DAYTON, Ohio – For the last 14 years, the NCAA tournament has started with play-in games and the First Four at the University of Dayton Arena. The home team? Didn’t even get in the bracket most times.
This year, it’s flying high.
With two close wins under daunting circumstances, the Flyers have turned Dayton into more than just a starting point for the NCAA tournament. It’s become a focal point.
President Obama is tweeting about it. The national media is talking about it. Students are staying up until the early morning hours celebrating the Flyers’ first trip to the Sweet 16 in 30 years.
“This opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” guard Jordan Sibert said Monday before practice.
Given how things had gone lately for the Flyers, it felt like a lifetime since they’d been relevant in March.
Dayton was a mainstay in the tournament in the 1960s, finishing as the runner-up in 1967 with a loss to UCLA. The winning waned after 1990. Dayton went 10 years before its next tournament appearance and is making only its fifth NCAA trip in the last 14 years.
Those Flyers fans who pack UD Arena for the First Four can keep cheering this time – which is exactly what they’ve been doing since the 11th-seeded Flyers (25-10) beat Ohio State 60-59 in Buffalo, followed by a 55-53 win over Syracuse. They’ll play 10th-seeded Stanford (23-12) in Memphis on Thursday.
“We have to sort of come back down out of the clouds a little bit,” coach Archie Miller said. “There’s just so much hype, media and the talk around you.”
As soon as the Flyers finished off Syracuse, the pundits started talking about Miller possibly moving on after his third season rebuilding the program. He had privately agreed to a contract extension midway through the season, but wanted to hold off saying anything about it until the Flyers were finished.
On Monday, he and athletics director Tim Wabler announced the extension through the 2018-19 season, hoping it will dampen some of the where-will-he-go-next speculation.
Wabler thinks the Sweet 16 appearance will jump-start the program.
“It’s credibility nationally,” Wabler said. “It’s putting us on the map as far as with recruits and saying Dayton not only is a great place to come to school and play, but now it’s an even greater place.”
The Flyers have come a long way since the First Four last year, when the Big East was reconfiguring itself as a basketball conference and local rival Xavier left the Atlantic 10 to become part of it, leaving the Flyers behind. Xavier wound up playing in the First Four this year and losing. The A-10 got six teams in the NCAA tournament, and Dayton wound up as the only Ohio team to reach the Sweet 16.
The victory over Ohio State was particularly satisfying, with the Dayton Daily News running a front-page headline the next day referring to the winners as “THE University of Dayton” – a jab at the Buckeyes.
After the win over Syracuse, President Obama tweeted on the White House’s account: “Congrats to the (at)DaytonFlyers on a huge upset win! Devin Oliver, I may need to take you up on that pick-up game one of these days. -bo”
Oliver was a star guard at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High School, where Obama gave a commencement address in 2010. He met the president and challenged him to a one-on-one match. He was surprised that he remembered.
“That’s just more icing on the cake to where we’re already at,” Oliver said Monday. “More than anything, I hope he responds and actually takes me up on it. That would be really cool.”
The Flyers were still trying to get back on schedule Monday after their wild weekend. They returned to Dayton after the win over Syracuse, their bus reaching campus around 3:30 a.m. with an estimated 200 students waiting up to greet them.
“Well, I was a little bit worried that they were going to tip the bus over, seeing some of the photos and some of the action before we landed,” Miller said. “It was overwhelming. I was happy for our fans and really happy for our students.
“This is what it’s about, what in my mind that a proud tradition deserves.”
There wasn’t much time to catch up on sleep over the weekend. Senior center Matt Kavanaugh, whose uncles and fathers attended Dayton, got about five hours of rest before waking up to watch Stanford’s 60-57 upset of Kansas on Sunday.
“I was ready to watch the games,” Kavanaugh said. “I was too excited to miss any moment of it.”
Nobody in Dayton is sleeping through this tournament.