It’s that time of the year, folks. Put aside all of your 2019-20 Dayton Flyer basketball fan fiction for a moment, and listen up: It’s over. It happened, sort of, and it’s time we all moved on. Let the #3 ranking go, let Obi Toppin go, it’s a new day, a new season. We’ll share collective apprehension this season — How many games will be played? Will there be a conference tournament? How will I look myself in the mirror after I eat my neighbor’s dog during the impending national food shortage? Fret not, all these questions, and possibly more, will be answered in the coming months. Let go and let God.
What we do know is that Cedarville and Alcorn State are some nasty bastards. Both programs were ravaged by the Wuhan virus and had to cancel their scheduled games with Dayton University. I’m thinking the Alcorn State AD took a look at the expenses involved in traveling to Dayton and decided a few false positives weren’t the worst idea. Eastern had its game against Butler canceled on Sunday due to THE CORONA, which led to EIU Head Coach Jay Spoonhour (yup, Charlie’s son) sending out “you up?” texts to every coach in the Rust Belt.
As a result, a gentlemen’s agreement was solidified between UD and Eastern Illinois. The Panthers come to the Gem City looking for a game, and a game they shall have. My hope is this year brings back the days of barnstormin’ basketball, where teams of illiterate field hands drove around the country looking for games, booze and women wherever they could find them. I’d like to see Anthony Grant pack up the team in an Econoline van, driving down I-75 to see if X, Cincinnati or, hell, even Hebrew Union College want to get a quick game in. Put on the sneaks, pull up Facebook Live and let it rip.
EIU has already got their beaks wet, the Panthers come into Dayton with a 0-2 record — a ten-point loss to Wisconsin and a twenty-five point pinksocking against Marquette already on their record. Last season was supposed to be “the year” for Eastern Illinois, inasmuch as a program on EIU’s level could have “a year.” The Panthers had one of the most experienced squads in the nation and were poised to make a little noise in the Ohio Valley. It never happened, Eastern dragged its feet throughout the season, finishing .500 in the league and eking out a 17-15 overall record. EIU was holding out hope for inclusion in the CIT last season, but COVID, as it does, killed their post-season dreams.
(1) The Newcomers: Nwokeji, Frazier, Berea, Blakney, Sissoko and the return of *insert horn solo* DIRT ROAD JOHNSON. This is the obvious place to start, as we know what to expect from the returnees from last year’s Asterisk Team. I wouldn’t expect to see too much from the guards as the backcourt is pretty much spoken for until the season is a wrap. We have heard about the versality that Nwokeji brings, we know that Dirt Road will run the floor and battle, the jury is still out on Sissoko, however. He has the reputation of a banger, a guy who needs a little polish to become a significant contributor on the mid-major level. Flyer fans did get a little glimpse of Sissoko in last year’s exhibition with Cedarville and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive (There was a rumor Sissoko was a little banged up, not sure how that it affects his availability tonight).
(2) The Offense. It’s no secret that Obi Toppin opened up the offense last season, drawing constant attention from opposing defenses. Fortunately for the Flyers, Toppin was excellent at finding the open man when double-teams collapsed on him. As you will hear countless times this season, Obi is no longer with us. While Eastern Illinois likely won’t pose much of a threat on the defensive end of the floor, it will be interesting to see how the offense flows without an NBA lottery pick on the court. I’d expect to see a lot of threes tonight, people.
(3) The Coaching Staff. Do they go with masks with UD logos? Gaiters? Plastic face shields?? Will Grant and company follow the current trend and eschew suits, opting for the khaki and polo look that has so far dominated the season? I find it interesting that coaches feel they can’t dress up a facial mask, as if wearing one begs for a casual look. Just an observation.
(4) The Frontcourt. Simply put, UD’s frontcourt play could be the difference between an NCAA tournament berth and spending March in a CIT bubble.
