The non-conference schedule is for pikers, primarily a low-risk, high-reward, enterprise for dreamers and hucksters. While it is an opportunity to gain some footing on the national landscape, for a program like Dayton, particularly this year, it’s all about self-destructive avoidance. For the Flyers, the conference schedule is for closing. A long, oftentimes unrewarding, sludge through the also rans of the college basketball universe. The resume building chances are scarce, and the seppuku prospects are unavoidable.
This year will be no different. It’s difficult to draw conclusions about the entirety of the Atlantic Ten this season given the dearth of games played going into the new year. Nevertheless, it appears that the conference is down, top to bottom, from a year ago. Whereas the 2019-20 season likely would have produced at least two NCAA tournament teams (yeah, I’m giving Richmond the benefit of the doubt), it would appear that, as of this writing, two bids might be the ceiling for the league this March — and honestly, a sole bid isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Signature wins have been hard to come by. Saint Louis racked up victories over LSU and NC State, Richmond is praying its win over Kentucky somehow improves over the coming weeks, and UD has a win against Ole Miss. Not exactly setting the world on fire, none of those wins will even partially raise an eyebrow come Selection Sunday. At most they might produce a prolonged room-clearing brrrrap! sound from some of the committee members.
Which makes the stakes in this year’s conference hunt that much higher. The hope is that a handful of teams (Richmond, Saint Louis, Dayton…maybe VCU?) can run away from the pack early and perhaps two of the quartet will dominate in head-to-head matchups. For the record, UD has two matchups with both VCU and Saint Louis, and hosts Richmond. Those five games will be where the rubber hits the road. Of course, those five contests will only matter if Dayton can avoid the series of landmines it faces the rest of the way.
Speaking of landmines, the Flyers open their A10 season tonight against La Salle. Feel the excitement.
Ashley Howard was a rising star, the most visible assistant on Jay Wright’s staff at Villanova, a consigliere with a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters. He was a man in an enviable position among his peers, Howard wasn’t waiting for any job, he was waiting for the right job. Apparently when La Salle called, Ashley Howard just couldn’t say no?
On paper, the move makes sense. Howard is a Philly guy, tied into all the vital Northeast AAU teams and had experience under Jay Wright, the best coach in college basketball. Surely if anyone could turn the Explorer program around it was Ashley Howard (this begs two questions — can anyone turn around La Salle, and what, exactly, would a turnaround even look like?). When the hire was first announced, I really liked it. If you listed all the requirements for an A+ hire, Ashley Howard checked all the boxes.
Howard’s first season at the helm was an unmitigated disaster. Watching Pookie Powell and Isiah Deas take a combined thirty contested jump shots a night would leave any coach wondering what they got themselves into. As such, 2018-19 was a bit of a slide backwards for the Explorers. Last season there was some reason for optimism. Howard had some experience returning and the program seemed to have a foundation and a purpose. La Salle ran out to a 10-4 record before injuries cast aside any reason for hope (and Ed Croswell leaving for Providence midway through the season didn’t exactly help matters). The Explorers finished a not-so-bad 15-15 and things appeared, for the most part, to be headed in the right direction.
This year is the first season that every player on the roster is one of Howard’s “guys.” The recruiting has absolutely increased by a notch or two. However, even with the program trending in the right direction, it doesn’t mean La Salle is ready, or even capable, of competing in the top end of the Atlantic Ten. They might not even be in that position next season. The axiom in college athletics is this: if your college football team hasn’t noticeably improved after year two, you hired the wrong guy and it’s probably already time to move on (of course in the world of college football this process often drags on a season or two too long given the finances involved). In college basketball, year three is the key indicator. Ashley Howard is in his third year, and the results come March probably won’t reflect good tidings. Nevertheless, I think Howard is the right guy, or as much the right guy as La Salle could hope for, to lead the program for the foreseeable future. The Explorers are in a position where patience is virtuous, give Howard time and the program will be in the top half of the conference for years to come.
