Solving Syracuse’s zone defense will be key for Dayton Flyers

No group of players symbolizes the rise of the Flyers in the last three seasons better than the junior class, which now includes transfer Charles Cooke. They have won 78 of 105 games, putting them four wins ahead of the pace of the most successful class in UD history, the 2011 group that won 97 times.

Most impressively and importantly, five of the juniors’ wins have come in the NCAA Tournament, and they can add to that number at 12:15 p.m. Friday when No. 7 seed Dayton (25-7) plays No. 10 Syracuse (19-13) in the first round. The Flyers might not be in this position if they hadn’t beaten Syracuse 55-53 in the second round of the tournament in 2014.

“March has become the stage with all the lights,” Dayton coach Archie Miller said, “and if you’re able to be in this stage and you’re able to win a game, I think it feels great. When you’re able to make a run like we made a couple of years ago, I think it carries over to your players’ experience level and big-game mentality in the last couple of regular seasons. So a game like that, being able to win it, I think, has propelled us to be where we’re at right now.”

The Flyers shot 41.3 percent against Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone defense two years ago but made 6 of 11 3-pointers in the second half. Hitting shots from long range will be a key for the Flyers, who have shot below 30 percent from 3-point range in six of their last eight games.

“Passing the ball is really crucial,” senior Dyshawn Pierre said. “Passing the ball is really crucial. We need to make sure they don’t force a lot of turnovers. We need to take the open shot and make all the ones we get.”

Dayton had one full day to prepare for the game against Syracuse in 2014 because it played Ohio State in the first round two days earlier. This time, the Flyers had four full days.

“The one thing that’s a little bit unique, in that first game we played them, I thought we had a different type of a team physically,” Miller said. “We were bigger, stronger. Dyshawn at that time was playing the 3 slot for us. We had a couple of different guys that could work in and out of that zone. This year we don’t have as many. It’s going to be very, very challenging.”

Syracuse, which will play its first NCAA Tournament game since that loss to Dayton, led the ACC in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (30.4) and ranked fourth in scoring defense (65.7).

“It doesn’t matter what defense you play,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “Everybody now sees zone. Dayton, we’ve got miles of tape on them playing against the zone. … Dayton plays against zone all year, and they’ve had five days, six days to prepare to play against us.”

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