March 21, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Chris Wright was a prized national recruit three years ago, when the kid with the 40-inch vertical leap decided to ignore the pitches from the power conference schools and stay home.
Michigan? Michigan State? Texas? They all got beat by coach Brian Gregory and the Dayton Flyers.
The Straight Talk Express might have been mothballed when John McCain's presidential campaign ended, but Gregory has been trying to turn the Flyers' program into a consistent 20-game winner and NCAA tournament team with his own tell-it-like-it-is style.
"When I actually talked to him and came on campus, he said, 'First of all, I'll tell you you're not that good right now,"' Wright recalled. "And that was like the first time anybody ever said, 'You're not that good,' because you're so used to people saying, 'You can do this. You can do that."'
Wright, the soaring 6-foot-8 sophomore forward whose career-high 27 points and 10 rebounds helped send the 11th-seeded Flyers into a second-round matchup with Kansas on Sunday, was given a list by Gregory of 11 areas he needed to improve in.
Shooting from the perimeter.
Creating separation with the dribble.
"And stuff I had never heard of, ever, in my life," Wright said.
Wright's uncle, J.D. Grigsby, played for Dayton in the early 1970s, during a 10-year stretch under coach Don Donoher when the Flyers went to six NCAA tournaments and were national runners-up to coach John Wooden and UCLA in 1967. But the family tie and the proximity of the campus to his home in the Dayton suburb of Trotwood didn't stoke his interest.
"When people asked me if I was going to Dayton, I'd ... look at them like, 'Man, get out of here. Why would I be going to Dayton?"' Wright said. He added: "It was totally different than what I thought, and once I went over there I knew that I was probably going to be ending up going there."
He committed as a junior. The Atlantic 10, with Xavier and Temple also in this year's tournament field and the recent success by Saint Joseph's a few years ago and UMass a decade back, has always been as close to the big time as any of the mid-majors. But it will probably never get the national air time or print or Web space as the neighboring Big East and Big Ten conferences do.
"Every school in our league has kind of built their athletic national reputation based on their men's basketball program," Gregory said. "It is a great basketball league. ... Sometimes it's under the radar unfortunately."
To fight that perception, Gregory must take risks.
"I tell them in the recruiting process, 'I'm going to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear,"' Gregory said. "And to those guys that that appeals to, then I'm that type of coach. I mean, if you don't want to hear that, then I wouldn't be a good guy to play for."
Gregory learned at Michigan State as an assistant under Jud Heathcote and then Tom Izzo, before taking the job at UD in 2003 (the former and current Spartans coach are both here at the Metrodome this weekend for the Midwest Regional).
Gregory still has a long way to go to get the Flyers, whose first-round win over West Virginia was the program's first in the NCAA tourney since 1990, even to the level that Xavier's been at leading the A-10. But he just agreed to an extension of his contract through 2018, and his record so far is 125-67.
"I think the best is yet to come," Izzo said.
Might the next encouraging development for Dayton come against the defending national champions?
The Flyers (27-7) must play just as well as they did against the Mountaineers, if not even better, to get by the Jayhawks (26-7) and into the regional semifinals for a possible matchup with Michigan State. Wright is considered one of the best dunkers in college basketball, but Kansas center Cole Aldrich - albeit in a different manner requiring a little less leaping ability - had eight slams himself in the first round against North Dakota State.
"I hope me and Marcus and Chris can get eight dunks tomorrow," said Dayton's Charles Little, smiling as he sat at an interview podium next to Wright and Marcus Johnson before Saturday's practice. "It is a lot of dunks. I didn't know he had that many."
Aldrich, who had 23 points and 13 rebounds for the No. 3 seed Jayhawks Friday, offered his own admiration for the opposition when asked about Wright's ability to score and soar.
"He's a little athletic," Aldrich said, deadpanning his intentional understatement before turning to exaggeration. "I think he only has about a 60-inch vertical."
Kansas was supposed to be in rebuilding mode this season after losing the entire starting five from last year's championship squad, but Aldrich and star guard Sherron Collins have helped carry out coach Bill Self's instructions. Self acknowledged his patience has been tested a lot more this season, but save for a couple of bumps his work has bore fruit.
"These guys don't feel like they are defending the national championship," Self said. "We never talked about it with our guys because there's only really one guy that played ample minutes that really played a big part of us winning it last year. Cole would be the second, and he averaged 2.8 points per game. Nobody else contributed on the court as far as the games go.
"So these are all new guys. We're not trying to defend anything. We're trying to go take what we want as opposed to defending."