Jordan Sibert’s outlook on basketball changed in a simple exchange with his dad, Scott, while Jordan was coming up through middle school in Cincinnati.
He knew he wanted to be a good college basketball player someday, maybe even play professional ball. But Scott wasn’t satisfied with his young son simply talking about his goal. He wanted to see it put into action.
“If you’re in seventh grade, try to play like a college player,” Scott told Jordan. “If that’s what you want to be, work out like a college player.”
“You’re going to play to wherever you want to go,” Scott continued. “Wherever you want to go, that’s how you’re going to be willing to play.”
It’s no wonder Sibert and the Dayton Flyers had what it takes to steal some headlines at last year’s NCAA tournament. It’s all about mentality.
The Flyers shocked everyone on their way to the Elite Eight, a run that included wins against sixth-seeded Ohio State -- Sibert’s former stomping grounds before transferring to Dayton two years ago -- in addition to No. 3 seed Syracuse and No. 10 Stanford in the Sweet Sixteen in which Sibert dropped a team-high 18 points.
Dayton wasn’t even perceived to be the class of the Atlantic 10 that year, just another one of the six teams earning bids after an A-10 quarterfinals loss to eventual-champion Saint Joseph’s just days before Selection Sunday.
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“Winning isn’t necessarily something you do, it’s more of a mentality and an attitude.”
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This year, Dayton is doing its part to prove it’s no Cinderella. The Flyers are 15-3 and are No. 22 in this week’s AP Top 25, though a loss at conference foe Davidson on Tuesday night might knock them out come Monday.
“Winning isn’t necessarily something you do, it’s more of a mentality and an attitude,” said Sibert, in his senior season for Dayton. “And once you take on the challenge of winning and understanding how hard it is that you approach it like that every day, it becomes a habit.”
The Flyers reeled off eight consecutive wins before falling at Davidson and are a half-game behind VCU for first place in the Atlantic 10 and are 28th in RPI as of Thursday.
Now, fourth-year coach Archie Miller faces the task of keeping his guys on track. They’ve experienced the highs the game has to offer on its biggest stage, but Miller knows, as do his players, that sticking to the process is the only way to reclaim that success.
“Winning in the tournament is what everyone wants, but it’s not easy to,” Miller said, “so what I take from it is how hard it is to get there and then how hard it is to stay in there, and I brought that to everything that we do now.
“I think our players understand it’s a day-by-day process. The minute you look left or right and stay off the path, you’re gonna get bumped.”Despite this year’s strong start, things haven’t gone swimmingly for Miller and the Flyers. Miller dismissed junior forwards Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson on Dec. 17 for breaking a team rule about player conduct. Both played a critical role in last year’s tournament run and were two premier rebounders for Dayton this year at 6-foot-9. No remaining Flyer is taller than 6-6.
So how do Sibert and Co. deal with a lack of size and shorter rotation? It’s a lot like the problem concerning Sibert’s ringback tone. Anyone phoning him on his cell has to sit through the standard classical music before he picks up. Everyone has a friend with this problem; it might even be you.
It’s annoying, and like so many others, Sibert doesn’t know how to change it. All he can do is deal with it and move forward.
The same holds true on the basketball court. Sure, not having a big man to throw the ball down to on the block for easy buckets is less than ideal. But it’s not like the rest of the A-10 is going to stop coming for them, just as much as people aren’t going to stop calling Sibert and bringing up his comical ringback tone.
So Dayton rounded up after the news broke and decided at its next practice to slightly alter its course. No low-post presence, no problem -- the Flyers would have to use their speed, as well as its stifling defense and balance on the offensive end. Dayton ranks second in the A-10 in team defense (59.1 ppg) and has had five different leading scorers in its past six games.
“People look at me and they must see that I might, on paper, average the most [points],” said Sibert, who leads Dayton with 16.1 points per game, “but at any given moment, any of my teammates can score. So that when the shot clock’s winding down, I don’t need the ball to know that we’re gonna get a bucket. Anyone my team can score.”
Dyshawn Pierre averages 12.2 points per game, while Kendall Pollard -- who entered the starting lineup after the dismissals of Scott and Robinson – drops 11.2 a game. Scoochie Smith chips in with 8.4 points and 4.3 assists a game, as well as Kyle Davis’ 6.3 points to round out its starting five.
Sibert is arguably Dayton’s most versatile scorer, shooting 43.3 percent from the field, 34.1 percent from long range and 79.8 percent clip at the charity stripe. But the ability for all five to make shots gives Miller plenty of options to use to his advantage when drawing up a play on the white board and makes it harder for his team to have an off night from the field.
“When a different guy can hurt you a different night, you have more room for error, so to speak, when one guy’s not playing well,” Miller said.Miller has noticed that his starting lineup’s increased minutes on the floor with one another -- a byproduct of a thin bench -- has led to better chemistry and symmetry on the floor than where his team was this time a year ago.
But the impact of the dismissals comes where you’d expect: on the glass. Scott, then a team captain, and had been averaging a team-best 7.4 boards a game in nine contests, while Robinson added 2.4. That left nearly 10 rebounds of production for the Flyers to make up for on a given night, which Sibert (4.1 rpg) said is a team effort to make up for.
Furthermore, with the lack of a true post presence, Sibert has taken it on himself to drive to the basket and get to the free-throw line, something he’s always been focused on but is especially important to try to make up for the easy buckets and points that bigger players can provide.
“I try to get in there, get as many points and as many rebounds, as many extra things that we can get because of the lack of bigs,” Sibert said.
But the road back to glory will be steep, one that’s tough to maintain throughout a season. College basketball is filled with bumps along the way especially in conference play, as evidenced by Dayton’s lopsided 77-60 defeat at the hands of Davidson where the Wildcats shoot 51.7 percent from the floor, more than 12 percent higher than Dayton’s conference-best average.
Covering up the voids left by Scott and Robinson’s dismissal is easier to do in the comforting confines of University of Dayton Arena than it is on the road in the grueling A-10, which has as much parity as any conference in the country. Foul trouble and injury will be much harder to overcome for the Flyers as they try to get back to the madness of March.
Luckily, Sibert can apply his dad’s inspirational words to that as well. “If you want to go to a national championship, you’re going to play every game like you’re trying to get to a national championship.”
The Flyers seem fully intent on doing that.