Dayton looks to extend magical ride
On a scale of 1 to 10, the good vibes surrounding the University of Dayton basketball team as it prepares for Thursday night’s regional semifinal vs. Stanford are off the charts.
It might not be far off — or completely cheesy — to judge them a 16.
Dayton hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in 30 years, but two wins last weekend have taken the Flyers to Memphis and made them an 11 seed two wins from the Final Four. Those two wins were special in their own right, coming in the very first game of the round of 64 over Ohio State and then two nights later over Syracuse, which just last month was the nation’s top-ranked team.
Now, more people in more places than possibly ever before know about the Dayton Flyers, a deep, superstar-free team playing its best basketball at the best possible time. Those two wins last weekend in Buffalo came in red uniforms, matching the color of the coach’s face on the sideline. Archie Miller is 35 and could easily pass for one of the student managers, but he’s becoming a known commodity as the games get bigger and Dayton keeps playing in them.
During Dayton’s formal press conference Wednesday at Memphis’s FedEx Forum, a reporter directed a question to Miller by calling him Sean, the name of his brother who’s coached No. 1 seed Arizona to the Sweet 16. The reporter apologized profusely.
"You don’t have to worry about that," Archie Miller told the reporter. "Everybody calls me Sean."
There’s no better time to fight for respect and recognition — even simple first name recognition — than the NCAA tournament.
Dayton is a basketball school. It has a football team, but it plays at the FCS, non-scholarship level. The Flyers basketball program has high-major level facilities and a high-major level arena. It has tradition and a rabid fan base — which set it apart from many programs outside the game’s top-tier — but for too long it hasn’t beaten the big boys and earned the right to play in the biggest games. Miller has 62 wins in three seasons, this third clearly the longest and most successful. The Flyers hadn’t won a game in the NCAA tournament in five years, and before that hadn’t won one since 1990.
The community and fan base have gone appropriately wild.
"It’s a beautiful place to coach because the town is knowledgeable," Miller said. "It’s about basketball. To me, this is where they deserve to be. I’m more happy for our fans, our alums, former players than I am for our staff. I mean, I think that as we continue to build and do things, the more rabid we can make them, the better off we’re going to be.
"It’s an unbelievable place to coach basketball, and I really think like it may be one of the best places to play basketball because you’re just the show. It’s a smaller environment, maybe a little smaller bowl to look into, but you are the show."
Taking that show an extra weekend or two down the NCAA tournament road is the goal of any coach, and with that can come benefits that might not be seen or measured for years. In college basketball’s never-ending race for national exposure and attention from future recruits, there’s neither a time nor a stage that can touch March in getting it.
Last week, the country was exposed to the best kind of basketball overload there is. This week, there are four games Thursday night and four on Friday, just two networks broadcasting them. Dayton has had all week to bask in the glow of the big shots and big stops it got to seal wins over Ohio State and Syracuse, and those replays have been seen nationally time and time again. Locally, they’ve been seen and dissected thousands of times.
"It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword because if you’re doing well, (the people of Dayton) make you feel like you’re doing better than you really are," Miller said. "You may show up and eight cakes and 19 boxes of cookies are going to be in your office or in the locker room after you get a great win."
Sweetest 16 ever.
"There’s a really rich history and tradition with this program," Dayton guard Devin Oliver said. "Unfortunately, it’s taken us this long to get back to where we should be every year, but it’s a very proud program. We’re just happy to have given the fans in our community what they’ve been waiting for."
Without diving into economics and what could, should or might be at Dayton or anywhere else, university administrations pay to put their programs on a certain level with coaching contracts, facilities and other investments. No one can put a price on one team, one run, one group of players or a few magical moments making free publicity and lasting impressions.
Miller really isn’t concerned with anything but cracking Stanford’s defense on Thursday night, but his contract extension through 2019 was announced earlier this week. It was signed last month but was kept quiet to allow Miller and his players to focus on this season.
It was announced on Monday morning because it was a good time to make even more positive headlines — and to send a message to potential suitors. In today’s coaching landscape, contracts are made to be broken. Extensions, generally, are written to make breaking them very expensive.
Momentum matters. Dayton has it now, Miller has it now and the Flyer brand has a chance to really explode with another win. Or even two.
"I think branding of a program in any program is important, and you’re always on a quest to put yourself in the best light that you can," Miller said. "I don’t necessarily know if I have to do that right now. We’re in the best light we could possibly be in.
"I think all this gives great credibility to what we’re doing there. I also think it brings out the best at the University of Dayton, which is its administration, its fans, its supporters and alums. When that game tips off on Thursday night, I have no idea how we’ll play, but I know we’ll have the loudest people in the building."
It’s not lost on anyone that Dayton’s I-75 archrival, Xavier, rode three Sweet 16 appearances in four years to the new Big East. Butler rode its wave of success and back-to-back national championship game appearances from the Horizon League to the A-10 to the Big East in two years. VCU came to the A-10 from the Colonial two years after it went from the First Four to the Final Four. Longtime Dayton A-10 foe St. Joseph’s is still known for its magical season in which Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led it all the way to the Elite Eight.
What the future holds in terms of contracts and TV deals and expsoure remains uncertain, but Miller said it best when he said the events of the last five days have taken care of themselves. Extending this run even more two days would be great for all involved.
"We’re in a very unique place," Miller said. "Sustainability…that’s kind of our quest."
Stanford’s defense suffocated two pretty good teams last weekend in New Mexico and Kansas. The Cardinal have a coach who doesn’t get called the wrong name in Johnny Dawkins and plenty of talented, experienced players who also are both basking in the extra attention and deserving of it. Dayton will have more fans on hand, but both teams come in riding a high and looking to ride it higher.
Expect a close one. Dayton’s gotten good at those.
"We expect a very, very difficult game," Miller said. "But I also think, with the way that we’re playing right now, I think we have a chance to do something special here this weekend."
Sean’s Brother and these guys, whoever they are, won’t go down without a fight. They’ll have a whole city rooting them to the finish.
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