With an eleven day layoff between games, there has been plenty of opportunities to ruminate on the shortcomings with this version of the Dayton Flyers. Yet on the eve of conference play, there are plenty of metrics that are in the positive column for our Gem City Cagers. When they aren’t giving possession away like Costco gave away samples before the pandemic, the Flyers score the ball efficiently! Led by Rodney Chatman and Jordy Tshimanga, Dayton has put a pretty solid defense on the court! These are the foundations for a team that can compete at the top of a tough Atlantic 10. So what type of challenge will La Salle pose in the A10 opener?
In short, a very La Salle-y challenge. Through eight games, there’s a lot of unflattering metrics on the Explorers team sheet. As they discussed on the latest Talking Out LOWD podcast, Sully and The Gola Standard Podcast gentlemen discussed that Ashley Howard is looking to have the Explorers be a defensive first team. The metrics certainly reflect that with some promising defensive stats while the offense has some ugly numbers.
So far this season the Explorers have an offensive rating of 97.8 points per 100 possessions, worst of any A10 team that has suited up this season (congrats to Fordham on their undefeated non-conference run, by the way). The Explorers turn the ball over nearly as much as Dayton, with an ugly 22.6% turnover rate. They do not get to the free throw line much, with a free throw rate of 24%, which puts them 303rd in the country. On the rare occasion they do get to the charity stripe, they struggle to convert as they only hit 62% of their attempts. While I’ve only seen about 5 minutes of La Salle play this season, the numbers indicate the Explorers don’t enjoy mixing it up in a physical game. Between not getting to the free throw line and only averaging a below average 1.07 points per possession on shots at the rim, La Salle will be a brief respite from the seemingly parade of physical teams UD had scheduled in the non-conference schedule.
The one thing the Explorers excel at on offense is shooting from the perimeter. La Salle has made 38.1% of their three point attempts this season, good for 42nd in the country. 38.8% of all of their field goal attempts have come from beyond the line, the highest between those, shots at the rim and 2-point jump shots. Five Explorers have taken at least 15 three point attempts this season and two of those five are shooting above 40% from deep. Freshman Jhamir Brickus, an unfortunate surname for a basketball player, has hit an incredible 56.2% of his three point attempts. There will be no going under screens for the Flyers on defense.
It is a little better reading for the La Salle defensive stats. Their opponents have only scored 99.2 points per 100 possessions and have put up an effective field goal percentage of 48.5%. They force an average number of turnovers with their 19.0% turnover rate, but they do well to protect the rim seen in their 13.6% block rate. La Salle’s opponents have only scored 1.14 points per possession at the rim, well below the A10 average of 1.18. Outside the paint, the Explorers have seen their opponents shoot a rather low 29.8% from three point range. However those same opponents have taken 39.9% of their field goal attempts from deep. Perhaps the higher proportion of perimeter shots came from La Salle’s ability to protect the rim with opponents settling for long shots, but it also could come from the Explorer’s desire to prioritize points at the rim at the expense of the perimeter. Given that UD is hardly Lincoln College in Pennsylvania and shooting 39.5% from three, the Flyers will have plenty of chances to exploit the perimeter against La Salle.
The safe bet, at this stage, is to predict a game that goes down to the final minute. The Flyers have not shown the ability to put away anybody, and that runs the gamut from Eastern Illinois to Ole Miss. Still, tonight’s game is an opportunity for Dayton to reset and establish itself as one of the top dogs in the Atlantic Ten.
If you ever have the opportunity to go dog sledding, do it. It’s a lot of fun, the dogs are all business and it’s an experience you will always hold dear to your heart. One thing you will notice, immediately, is that the dogs shit constantly when they run. You will have balls of fecal matter flying at you the entire time.
As harrowing the experience of having shit flying at you may be, it’s a bit poetic and symbolic, isn’t it? Even beautiful, it’s how nature and the world functions. The lead dogs don’t get shit on, they drop deuces at their leisure without a care in the world, and the dogs in the rear get defecated on by everyone as they push forward tirelessly. Tonight is UD’s chance to start shitting on folks. Flyers 74, Explorers 66.