Kendall Pollard hears from fans of the Dayton Flyers all the time. Anytime he walks outside around UD’s campus, they ask, “Are you going to the tournament this year?”
March Madness infects the Flyer Faithful for 12 months. That magical month, which has seen the Flyers play eight NCAA tournament games in the last three seasons, never strays far from the minds of fans who pack UD Arena year after year.
“That’s what they expect,” Pollard said.
That’s what the senior forward Pollard expects, too. The same goes for his fellow senior captains: guards Kyle Davis, Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith. In ninth months, they can accomplish something that hasn’t been done in UD history and play in the big dance four years in a row.
- SENIOR FEATURE NO. 1: Kendall Pollard
- SENIOR FEATURE NO. 2: Charles Cooke
- SENIOR FEATURE NO. 3: Kyle Davis
- SENIOR FEATURE NO. 4: Scoochie Smith
- REMEMBERING STEVE: Seniors talk about late teammate
The Flyers finished 25-8 last season. They are 78-28 in the careers of Pollard, Davis and Smith. That’s a .736 winning percentage. The James Madison transfer Cooke joined the group two years ago and played for the first time last season.
Dayton returns those four starters and five other letter-winners. It adds Bradley transfer Josh Cunningham, a 6-foot-7 forward, to the mix, as well as Wayne High School grad Trey Landers, a 6-4 guard, and one other freshman, 6-9 Kostas Antetokounmpo, a native of Greece who attended high school in Whitefish Bay, Wisc.
The death of center Steve McElvene hit the Flyers hard in May and will hurt them on and off the court in too many ways to count. The Flyers hope to honor McElvene, in part, by winning, and they are poised to do plenty of that in 2016-17.
The seniors’ goals, Smith said, are what you would expect: win their holiday tournament, which they haven’t done the last three years; win the Atlantic 10 regular-season championship outright after sharing it last season with Virginia Commonwealth and St. Bonaventure; win the A-10 tournament after advancing to the quarterfinals, then the finals in 2015 and the semifinals in March; and finally advance further than the Elite Eight, which they reached as freshmen.
“We want to do everything we’ve done in my three years and exceed that in one,” Smith said.
The four seniors combined to average 45.6 points per game last season, and that was with Pollard and Davis battling injuries. They have combined to score 3,354 points in their careers. That is more than 500 points better than the next highest-scoring senior class in the A-10. Richmond’s five-man group has 2,820 points.
Dayton’s seniors have accomplished plenty, and the best may be yet to come. They need 19 victories to match the 2011 senior class, led by Chris Wright, that finished its careers 97-44.
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“It’s really special to be able to have the opportunity to make history again,” Pollard said. “Almost every year, we break records. I want to go back to the NCAA tournament. That’ll be the first time it has happened in school history. To be the winningest class in school history and to have the opportunity to go the tournament four years in a row, that’s really special.”
To do that, the Flyers will have to avoid the inconsistent play that plagued them at the end of last season. Dayton was 21-3 and then lost five of its last nine games. Pollard’s knee trouble played a part in the team’s struggles. The team also failed to crack 30 percent from 3-point range in its last four games.
“We all distanced ourselves from each other,” Davis said. “Instead of being a team, we were all going for me, me, me. We realized that too late. Now we realize that we’ve got to get it back together and be a team.”
Contributions from the four-man freshman class, which showed glimpses of promise throughout the season, fell off in the final weeks. The progress of that group — point guard John Crosby and forwards Ryan Mikesell, Sam Miller and Xeyrius Williams — will play a big part in how good the team can be next season.
“It’s the same thing. Nothing’s changed,” said Cooke, talking about the team’s goals. “You’ve got different pieces. You’ve got guys who are no longer freshman, sophomores who are juniors. Going into this offseason, this is the time when no one’s around when you prepare.”
The ending of last season continues to motivate Dayton. In a 70-51 loss to Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Flyers were outscored 26-5 in the first 12 minutes of the second half.
“We all look at it as a tough loss,” Davis said. “It motivates me to get back there. It motivates our seniors to go hard for the last go-round. Our goal is just to be a closer team, be a family, have fun out there and try to accomplish something many other teams haven’t done.”