The Court Report: Overlooked national title contender Dayton has surprisingly built an all-time elite offense


Just so we’re all perfectly clear on this: The Dayton Flyers can win the 2020 national title. If we started the NCAA Tournament today, I’d probably pen UD into my Final Four, regardless of who else was in its quadrant of the bracket. 

What a powerful, sleek, adroit, satisfying team this is. The 18-2 Flyers are undefeated in both the Atlantic 10 (7-0) and in regulation. UD’s only losses have come on neutral courts in overtime against Kansas and Colorado, squads that are a combined 33-7. The seventh-ranked Flyers haven’t been this high in the polls since 1967. They’ve been ranked nine straight weeks, which last happened in the mid-1950s. 

Welcome to a fun new world of college hoops. The apple cart’s been upset a bit, and a guy named Obi is tossing the fruit. Dayton’s main attraction is redshirt sophomore Obi Toppin, whose mid-shot staredown of the Kansas bench at the Maui Invitational is still the best highlight of the season.

But Dayton’s dangerous for many reasons beyond Toppin. This Flyers team has a chance to be the best 2-point shooting team in college basketball history. Its current 62.7% clip is the second-best ever (Princeton in the ’90s was at 63.3%). Maintaining that for the rest of the season will be the challenge.

Dayton being this kind of team was not predictable, though. Anthony Grant was hired in 2017, two years removed from his firing at Alabama. Grant won 76 games in three seasons and took VCU to two NCAA Tournaments (2007, 2009) before being going to ‘Bama and never finding a groove. The Crimson Tide made the Dance once in six seasons (a No. 9 seed) under Grant.

Now Grant’s done the unprecedented in his career. His best 2-point shooting team prior to Dayton was his last season at Alabama. (Ranking 33rd nationally, the Tide made 52.3% of its 2-point attempts.) Then he shows up in Dayton and the Flyers proceed to make exactly 59.5% of their 2-pointers — ranking second nationally — in back-to-back seasons. This year’s even better. With the new/longer 3-point line bringing long-distance shooting rates down across college basketball, Dayton is actually up four percentage points (33.2% last year, 37.3% now) and it’s the best 3-point shooting team Grant’s had since his first, at VCU, which was the trendy No. 11 seed that upset Duke in the NCAAs.

“We’re seven games into conference season and are still a work in progress,” Grant told me. “So to say we’ve got anything figured out would be completely wrong and completely out of place.”

Here’s how emphatically dominant Dayton is, though. That 62.7% clip is 4.8 percentage points ahead of the second-best team, Army. The gap between Dayton and Army is the same as the gap between No. 2 Army and No. 43 Murray State (53.1%). Savvy college hoops analyst Jordan Sperber notes in the highly informative video below, only 4% of Dayton’s shot attempts come from the midrange. UD is excellent and excelling around the rim. Toppin is the biggest reason why. His 67 dunks are most in the sport. 

“And under-discussed thing is with this 3-point movement and analytics, when you when you shoot the 3 at a high rate, you shoot better from 2,” Sperber told me. “[Dayton] can play vanilla and still be a top-20 offense.”

And Dayton thrives on shooting close to the rim — after occupying your scrambling defense 18, 20, 22 feet out.

Toppin’s as versatile as they come this season in college hoops. He can receive in the post or pass into it at an elite level. He shoots a respectable 34.5% from 3-point range. He runs the floor tremendously well.

“Obi plays with joy,” Grant said. “He really enjoys playing the game and enjoys playing with his teammates. At 6-9 he’s athletic, has speed and skill and is really, really unselfish.”

But Dayton’s dotted with dudes who can do the damn thing. Jalen Crutcher — he who hit the winner at Saint Louis three games ago — is averaging a team-best 22.0 points in his last four games. It’s Crutcher who plays more minutes (33.0 per game) and accounts for the most points on average (14.7 points and 5.2 assists) than anyone else. 

Crutcher and Rodney Chatman combine for a two-man lead-guard offense. To be able to run that, plus have Toppin, plus have Ryan Whitesell, Ibi Watson and Trey Landers all capable of ball-handling and shooting 3-pointers? It gives Dayton an offensive makeup that is distinct from most other teams ranked in the top 20 by most predictive metrics. Grant said the team continues to add wrinkles almost by the week as the season goes on. Hey harped on personnel being necessary for this. Dayton has the benefit of smart players who are older. The top eight guys in the rotation have been with the program at least three years, and that includes Toppin who was ruled academically ineligible in his would-be freshman season of 2017-18. 

This group excels at knowing scouting reports and not missing assignments often during the game. 

“I like it to be a team defensively that plays aggressively, that’s disciplined, that creates offense off defense,” Grant said. “On offense, we try to be a team that plays fast, plays attacking, plays unselfishly and try to be efficient.”

I asked Grant if being in the NBA for two years, working under Billy Donovan with the Oklahoma City Thunder played a tangible role in this transformation. He said the process was of course beneficial, but didn’t openly state that tactics learned there were why Dayton’s as good as it is now. He insisted on putting it back on the shoulders of his players and numerous assistants who’ve helped shape the path.

“This will never, ever be about me,” Grant said. “It will be about our team and helping these kids reach their goals and aspirations.”

Dayton announcing its presence in November was one thing. It’s sustained its greatness and might have the highest floor of any team in college basketball. We’re about a little over a month away from truly knowing if this is the best team in program history.  

