Former Dayton basketball star Sean Finn knows when it’s UD-Xavier week — even when he’s playing professional ball a continent away.
Finn was in Venezuela during the Flyers’ yearly trek to play the Musketeers in Cincinnati last month and found a way to get updates from the game by following it online. Although the connection wasn’t great, he stayed plugged in through the final frantic minutes.
“It was a game they looked like they could have gotten,” he said of the 66-61 defeat. “They’re struggling in some of these close games. They give up way too many second-chance points.”
Finn, who has played eight years for international pro teams, just returned home to Kansas City, Mo., and he made the trip to UD for the Temple game last week — the first time he had seen the Flyers play in person since graduating in 2004. And the 7-footer is coming back with some friends for the Xavier rematch Saturday.
“They have a chance to beat Xavier. I think they can do it,” Finn said. “I know the crowd is going to be crazy, and the Xavier game is always one of the biggest of the year.
“I’m excited. Unfortunately, I don’t really know the guys because I’m so far removed. But they seem like good players. I was able to meet Archie (UD coach Archie Miller) for the first time, and I think the future is bright with him. I’ll be rooting for them. I hope they can pull it off. It’s always better on campus and better for Dayton when we can get a win in that game.”
The Dayton-Xavier series is big for the fans of both teams, of course, but the rivalry is still meaningful for former Flyers, too. Some go back to the days when UD was by far the dominant team, while others could only scratch out wins at home or in a conference tournament.
For players who have participated in those biannual grudge matches, the next best thing to beating the Musketeers themselves is watching the Flyers prevail as alums.
“The Xavier game is special for me because my dad played at Xavier from 1949 to ’52,” said one-time Flyer 3-point ace Norm Grevey, who is named after his father. “We always watched the Dayton-Xavier game in the 70’s and 80’s. And Dayton was the superior team then.”
Grevey was part of two of UD’s most memorable victories in the series, winning, 98-89, in the 1990 Midwestern Collegiate Conference tourney final at UD Arena one week after a 111-108 home win over the Musketeers.
Grevey called those triumphs “two of the greatest games I’ve ever been a part of. Beating Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong, two NBA guys, to win the league tournament at the arena is something you cherish forever.”
Now a financial adviser in Springboro, Grevey is a regular at Flyer games and hosts a post-game show on WHIO radio with former UD star Brooks Hall.
The Flyers have been unable to break an embarrassingly long losing streak to Xavier in Cincinnati, but they’ve had some success of late at home, winning six of nine games at UD Arena since 2004.
Grevey believes they can do it again.
“Obviously, we’ve got to keep doing what we do well, which is move the ball and try to outscore teams,” he said. “Our defense is average, but when we score 75 points, we win. If the game is more high-tempo, we do better.
“The half-court battles, we lose those physicality games. But I think if we can run and get out in transition more — (Musketeers point guard) Semaj Christon is just a freshman, going into UD Arena for the first time. I think it’s a great opportunity for our young guys to beat Xavier.”
UD won 58 of 69 games in the series from 1950-81, but Xavier has gone 46-16 since then. The Musketeers have had an unbroken string of great coaching hires, from Bob Staak to Pete Gillen to Skip Prosser to Thad Matta to Sean Miller to Chris Mack, while the UD program bottomed out under Jim O’Brien, who had replaced the fired Don Donoher in 1989.
In two seasons from 1992-94, the Flyers won a combined 10 games, and they needed several years just to dig out from the rubble.
Oliver Purnell did a masterful rebuilding job, leading the Flyers, with Finn as his center, to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament before leaving for Clemson in 2003. His successor, Brian Gregory, upgraded the recruiting by landing local talent and notched an NCAA tourney win, but the program fell even further behind Xavier.
“I think people get frustrated to see their success when we’ve struggled, and that goes back to Jim O’Brien to Purnell to Gregory and now Archie. But Archie is a better recruiter in my eyes than any of those guys,” said Grevey, a Hamilton native.
“Any time you have a 32-year-old coach who’s only coached 40 games, you’re going to have growing pains. I think coaching basketball at Division I is 75 percent recruiting. That’s what he’s going to put his trademark on, bringing in star power.
“To me, the future is excellent. It’s just frustrating to see us struggle again. I think people are excited for Archie, but it’s a tough year for him.”
J.D. Grigsby, a star forward in the early 1970’s, has stayed more connected to the program than any former Flyer. An ordained minister, he began building relationships with players while watching his nephew, Chris Wright, play from 2007-11, and Grigsby has kept a court-side seat at home games and still attends most practices.
“I don’t say this just to give the kids’ hope: There’s a lot of season left,” he said. “I’ve seen this team’s best and I’ve seen this team’s worst, and I’ve come to the conclusion this team can play and can win games.”
The Flyers have made the Atlantic 10 tournament every year since the league began limiting the field to 12 teams in 2006, but they’ll need a strong finish to keep from being one of the four teams left out.
“I think if we weather a few more storms and play with the heart and desire we’re capable of playing with, we can make the A-10 tournament,” Grigsby said. “That’s the hope right now. And the kids need to realize, if we get in the A-10 tournament, we can win it.”
Grigsby believes the Flyers will begin securing their ticket to Brooklyn against Xavier.
“I don’t think they’re a better team than we are. They just had a little more grit than we had down there. The grit, that’s what we’re lacking,” he said.
“But I think it’s going to be a cakewalk for us, and I don’t think I’m going to be wrong about that. If we bring our A game, it’s going to be a cakewalk.”