When the 2014 NCAA Tournament field was finalized, few people paid much attention to Dayton, a ho-hum 11th seed with no discernible star players. Most March Madness bettors and fans filling out brackets didn’t think that the Flyers would even stand a chance against their in-state rivals Ohio State – let alone their second-round matchup against Syracuse.
But after surviving a last-second shot for the second time in a row, Dayton is now the first Cinderella team in the Sweet Sixteen. And we’ll be quite honest, we totally missed the boat on Dayton in our notable Cinderella picks. Sure, this was a quality team that came into the tournament with a 23-10 overall record and a 10-6 mark in the fairly tough Atlantic 10 Conference (tied for fifth). But if somebody were going to emerge as a postseason favorite, you’d expect it to be Saint Louis (26-6) or VCU (26-8) – both teams that are already done.
The truth is that Dayton now carries the banner for the A-10, and they may represent the Cinderellas’ last hope if 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin doesn’t knock off UCLA later today. So just what is it that has helped the Flyers succeed where other longshots have failed?
For starters, this squad is used to dealing with close, high-pressure games – an excellent quality to have during March Madness. They battled in 10 games during the regular season/A-10 Tournament that were decided by 5 points or less. So it should be little surprise that their first two victories in the NCAA Tournament have been decided by a collective three points.
The first win over Ohio State was especially dramatic, with Vee Sanford beating Aaron Craft off the dribble for a go-ahead basket with 3.8 seconds left. This gave Craft just enough time to storm down the court for a game-winning rebuttal, however, his shot rattled out. Few could’ve predicted that the Buckeyes, a team with so much tournament success over the past few years, would be toppled by their lesser-known neighbors to the southwest.
Most expected this nice little run to end when Dayton matched up with a more-vaunted opponent in Syracuse. The Orange started the season by running out to a 25-0 record and achieving the nation’s number-one ranking, before stumbling and losing five out of their last seven games prior to March Madness. But with two mid-major opponents out in front of them in Western Michigan and Dayton, it looked like Syracuse could salvage a once-promising season and still make the Sweet Sixteen.
Perhaps they underestimated Dayton’s swarming team defense, which forced the Orange into plenty of bad shots yesterday. To be fair, Syracuse also shot themselves in the foot, shooting under 40% from the field, which was a common theme in all six of their losses down the season stretch. Their two stars, CJ Fair and freshman Tyler Ennis, were held to a combined 11-of-35 (31.4%) from the field.
Another telling stat is that the Orange missed all 10 of their three-point attempts. None of these missed attempts hurt more than Ennis’ last-second three, which clanged off the back of the iron, ending Syracuse’s season with a whimper.
Contrast this to Dayton, who made several clutch three-pointers down the stretch, connecting on 7-of-16 shots (43.8%) from behind the arc. Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert was especially instrumental in this department as he made three-of-eight shots from downtown. Dyshawn Pierre also came up big by leading a balanced scoring effort with 14 points.
Now, the Flyers wait to see who they’ll play next week as 10th-seeded Stanford and 2nd-seeded Kansas face off. Both of these teams are very good, but you can bet that Dayton would pick the 22-12 Cardinals as opponents, rather than Kansas’ trio of freshman stars – Andrew Wiggins (17.4PPG, 5.9RPG), Joel Embid (11.2PPG, 8.1RPG) and Wayne Seldon Jr. (9.9PPG, 2.7RPG). Embid is currently out with a stress fracture in his back, but could return to action next week. If he can’t go, Kansas still has another tough post player in sophomore Perry Ellis (13.6PPG, 6.6RPG) to contend with.
Assuming Stanford can pull off the upset, Dayton would have to play a very experienced team, lead by junior guard Chasson Randle (18.9PPG, 3.5RPG). He’s teamed up with senior postman Dwight Powell (13.9PPG, 6.8RPG), junior swingman Anthony Brown (12.0PPG, 5.0RPG) and senior forward Josh Huestis (11.3PPG, 8.2RPG).
Regardless of whom Dayton plays, you can bet that they’ll bring the same fire they had in the first two rounds. This squad is extremely balanced, as you can see from their leading scorers, Sibert (12.4PPG), Devin Oliver (11.9PPG), Pierre (11.2PPG) and Vee (9.9PPG). They also shoot the three very well at a 37.6% clip and feature a pretty experienced starting lineup. So whether it’s Kansas or Stanford that wins today, they also have something to fear in regard to their Sweet 16 opponent.