Why not Dayton? This was the question asked for decades by the renowned Flyer Faithful. While the once-storied program consistently disappointed, mid-major after mid-major blasted through the gates of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend into the hearts of the nation.
Throughout the modern era, the University of Dayton always was the host for March Madness Cinderella weddings, but never the bride itself. The last time the program made the Sweet 16 was 1984; the 64-team format was instituted the following season.
Only now, you can begin to understand the elation that erupted among Flyers everywhere on Saturday night. Somehow, someway, this year’s pesky team upset three-seeded Syracuse just two days after dispatching local big brother Ohio State. Finally, it was time to celebrate. For so, so many reasons.
This one was for Dr. Dan Curran, the incredible crowd-surfing, party-hopping university president who has overseen massive institutional growth for over a decade. Whenever he retires, the next president will have some massive footsteps to follow, just like Curran did with the legendary Bro. Ray Fitz.
This one was for Anthony Corbitt, Negele Knight, Ryan Perryman, Brian Roberts, Chris Wright, Chris Johnson and all of the other deserving Dayton basketball players that never tasted this sensation over the last three decades. Only once had they made the round of 32.
This one was for UD Arena, often ranking in the top-50 in the nation in attendance, and host to more NCAA tournament games than any other site in history. Dayton fans are sports-crazy. They pack the arena for the First Four and they sell out minor league baseball games in record fashion.
This one was for the Dayton teams of the 1950s and ‘60s, as the program emerged as a national powerhouse under Tom Blackburn and Don Donoher. They have little to be proud of since then. But those dominant days laid the foundation of UD’s tremendous fan base.
This one was for Kacie Hausfeld, the promising volleyball setter, and Chris Daniels, the lovable late-bloomer, both taken far too early from us all. I once was told: “There’s no place you’d rather be than right here” at UD during such horrible tragedies. That makes the rare victories so much sweeter, together.
This one was for finally being in the conversation of the other amazing Cinderella stories: Kent State in 2002. George Mason in 2006. Butler in 2011. Butler again and VCU in 2011. Wichita State and Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. These are the stories we recite each year. These are the upsets that America loves during March Madness.
Over the last decade-plus, the even more meaningful development has been the evolution of the mid-major powerhouse. Like Gonzaga, Memphis or dreaded Xavier. These are the teams that win year after year and Sweet 16 runs become a usual expectation, even if it didn’t happen for any of the three in 2014.
Instead, Dayton fans were treated to eight years of Brian Gregory-inspired mediocrity. Sure, there was the 2009 NCAA victory over West Virginia and the 2010 NIT title, but those were just the foundation. UD fans actually were relieved and excited when Gregory, a Tom Izzo disciple, departed for Georgia Tech. Finally, the program could start anew.
That led to baby-faced Archie Miller. It was a perfect copycat move; Archie’s older brother is Sean, who followed Thad Matta at Xavier and now leads fellow Sweet 16 entrant and No. 1 seed Arizona. This was Dayton’s course: Miller promised a more exciting style of play and dreams of Xavier-esque long-term success.
Archie knew first-hand what it was like. “Our style of play is going to be one of which we will never have a problem selling,” Miller said at his introductory press conference.
When Miller was introduced as the surprise choice in spring 2011, there remained two monkeys on the back of the UD program: A win over dreaded rival Xavier in Cincinnati and a return to the Sweet 16.
Against the Musketeers in Cincinnati, Dayton is 0-for since January 1981. Fittingly, X just recently departed the Atlantic 10 for the Big East. The two teams didn’t play this season for the first time in ages, but there might be an annual non-conference battle in the years to come. Thus, this streak still remains unbroken.
But in Miller’s third season in charge, the Flyers’ NCAA hopes didn’t appear so high at first. They had a large swing in roster turnover; they’d be relying upon an arriving Ohio State transfer in Jordan Sibert, returning contributions from suspended Matt Kavanaugh and a handful of untested sophomores and freshmen. Expectations were mixed.
Then, the 1-5 run to A-10 play actually led to quiet murmurs of Miller’s future. Could he handle the pressure? Were the dreams of following in archrival Xavier’s path just a mirage? It seemed even an eight-win conference season, often the staple of mediocrity under Gregory, was a long ways away.
Suddenly, the Flyers started gaining confidence with a home win over a depleted George Washington team on Feb. 1. The schedule softened up and three weeks later, they were suddenly 7-5. A home win over UMASS made dreams of postseason play possible again; a road win over secondary rival Saint Louis cemented those hopes. They were NCAA-bound. The rest is now history.
Dayton’s last three losses since late January all are to St. Joseph’s. They’ve won their other last 12 games. Senior Devin Oliver has improved rapidly since the fall. Sophomore Dyshawn Pierre is emerging as a future star. Sibert is the efficient scoring machine. This team is a hot-shooting squad that just battled out two rough-and-tumble tournament wins against dominant defenses.
Now? There’s everything for fans of Cinderella to latch on to: There are the neighborhood pictures of celebrating students. There’s the Bill Raftery-ism of freshman Scoochie Smith. There’s the tweet from Barack Obama. There’s Will Leitch on the awesome Dayton fans. There’s a GIF of the players dancing after their Syracuse win. There’s even a BuzzFeed community post on 10 awesome UD facts. They are the only remaining non-FBS team in the tournament. What’s not to like?
“The University of Dayton has a lot of Flyers everywhere, and they are all welcome,” Miller proclaimed just three years ago. “We need them, more than ever before, as we start a journey that hopefully is something that we look back upon and say, ‘It’s never been done better.'” Everyone is welcome aboard the Red Scare bandwagon.
This one was for The University of Dayton, where Waiting For Next Year is no longer a way of life. Maybe, just maybe, this Sweet 16 run can be the start of something really, really big for the Flyers. It’s been a long time in the making.
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