March Chameleons: Dayton Adapts, But Can It Beat Stanford?Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2014
Dayton’s run the stylistic gauntlet this month and lived to tell the tale, at least for a few more hours. Just look at the Flyers’ March: They beat Massachusetts in a 71-possession footrace, the type of up-and-down affair the Minutemen love; it toppled Saint Louis – on the road – and its grinding, exhausting, limit-your-threes defense; they methodically took down Richmond’s tough match-up zone, and then, in the NCAA Tournament, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone; and it outdid Ohio State, one of the best defenses in the country with one of the best individual defenders in the country. If not for Langston Galloway’s near-buzzer-beater (and push-off?) in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, they might have defeated Saint Joseph’s too. Archie Miller’s group has won games fast and slow, physical and finesse, tactical and chaotic. And now Stanford looms, a club that mixed 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone defenses on Sunday to utterly baffle Kansas and send the heavily-favored Jayhawks packing for the offseason. Trouble on the horizon for the Flyers? Perhaps. But if their recent play is any indication, it won’t be because they can’t adapt.
That adaptability starts with both the depth and versatility of Dayton’s roster. The Flyers ranked second in the A-10 behind only George Mason this season in bench minutes, with reserves accounting for nearly 36 percent of playing time. Among those reserves is Vee Sanford, a team captain and former starter who hit the game-winner against Ohio State in the second round. He, along with Scoochie Smith – a heralded freshman out of the Bronx –point guard Khari Price, and sharpshooter Jordan Sibert, make up a backcourt quick off the dribble and adept from long range. But to suggest that the team’s ‘backcourt’ is easily distinguishable from its ‘frontcourt’ would be a mistake, and almost impossible to conclude if you watch it play. The fact is, most players are able to handle the ball and nearly everyone can run the floor. At 6’7’’, Devin Oliver is the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, tough and physical but also capable of banging home threes. Dyshawn Pierre, the forward who hit clutch free throws in both games over the weekend, fits the same mold. Even 6’9’’ Jalen Robinson can move with ease and drain outside shots. Throw in a few other reserves who provide quality minutes at multiple positions, and Miller is able to mix-and-match lineups on a night-to-night, minute-to-minute basis.
The player with the most well-defined role might be center Matt Kavanaugh who – as the only guy taller than 6’10’’ – tends to play a crucial role in an offense seemingly built to acclimate. The Flyers run a motion attack that often resembles a 4-out-1-in scheme, where the big man occupies the block and the rest of the team inhabits the perimeter. This works to spread the floor, which enables Kavanaugh – who’s a threat to knock down elbow jumpers – to either do work down low, unencumbered by clutter in the paint, or step out and open up lanes for his teammates to penetrate. And since most of those perimeter guys can shoot threes, kick-outs are usually available. The beauty of the lineup, though, is that several guys can play Kavanaugh’s part just as well as they can attend the perimeter. Despite lacking premier talent or size, that general versatility – where multiple players can shoot, penetrate, look for back-door cuts or mismatches in the post – means flexibility on offense. Dayton’s lack of uniformity makes it somewhat impervious to defensive schemes.
But for as good as the offense can be, the Flyers’ defense has actually been their bread and butter up to this point in the NCAA Tournament. They held both the Buckeyes and Orange to under 0.92 points per possession in Buffalo, playing with aggressive energy and consistent effort until each game’s dramatic conclusion. And while you could point to luck – opponents shot a combined 3-of-22 from behind the arc and both saw buzzer-beaters rim out – those results can also be attributed to Dayton’s depth: Fresh body after fresh body came in and made life difficult for the higher seeds, harassing post players and relentlessly closing out on perimeter shooters. Likewise, Miller’s crew more than held its own on both the offensive and defensive glass against two markedly taller units.
So what does this all mean for tonight, against the Cardinal and its enormous front line? Well, it probably means the A-10’s lone Sweet Sixteen representative will surrender interior buckets, much as it has all season. With towering big men Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic commanding the paint, Stanford’s size down low trumps that of any other opponent Dayton’s faced this season, except maybe USC – which knocked off the Flyers back in December. Kavanaugh, Robinson and company will have to do yoeman’s work to minimize the damage. The guards, meanwhile, need to continue defending with in-your-face aggression in an effort to stop Chasson Randle – Stanford’s leading scorer – from having a big night. Still, even if it finds an offensive groove, Johnny Dawkins’ bunch will not have a cakewalk. For as much size and as many upperclassmen as its roster holds, Stanford’s (predominately) 2-3 zone defense won’t bewilder Dayton the way it did Kansas – again, the Flyers just played Syracuse and are well-equipped – and its lack of depth could become a serious disadvantage. In stark contrast to Miller’s crew, the Cardinal ranks 346th in bench minutes, which might have played a factor in its recent 25-point loss to UCLA. Dawkins’ guys already enter the night with one fewer day of rest than the Flyers, not to mention a longer flight to Memphis. In a tight game, that might play a small role in the outcome. The most glaring edge for Dayton, though, is the knowledge that it can handle whatever Stanford throws at it. Against the Orange, the team’s perimeter ball-movement was crisp, the floor spacing was excellent and the persistence – attacking the teeth of the zone in the first half, finding open threes in the second – never wavered. A similar effort tonight, and the pesky 11-seed could find itself one win away from North Texas.