On to Matt’s Stats…
We’re back! Maybe! Probably…pending any changes. After going 0 for 3 in trying to find an opponent to play, the Flyers will finally kick the season off against Eastern Illinois. Only securing the game the day before doesn’t allow for a lot of time to grind tape on the Panthers, but we’ve got data baby! There’s a saying that your eyes may be able to better analyze an opponent than stats but stats can analyze ALL the opponents. If we need quick analysis of a directional school, the numbers are our friend.
Eastern Illinois have managed to escape COVID hiding out in the state of Wisconsin where they took double digit losses to Wisconsin and Marquette respectively. While we need to give the small sample preface for any examination of their stats from those two cheese curd flavored losses, boy did they struggle to shoot the ball. The Panthers have earned 35.8% effective field goal percentage so far. Oof. They have had their shot blocked in 16.8% of their offensive possessions. Double oof. Only hitting 30% of their threes in their first two games will earn the Panthers the rare triple oof. It hasn’t been an efficient start to the season for Eastern Illinois offense.
While not off to a great start offensively, on defense the Panthers have done well protecting the paint. Despite playing two strong opponents in their opening games, Eastern Illinois registered a 10.6% block rate. Last season the average team has a block rate of around 8.9%. The Badgers and Golden Eagles only scored 1.11 points per possession for their shot at the rim, below the 1.18 average we saw last season in D1. All five of the presumed starters for the Panthers have got at least a 2% block rate so far. Of course, going for so many rejections can also lead to trips to the foul line for the opposition. Eastern Illinois have allowed a free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio of 58.9%. Translated, it has been a conga line to the stripe for Eastern Illinois opponents. The Flyers can try and exploit the Panthers’ aggressiveness defending the paint to earn some free points at the charity stripe.
Josiah Wallace, George Dixon, and Mack Smith all return to the Panthers lineup from last season and will be shouldering most of the offensive load. It’s been pretty rough sledding for Dixon and Smith, each with an effective field goal % below 30% (!!!). Wallace however has seemingly kept the Panthers relatively competitive with his offensive production. He is averaging 18.5 points a game so far with a 62.2% true shooting %, a 11.1% assist rate yielding him 2 assists a game, and a 40% free throw rate earning him trips to the line where he has hit 90% of his freebees. I already foresee Mr. Wallace getting to know Rodney Chapman on a close, personal level Tuesday night.
Along with getting to the line, Wallace has been effective scoring from the mid-range. He has taken 80% of his field goal attempts from jumpers inside the arc and has hit 50% of those shots, good for 1 point per possession from those shots. I hear you saying dear reader, “Matt, didn’t you spend all season last year writing about how inefficient midrange shots are? Surely this kid’s shooting from the mid-range will regression over the season.” Well, thanks for paying attention reader, however it seems Josiah Wallace has mastered the mid-range. Last season, Wallace averaged 0.92 points per possession from 2-point jumpers. While that’s slightly lower than his hot start this season, it is still well above what the D1 average is for those shots. If a player like Wallace can hit these shots as consistently as he has, he’s earned the analytics mid-range green light.
So the stats take aways for Tuesday’s game boil down to shutting down Josiah Wallace and exploit the Panthers aggressive attempts to block shots to get them into early foul trouble. If the Flyers do this, it should be a stress free evening for the Flyer Faithful where we will actually turn on our cameras for Zoom meetings Wednesday at work to show off our UD apparel.
Opening nights are always tricky from a prognosticator’s point of view. Eastern Illinois has a couple of games under its belt and the Flyers are coming right off the couch. On the plus side, a glorified pickup game like the one we will witness tonight doesn’t lend itself to a lot of pregame scouting, advantage Flyers. Historically, UD is a little slow out of the gate — under Anthony Grant Dayton has won its opening game by an average margin of five points. I’d expect the Flyers to look a little sloppy and disjointed tonight, like a drunk paraplegic, and the Panthers will cover the fifteen and a half point spread.