You never want to finish fifth in anything. Whether it’s a pie eating contest, an ugliest woman competition or an early-season college basketball tournament, fifth place has the stench of failure, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Nevertheless, this is where your Dayton Flyers are right now. Battling for fifth place in what was a tournament filled with less than stellar opposition. If you believe UD has entered a “stop the bleeding” stage of the season already, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. For one, you seem dead set on it, almost to a dangerous degree. In addition, Dayton’s success this season will surely be predicated on accumulating wins, period. Even at this early juncture of the year, there just doesn’t seem to be many chest-pumping victories left on the slate (and let’s not even discuss the tire fire that is the A10 right now, UD is looking at an almost unprecedented amount of landmines once it enters conference play).
So the prognosis going forward is simple:
I am convinced that Craig Neal is inspired by Dennis Hopper’s character “Shooter” from Hoosiers. Neal looks like he just walked onto the court from the stands, the scent of Night Train permeating his every shout. Coach Neal is a throwback, the type of coach that sleeps in his car after a practice.
The big story out of Loboland occurred in the off-season as Neal’s son, Cullen, decided to pack his bags and head off to Ole Miss for his senior season (the younger Neal graduated in three years and was able to take advantage of the NCAA’s free agency rule). Now it’s no big deal when your average red-blooded American male heads off to Oxford, Mississippi to enjoy the collegiate life. The place is teaming with future trophy wives and most of the men on campus walk around with permanent erections. However (Steve A voice), it’s quite another thing when the head coach’s son decides to hit the trail with eligibility remaining. Why Cullen Neal left is up for debate — pressure from the fan base, pressure playing for Dad? Either way Andy Kennedy got himself a nice gift to play with for the next two years.
I’ve always thought of New Mexico as the UD of the Southwest. Their fans pack The Pit no matter the teams’ record and I’m sure there are a fair share of red sweaters in the stands. Like UD this season, the Lobos don’t have much of a record to stand on yet. Wins over Idaho State, Houston Baptist, New Mexico State and Cal-State Northridge aren’t the type of wins that move the needle. New Mexico’s lone challenge, against Virginia Tech in the opening round of the Wooden Legacy, ended in a twenty-point defeat. So the Lobos have as much to prove in this game as the Flyers do.
The Lobos do return four starters from last season’s 17-15 squad. New Mexico gets to the line better than almost anybody in the nation — Neal’s squad has a 60.5 FTA/FGA rate, which is kinda insane. UNM also gets after it around the glass, currently ninth in the nation with a 3.7 block percentage (so watch out, Ryan Mikesell). The three-point line is one area the Lobos struggle mightily from, converting a dismal 27.1% of their attempts from deep. One thing is certain, New Mexico can put some points up and enjoys a wide-open style of play.
Senior forward Tim Williams is an absolute load down low and has a mid-range game that is rapidly becoming more and more effective. A transfer from Samford, Williams was a second-team All-Mountain West selection last season and will absolutely be in the running for the conference’s first-team when this season finally comes to a close. Williams is scoring around 22 points per game and grabbing 8.6 rebounds per contest. You simply can’t hack him and hope he shits the bed at the line either, he is converting 81% of his free-throws so far this year. Williams is like a guy who subscribes to Guns & Ammo, a fucking problem.
Not only is Elijah Brown still playing college basketball, I thought he graduated years ago, he is thriving under Neal’s system out west. The senior guard, who transferred into the Lobo program from Butler, is scoring in the neighborhood of fifteen point per game. Brown is what scouts would call a “scorer.” He can shoot you out of a game or give you the edge you need to win, usually with no in-betweens. Brown still faces the same challenges — shooting from three and protecting the basketball.
Sam Longwood, Jordan Hunter and Obij Aget round out the Lobos’ starting lineup. Longwood started every game last year and has some ability away from the basket. He’s a 6’7″ wing that scores around eleven points a game and poses a matchup issue for an undersized squad like Dayton. Hunter is taking full advantage of what would have been Cullen Neal’s minutes, the sophomore guard is the team’s leading assist man and a gap-filler on offense. Aget is originally from the Sudan and likely will be deported sometime after January 20, 2017. Sad.
Jalen Harris, Connor MacDougall and Damien Jefferson are New Mexico’s main cogs off the pine. Harris is a true freshman from Word of God Christian Academy in Wilson, NC. Word of God is one of those “basketball academies” that you might find nextdoor to a Family Dollar store in a shopping center, props to Coach Neal for getting Harris eligible. Dayton fans would love Connor MacDougall, let’s just leave it at that. Jefferson is a top-150 recruit out of Chicago, a 6’5″ wing that will battle you on the defensive end.
I don’t have a great feeling about this game, which is something I anticipate saying quite a bit this season. The Lobos are a solid offensive team, protect the rim with ferocity, rebound the ball on the offensive end of the floor and get to the line about as well as anyone in the country (at this point, I know).
The one thing they don’t do well is protect the three-point line, which is an area of the game Dayton will absolutely look to take advantage of. For as good an offensive rebounding team as they are, the Lobos give up their fair share as well. If the rebounding edge is negligible, and the three-point line is going to be a defensive wasteland, I like UD’s chances against a team like UNM.
Dayton wins, 75-71. Kyle Davis remains aggressive (he must), finishing with 12 points. Charles Cooke knocks down a healthy amount of shots, and the Flyers hit twelve threes as a team. The Cagers head back to the Gem City healthy (sans Pollard) and hungry.