For a couple of weeks in March 2014, Dayton basketball became America's sweetheart. Videos and pictures of UD students celebrating the team's three NCAA Tournament wins were shown on every major network news and talk show in the country. Archie Miller became something of a household name and people who previously couldn't have told you what the Dayton mascot was began wearing Columbia blue and red.
Still, the Flyer phenomenon always felt more about America's need to have a love interest in March than Dayton being an appropriate fit for that role. Sure, UD was a No. 11 seed that made a surprising run to the Elite Eight, but it's also an Atlantic 10 program with one of the most under-appreciated basketball cultures in the country.
Everything you need to know about the basketball society in the city of Dayton lies with the fact that in 2001, the NCAA never planned on it being the permanent home of the First Four (or play-in game or NCAA Tournament opening round or whatever). Both the university and the city of Dayton embraced something that the rest of the country was rolling its eyes at, and wound up pumping millions of dollars into an event that now has 70 sponsors, been attended by a sitting US President and British Prime Minister, and sold out for the first time in 2013. None of this is possible without a community that simply adores college hoops.
As for the UD hoops program itself, Dayton has played in a national championship game (1967), been consistently ranked in or around the nation's top 30 in attendance and is 45th in wins on the sport's all-time list. The Flyers had been to two regional finals and six Sweet 16s before they crashed both rounds again last year.
Basically, Dayton might not be South Bend Central, but it's also a far cry from being Hickory High.
Despite a rich history and an enthusiastic support system, it's understandable that a younger generation of college hoops fans may not have been familiar with the Flyers before last season's run. After last crashing the Elite Eight in 1984, Dayton won just two NCAA Tournament games over the next three decades. UD had been nationally relevant for a season here and there, but the program's inability to keep coaches like Oliver Purnell and, to a lesser extent, Brian Gregory prevented it from being able to attain an appropriate level of consistency.
Many expected that trend to continue after the Flyers' first breakthrough when Miller became one of the most oft-discussed names in the coaching world. Instead, the fourth-year head coach spurned the hoards of high major programs who would have come calling in favor of signing a deal that would keep him at Dayton through the 2018-19 season. He then signed another extension last March that runs through the 2021-22 season.
A strong foundation, a lot of momentum and one of the best young coaches in the game is a dangerous combination for the rest of the Atlantic 10 in 2015-16.
No team in college basketball overcame more adversity to have high-level success in 2014-15 than Dayton.
First came the news in June that Khari Price, the team's starting point guard in 2013-14, was transferring to Southern Mississippi. Then in September, incoming freshman center Steve McElvene was declared a partial qualifier who would have to sit out the entire season.
Miller had plenty of time to adjust to the holes left by Price's departure and McElvene's ineligibility, a luxury he didn't have when more bad news struck the program in December.
One week before Christmas, Miller announced that that he had dismissed starting center Devon Scott and backup big man Jalen Robinson from the team after the pair had been involved in a trespassing incident in which they allegedly stole money. The exits of those two players, who were averaging a combined 12.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, left Dayton without a single player standing taller than 6'6.
Toss in a pair of players with lingering injuries, and Dayton wound up playing the bulk of its season with six scholarship players. The team wound up winning the Atlantic 10 regular season title and a pair of games in the NCAA Tournament, and nearly crashed the second weekend of the big dance for a second straight year.
So how in the world did Archie Miller and company pull that off? The not-so-simple answer is that everyone who needed to up their production did, and everyone who needed to play out of position did. Now, with Dyshawn Pierre's 2015-16 status still uncertain (more on that in a bit) and leading scorer Jordan Sibert off to the league, the Flyers find themselves in the same position where they've thrived these past two seasons.
Kendall Pollard needs to become the player Pierre was supposed to be this season, Scoochie Smith and Kyle Davis need to lead and up their scoring, Steve McElvene needs to develop into a polished post player faster than expected, and Darrell Davis needs to become a lethal outside threat. All of these things occurring in the same time frame seems like asking too much, but this is what Dayton does under Archie Miller. Expecting anything less at this point would be foolish.
The biggest question mark (and the one that could keep the Flyers from being worthy of inclusion in this countdown at all) surrounds senior forward Dyshawn Pierre, a guy with Atlantic 10 Player of the Year aspirations. Pierre was accused of sexual assault by a female student in May, but did not face any criminal charges. Still, Pierre was suspended for the first semester of the 2015-16 season and is currently not enrolled at the University of Dayton. There is no word at the moment as far as whether or not he plans on re-enrolling for the spring semester and re-joining the basketball team.
As mentioned earlier, the Flyers are no stranger to adversity and coping with it accordingly. Still, this was a player who averaged 12.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and played 33.4 minutes per game last season. If Pierre doesn't return at all in 2015-16, then the loss of last season's leading scorer, Jordan Sibert, will loom even larger.
Even if Pierre does return for the second semester, there's a chance that the damage done to UD in his absence will be too severe for the Flyers to overcome.
The Atlantic 10 figures to be formidable again this season, but Dayton's real opportunity to make both a national splash and an early case for a solid NCAA Tournament seed comes in November and December. The Flyers will host Alabama in their second game of the season, and then travel to Orlando to play three games against solid competition (Iowa, Notre Dame, Wichita State and Xavier are also in the field) in the Advocare Invitational. December will see UD travel to play what should be a ranked Vanderbilt team, and then end its non-conference schedule at home against Arkansas.
Facing that early slate without the player most expected to be not just your senior star but your senior leader is certainly daunting, but Miller and his Flyers haven't given us any reason yet to doubt their ability to surprise and achieve.