DAYTON, Ohio — The Obi Show is now in session. Or as the public address man announces to a packed house during lineup introduction, Obiiiiiiiiii Toppin!
In under three minutes, Toppin has his first dunk, leaking out on a fast break. Soon, another on a lob. Then a third, sliding along the baseline to take a pass from Trey Landers, one of Dayton’s 23 assists this night. By halftime, the Flyers have 47 points and are galloping ahead of St. Bonaventure — one of the second-place teams in the Atlantic 10 — by 18. The best shooting offense in the nation has just hit 69 percent for the half and it’s easy to see a reason why; seven different Dayton players already have assists. The mass of red in the stands at UD Arena is happy. This is the 328th consecutive Flyers crowd of more than 11,000.
By night’s end, the final is 81-57, and Toppin’s career dunk total in two years has been pushed to 146, a number regularly updated in Dayton’s notes, which has been growing ever since his first two field-goal attempts as a freshman last season rattled the rims. “I don’t keep track of it,” he says later. “But I know it’s a lot.”
“It’s amazing just because of where I came from,” he says later, standing in a hallway.
Four years ago, he was a 6-2 junior in Brooklyn. One day he hopped on a plane to take a college visit, assuming he was headed for a school in Daytona. “I never heard of Dayton,” he says now. “I thought I was going to Florida.” It didn’t take long – maybe the cornfields instead of a beach gave it away – to realize he was in Ohio.
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Now he is a 6-9 folk hero, a slam-bang breakout star. His team is one of the most fascinating in the country to watch, and here are three reasons why:
The Flyers seem genuine threats to do a lot of damage in March, which is what’s pushing them, not the current trappings of all their success, such as their ranking. “We talk about it. We know it’s really a number,” Toppin says. “Nothing matters until the tournament. We play for the next game every single day. We’re going to get the best of everybody from now on.”
They’re fun to watch, as one of the best-passing, ball-sharing teams in the land, which is how they’re No. 1 nationally in shooting percentage, second in assists, and second in adjusted offensive efficiency in KenPom. And how a team with a strong national player of the year candidate can still have six different Flyers lead a game in scoring. It is a tone helped set by the unselfishness of the star. “Our offense is best when we’re sharing the ball,” Toppin says. “We know giving up a good shot for a better shot is always the right way to go.”
And they come from a place that cherishes basketball every season, especially this magical one. The coach is Dayton alum and three-year starter Anthony Grant, who still remembers his recruiting visit here in the 1980s, when Dayton upset highly-ranked DePaul and the atmosphere was electric. “This is a basketball town, I think you can tell. That’s probably an understatement,” he says Wednesday. “I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
UD Arena has hosted 125 men’s NCAA Tournament games, more than any other place in the nation, and 38 ahead of second-place Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. The number keeps growing every year with the First Four. Seventeen men who won national championships have coached a tournament game in Dayton.
One thing UD Arena has never seen is its own Final Four team. Dayton made it once, but that was 1967, two years before the arena opened. But they dream of that around here this season, and with good cause.
Not so fast, Grant cautions.
“For us, it’s about keeping our eye on the ball and taking care of things we can control. We can’t look too far into the future, we can’t look too far into the past. We’ve got to be where our feet are. I’m going to do that, and hopefully our players and really our fan base will understand that that’s what’s real. I understand (all the hype and to-do made about his team) but it ain’t reality for us.”
Between the Obi Show and the possibilities ahead, Dayton goes on the list of most intriguing teams to watch the rest of the season. Here are five more, because of good tidings and bad.
Can Virginia find an offense?
The Cavaliers are the Yin and Yang of college basketball — No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 348 in scoring offense. Their recent woes prove a Naismith Law: No matter how completely you shut down an opponent, you have to make a shot every so often. Virginia held North Carolina State scoreless for more than 10 minutes the other night and still lost. The paucity of points has led to four defeats in five games — the Cavaliers didn’t score more than 55 in any of them – and put the record at 12-6 overall and 4-4 in the ACC. Which means Virginia has lost as many games right now as the past two seasons combined, and more in the conference.
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If it continues like this, could the Cavaliers go from One Shining Moment to the NCAA Tournament bubble?
“That’s our job as coaches. It’s just to stay together and keep working and not be distracted,” said Tony Bennett. “We know our margin for error is smaller than it has usually been. What else can you say? It’s kind of the same message; keep your head up and let’s keep working.”
Can San Diego State run the table?
The Aztecs are 20-0 and have won their first seven Mountain West games by an average of nearly 14 points. They’re No. 1 in the latest NET rankings from the NCAA, but only one team left on their schedule is in the top 95, and that’s Utah State, who they’ve already beaten at the Aggies’ place. Who can stop them? This is the third 20-game winning streak in school history and Brian Dutcher has been on the bench for all of them, as an assistant for the first two and the head man for this one.
Which means he has been around long enough to say this with conviction: “They don’t hang banners for 20-0.” He has other feats in mind, which is why he wasn’t happy during a timeout the other night about sloppy play, even as San Diego State was on the way to mashing Wyoming by 17 points. “There are going to be possessions down the road when we’re in a one or two-possession game, and those things can’t happen,” he told his players. “I’m happy we’re ahead and I’m happy we’re playing pretty good, but we have greater goals ahead of us, and we can’t make the mistakes we’re making right now.”
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Will LSU ever run out of close-game magic?
Not lately, anyway. The Tigers are the only SEC team yet to lose a conference game and their past five victories have come by a total of 13 points. Matter of fact, seven of their 18 games this season have been decided by two or one points, or in overtime — the 17-point thrashing that remains Liberty’s only loss a notable exception. “If it comes down to a six-minute game, we work on that every day in practice,” guard Javonte Smart said. “Coach tells us you can’t foul, stay solid on defense, and make free throws.” But then if that were easy, everyone would do it.
Wait, there’s more. LSU has won 12 consecutive SEC road games, and five of those went overtime. Never leave the Tigers’ games early.
Is Illinois’ wait over?
Over 33 years from 1981-2013, the Illini were March regulars, going to the NCAA Tournament 25 times. They haven’t been back in the six years since, the longest drought in four decades. And they were 12-21 last season. But things have changed under Brad Underwood. Looks who’s currently second in the Big Ten, their 6-2 record their best start in 14 years. Their standing as No. 2 in the nation in rebound margin speaks to their purpose, and they have one of the country’s more unusual phenoms in 7-0 Kofi Cockburn, who has already been Big Ten freshman of the week six times. That’s pretty good for a guy from Jamaica who didn’t play organized basketball until the ninth grade. Until then, he did what a lot of Jamaican kids do — ran track and probably dreamed of being Usain Bolt.
Can USC stay at the top of the Pac-12?
The conference has three ranked teams, but they’re all trailing the 15-3 Trojans at the moment. USC was picked to finish fifth but must like its karma after rallying from 21 points down in the second half to beat co-leader Stanford in overtime, believed to be the biggest comeback in the history of the league. The Trojans don’t lose often, but when they do, they lose big; 101-79 to Marquette, 72-40 at Washington.
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Onyeka Okongu has turned out to be one of the nation’s most productive freshmen. As the week began, he led all freshmen in blocked shots with three a game, was third in shooting at 61.7, fifth in scoring at 16.9 and tied for sixth in rebounding at 8.7. Now if only USC’s coach could do the free-throw shooting. Andy Enfield set an NCAA career record for accuracy of 92.5 percent when he played at Johns Hopkins. His Trojans are 291st in the nation from the line.