick with fans through it all. For Flyer Faithfuls and Toppin alike, the game against George Washington on March 7 could remain the best day in the Flyer’s storied history for years to come.

“It wasn’t just the game that was so special,” Toppin said.

“It was honestly that whole day, just because… College Gameday came to our gym (Frericks Center). It was just wicked, the whole day. Leading up to that game, people were like, ‘Oh, they got College Gameday, they’re gonna lose the game,’ because that was our last conference game. People were doubting us that game, but we did have a slow start, we didn’t have the start that we wanted, but we knew we could have something special: the first team to go 18-0 in A10 conference play, and we did that. We all worked really hard the whole season to accomplish what we accomplished that day.”

After the game, Toppin and stand-out junior guard Jalen Crutcher (also declared for NBA Draft) shared a moment where they felt a strange sense that the March 7 game would be their last.

“(That day) was just amazing,” Toppin said. “Me and Jalen were talking after the game, and we looked at each other like, ‘Damn, that’s crazy, because this feels like our last game’ . . . when we got to Brooklyn (for the A10 Tournament), and we found out that we had to fly back because the conference tournament was over, me and Jalen looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’ because it really felt like (March 7) was our last game, and it really was.”

Throughout the season and the final game, the Dayton fanbase motivated the team to fight, even on the road.

“Dayton definitely, by far, has the best fanbase ever,” Toppin said.

“They travel well, they sell out home games every single game. It even looked like, to me, that we had more fans than other teams at their home place. It’s just crazy, our fans are so connected with us, and we were fighting every single day for our fans, as well as we were for us. They put in the work to get to our games and cheer us on, and they put that battery in our back to push us to play even harder. We definitely love our fans, we thank them every single day for what we did and what we were accomplishing. Without them we wouldn’t be the team that we were.”

As Toppin now moves forward towards a future in the NBA, the fanbase that fed into and benefitted from the success of both Toppin and the Flyers will follow him into his NBA career. The “family atmosphere” in and around the UD basketball family is something that Toppin will carry with him into his future. 

“The family atmosphere that they have, it definitely brought me closer to everybody,” Toppin said. “Coming from a big city where there’s not a lot of interaction…to a place where everybody is talking to each other, it was very different, but I got used to that family atmosphere.”

Future focus on the NBA

Now, with his UD career in the rearview, Toppin finds himself among the upper echelon of prospects entering the 2020 NBA Draft. With the date now set for October 15, Toppin will be among the first ten picks.

Even through the tough times we have all faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, Toppin has still been able to get into the gym every day to work on “ball handling and getting shots up,” along with getting in the weight room at night.

The toughest adjustment for Toppin has been the uncertainty surrounding the situation around COVID-19 as it continues to develop and change.

“The only thing (that has been tough) is that everything is word-of-mouth right now, because nobody knows a guarantee of what’s going to happen with the NBA or with anything,” Toppin said.

“Right now, it’s just adjusting to being able to move quickly with what’s being said… if I have to go to a different state to train, I just have to pack my stuff and go… other than that it’s been pretty much the same. I’m in the gym every day doing what I love best.”

As Toppin continues to train and better himself, there are still areas for improvement for him to be ready to play at the NBA level.

“First, the pace of the game, I’ll have to get used to that,” Toppin said. “Then I’ll have to work on a lot of ball handling. With that, I feel like with me being as tall as I am, I have to get lower with my ball handling, and just master that. And then just have shot consistency. I feel like during college, I was very efficient inside and outside, and so I feel like if I just continue working on my shot and consistency, everything will be fine.”

For Toppin, everything should be more than fine, and as a lottery pick, there is a lot that the Brooklyn native can bring to the NBA.

“Honestly, I feel like I run the floor really well,” Toppin said. “I’m very athletic and I can bring different tools to different teams. Whatever team needs me, I feel like I can bring different things for them and be a huge threat for other teams.”

As he takes the next step into the highest level of basketball, Toppin said he will keep his ears open and listen to everybody and trust the process, which is something he learned a lot about when he sat out a year (redshirted 2017-18 season).

“The year that I sat out, I learned a lot that year,” Toppin said.

“I was sitting out and I was very frustrated because I wasn’t able to show what I was working on and how I was improving. So I feel like just trusting the process and listening to the coaches and the people around you – because they can see things that you might not be able to see because you’re so focused on the game. So just being able to open your ears and listen to others and follow directions, I feel like that’s the most important thing (I learned at UD).”