Flyin’ Flyers from left: Ryan Mikesell, Trey Landers, Obi Toppin and Jalen Crutcher.
USATSI
Fun chance we get a first-time champ in 2020

Sure, this season’s a bit wacky, but here’s something we’re moving toward that could ultimately be a commentary on just how different it is: there’s a healthy chance we could have a team win the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The number this season is higher in the top of the polls than most recent years. Here are teams currently seeded No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 in Jerry Palm’s latest Bracketology that have no NCAA Tournaments to their name. (Best NCAA finish in parentheses.)

So, nine of the 16 projected best seeds have never cut a Final Four net. There’s currently a better-than-50% chance that the 2020 NCAA Tournament champion will be a first-time winner in the 82-year history of the event. Way I see it, that’s great. Bring in some title diversity; spice up this soupy season. And when you factor in the still-increasing probability that it could be the rare instance of a school from outside a power conference — so, Gonzaga, Dayton or San Diego State — that’s even better. 

Gonzaga is clearly and indisputably operating as the best offense in college hoops.
USATSI
From teams to players, the best right now in college hoops

If you’re reading this, you either really like or flat-out love college basketball. And so I figure you’d appreciate an assortment of stats, being that you can’t easily find all of the information I’m about to lay out in front of you in one place anywhere else on the Internet. Since we’re more than 60% of the way through the regular season, how about a look at which teams and players lead in most of the major (and minor, or quirky) categories? Enjoy!

Highest offensive rating: Gonzaga (120.2)Most points per game scored: Gonzaga (89.0)Highest defensive rating: West Virginia (84.8 points per 100 possessions)Fewest points per game allowed: Virginia (UPDATE WEDNESDAY MORNING)Fastest team in the country: Houston Baptist (80.0 raw possessions per game)Slowest team in the country: Virginia (UPDATE WEDNESDAY MORNING)Fastest game of the season (non-overtime): 95 possessions (Central Michigan 134, Mississippi Valley State 78 on Nov. 10)Slowest game of the season: 54 possessions (Stetson 48, Liberty 43 on Jan. 25)Most turnovers forced: Stephen F. Austin (28.4% of opponents’ possessions)Fewest turnovers committed: BOWLING GREEN (14.0%)Most steals in a game: 19 (Arkansas State against Troy on Jan. 11)Most rebounds in a game: 68, Utah (vs. Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 8)Most assists in a game: 41, Utah (vs. Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 8)Best 2-point shooting team: Dayton (62.7%)Best 2-point defense: UC Irvine (38.3%)Best 3-point shooting team: South Dakota (41.3%)Best 3-point defense: Arkansas (24.3%)Best free-throw shooting team: Pepperdine (81.4%)Worst free-throw shooting team: Saint Louis (56.4%)Mountaineers forward Oscar Tshiebwe has been a stellar freshman from the jump.
USATSI

Source for statistics: CBSSports.com, KenPom.com, NCAA.com, BartTorvik.com.

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An annual reminder of the importance regarding one team’s record and how no single team’s success or failures exist on an island or in a vacuum. There is no magic number of losses Wisconsin can take and still remain safe. Bucky’s 12-9 and sits at No. 31 in the NET. Generally speaking, I’d advise Wisconsin to stay below the 15-loss total. The record for most losses by an at-large team is 16, which Vanderbilt achieved in 2017. The record for the worst win percentage for an at-large team is .533, shared by 1990-91 Villanova and 2000-01 Georgia, both of which went 16-14.

This is an extremely unfair proposition. My fate is essentially already sealed if my chances of surviving rest on correctly picking only one team out of a rational pool of 20-25 schools. But if these are the terms, so be it. As I sit here typing this, the team I would most trust to win six games if the NCAA Tournament started RIGHT NOW … Gonzaga. 

Final shots Murray State is retiring Ja Morant’s No. 12 jersey on Saturday. I can’t 100% confirm this, but it might be the fastest jersey-retirement ceremony in the history of college basketball. It’s a 315-day gap between Morant’s final college game and his jersey going up into the CSFB Center rafters. Here are the teams still standing with undefeated records in league play: New Mexico State, Murray State, Austin Peay, Winthrop, Norfolk State, Baylor, Seton Hall, Dayton, Gonzaga, San Diego State and LSU.Meantime, Merrimack transitioned to Division I this season and is tearing through the NEC, leading the league at 7-1. The Warriors are not eligible for the NCAA Tournament until 2024. Even more unfair, Merrimack is not eligible for the NIT until 2024 either. Small but long overdue Ivy League update: the league is spacing out its 14-game conference schedule starting next season, which is for the betterment of teams going forward. . Credit to Ken Pomeroy for this wild stat: LSU’s won six games in a row by a total of 15 points, making it the lowest win margin over a six-game span in men’s D-I since … no one knows when. But it’s at least since 1997, since that’s as far back as such stats are easily searchable. I have an informative piece up about San Diego State being unbeaten and the history of how final teams without a loss perform in March. Of some concern for SDSU’s seeding if it takes losses: the Mountain West only has three teams in the top 100 of the NET

Maryland’s Jalen Smith is morphing into a stud. He won Big Ten Player of the Week and got Maryland to 16-4 with clutch defense late at Indiana on Sunday. Smith scored a career-best 25 at Northwestern — then had a career-best 29 against Indiana. He’s up to 17.7 points and 9.4 boards in Big Ten games and ranks No. 1 in Big Ten 3-point percentage (56.7%).



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