Sometimes, basketball isn't very complicated. The Illinois Fighting Illini's basketball season is over because of a simple inability to hit the side of a barn. The Dayton Flyers are headed to New York because they didn't quit on their season.
It's been quite the redemptive week for Coach Brian Gregory's team. Dayton crashed and burned in an ugly late-February and early-March tailspin that saw the Flyers plummet to the middle of the (misnamed) Atlantic 10 Conference (it should be the Atlantic 14, since there are 14 teams in the league). To make matters worse, Dayton held a double-digit second-half lead against mighty Xavier - Sweet 16-bound Xavier that is - in the A-10 Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, March 12, only to blow the lead and fall from NCAA contention to the NIT. Confined to the little dance instead of the capital-letter Big Dance, this talented team - which returned a large portion of the roster that made the 2009 NCAAs - had a choice: Go away quietly or fight like hell for a trip to the Big Apple.
A first-round win over Illinois State got the NIT off to a good start for Dayton, but due to their many late-season losses, the Flyers weren't able to attain anything more than a No. 3 seed in their own subregional. This meant that, barring an upset, UD would have to win two consecutive road games in three days in order to extend its season another week.
Evidently, the situation brought out the best in this underachieving outfit, and not its worst. Pride and purpose have come flooding back to the Dayton bench.
The Flyers flummoxed and flustered second-seeded Cincinnati on Monday night, going into an enemy lair and bouncing the Bearcats by 15 points, 81-66. The Dayton that defeated Georgia Tech in November and which looked to be an almost-certain NCAA team in early February made an abrupt but entirely welcomed re-appearance on the national college basketball scene against Cincy. One Chris Wright - the guard for Georgetown - is no longer playing college basketball this postseason, but Dayton forward Chris Wright earned the right to travel to Illinois when he and his mates delivered a smackdown of an in-state foe from the Big East Conference.
Faced with a very quick turnaround after an emotional win in a backyard brawl, the Flyers themselves had to wonder if they could bottle up and retain the consistency that has been so elusive for them this season. Soon enough, though, they found that they owned a lot more staying power and perseverance than their opponent.
Illinois was almost certainly the first team left out of the NCAA Tournament field. The Illini owned several high-quality scalps - two wins over Wisconsin, one over Michigan State, one over Clemson, and one over Vanderbilt. Coach Bruce Weber's team performed some quality work inside and outside the Big Ten, and despite 14 losses, many felt the Illini would get in on Selection Sunday. They didn't.
Wednesday night in Assembly Hall, the unfortunate reality is that - much like Virginia Tech in the night's earlier game - Illinois certainly looked the part of an NIT team. Baffling reversals of fortune and abrupt shifts in energy marked a spotty performance that was no match for Dayton's far steadier outing.
Again, the matter really wasn't complicated in Champaign, Ill. While Dayton hit 48 percent of its shots, Illinois nailed just 38 percent of its shots. With that said, those numbers don't tell the full story. The more telling stat from this, the last on-campus game for either team until November, is that Illinois gained 25 more shot attempts than Dayton. Twenty-five! The boys from the Big Ten put up 77 shots to just 52 for Dayton, a stat which indicates that Dayton was far more efficient and dialed in at the offensive end, while Illinois rushed and panicked on a great many attempts. Even in transition, when layups and high-percentage looks are supposed to be the order of the day, Illinois just couldn't put the ball in the basket. Three members of the Illini's standard rotation - guards Demetri McCamey and Brandon Paul plus forward Dominique Keller - combined to hit just 8 of 31 shots, or little better than 25 percent. That level of bricklaying - plus a horrid 7-of-14 night at the foul line (7 of 15 if you include a missed front end of a one-and-one, which essentially counts as two misses) - simply doomed a team that, while not lazy, was certainly a bit nonchalant on the court.
With the Illinois loss, all four top seeds in the NIT's four subregionals failed to make the semifinals. Dayton can be rightfully proud that it made such a reality possible.
Now, the Flyers are two wins away from truly putting the dark memories of their late-season collapse behind them. An NIT title would wash away the bitter taste of a wayward season that - in its latter stages - is beginning to find a bit of sunshine.
Dayton will take on Ole Miss next Tuesday, March 30, in the first of two NIT semifinals in New York. ESPN2 will have the broadcast from Madison Square Garden at 7 p.m. Eastern time. Dayton won the NIT in 1962 and 1968, and will look to add a third championship to its trophy case in Gotham.