Dayton senior forward Devin Oliver has played against Xavier eight times in his career, and the pregame hype, jacked-up crowds and combativeness between the teams have made those games some of the most memorable in his career.
“It’s an incredible experience,” he said. “It’s a cherished rivalry, and it’s always a very intense game. It’s competitive, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s always a pleasure to play in such a competitive game.”
But Oliver and other players from both sides who have savored those games will have to make do without them this season. Xavier has left the Atlantic 10 for the new Big East and decided it didn’t have room for the Flyers on its schedule.
The Musketeers will have 18 games in the Big East, two more than they were accustomed to playing in the A-10, leaving fewer non-league slots. But they’re still playing Cincinnati and Miami while dumping Dayton.
“It’s no big deal,” said Oliver, who is 3-5 in the rivalry. “In the three years I’ve been here, we’ve always played one of the better schedules in the country. We’ve got the Maui Invitational where it’s looking like we’ll open against Syracuse or Gonzaga or someone like that.
“It’s out of my control, it’s out of our control. Sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. We’ve just got to get ready to take advantage of the games we’re going to play.”
UD and Xavier have a storied history. They’ve played every season since 1945-46 and at least twice a year in all but one season since 1988-89.
The Flyers’ last win on the road in the series was in 1981, but they’ve thrived at home since the two teams joined the Atlantic 10 in 1996, going 13-6.
UD coach Archie Miller looks at the break from tradition as only a one-year hiatus and believes the rivalry will be revived.
“It’s important to a lot of people,” Miller said. “In the immediate, they’re obviously concentrating on getting up and running in the new league, and their schedule didn’t match the new league’s format. To get that done, they had to get out of a lot of stuff.
“But they’re not opposed to playing us, by any means. Talking to their staff and whatnot, I think it will end up happening again.”
But Xavier hasn’t officially committed to playing after this season. Coach Chris Mack was out of the country and couldn’t be reached for comment, according to media relations director Tom Eiser. New athletic director Greg Christopher declined a request for an interview but issued a statement:
“The most important part of our schedule is the Big East portion. Given the quick ramp up to our inaugural season in the Big East, we have not spent much time discussing long-term non-conference scheduling. When appropriate, we will focus on future opportunities and we will always make our non-conference scheduling decisions based on what is best for Xavier University and the basketball program.”
UD athletic director Tim Wabler said he doesn’t begrudge Xavier for pulling out.
“Given the change and when it happened and the fact they’re playing 18 (league) games, in this business, we really understand the situations each of us are in. That made a lot of sense,” he said. “Obviously, we want to continue the series. We’re going to keep working with them for that.”
Asked if he expects to play in 2014-15, Wabler said: “I really don’t know. I think it’s a great series for both of us. I’d certainly be surprised if we don’t continue it down the road.”
Of course, the Flyers could be league-mates with Xavier again after this season. The Big East is believed to be set on growing to at least 12 teams at some point, and UD is considered a top candidate for the next round of expansion. UD officials are quietly working behind the scenes to make it happen.
But Wabler had nothing new to report on that front. The Big East hasn’t even decided on a commissioner yet.
“They’re just trying to get themselves ready for this next year. They have volleyball and soccer and cross country starting the 1st of August,” he said.
The Xavier game was always the most anticipated of the year for UD fans, and not having that annual showdown leaves a considerable hole in the home schedule.
Georgia Tech has committed to a two-year series, according to sources. And Mississippi has agreed to play the Flyers for the next two years. But both games this season will be on the road.
Southern Cal is coming to UD Arena, and the Flyers figure to host three NCAA tournament teams from the A-10 in VCU, Saint Louis and La Salle. Unless there are other developments, though, the home schedule this season appears somewhat lean.
Yet the loyalty of UD fans can’t be overstated. A new round of the Arena Seating Plan was unveiled last year, and while it contained considerable price hikes, the season-ticket renewal rate was still nearly 99 percent.
“I don’t think it means one lick in any form or fashion,” Miller said of not having that marquee meeting with Xavier. “We play almost 17 home games a year, and whether they’re nonconference or conference, I don’t think anybody comes to our games just to see one game. I think they come to see us. I don’t think it’s going to play a big role at all.”
Longtime fan David Gasper agrees. He’s not as concerned about the end of a rivalry as he is over how the Flyers fare.
“As a season-ticket holder, going to the NCAA is much more important than having a rival,” he said. “If Xavier is off the schedule and Archie gets the team to the NCAA, then I’m thrilled. This is a transition year. Archie’s first two years had injuries and player shortages. So I think most fans are OK with season tickets this year. If the team finishes in the middle of the A-10 again this year, then I think a storm could brew very quickly.”
After going 17-14 last year and missing the postseason for the first time in six years, the Flyers appear poised for a breakthrough season. They’re bringing in a stellar recruiting class and also are counting on big contributions from former Ohio State guard Jordan Sibert and the reinstated Matt Kavanaugh, a one-time starter at center.
If the Flyers have a motto, it might be: “We don’t need Xavier. We just need to win.”
“It doesn’t really matter who we play, especially coming off the season last year. We want to redeem ourselves,” Oliver said. “We feel like we have the deepest team I’ve been on since I’ve been at Dayton. We’ve got Kavanaugh back, we’ve got Jordan Sibert eligible to play this season, we’ve got three really good freshmen coming in to add to an already exceptional freshman class (from last year).
“There are bigger things on the plate. We’ve got big games, still, and a great schedule. I’m just looking forward to winning some games.”
First game: Feb. 20, 1920
All-time wins: UD 85, Xavier 75
UD’s series record from 1950-87: 60-13
UD’s series record from 1988-2013: 17-42
Conference tournament* wins: Xavier 7, UD 2
*The teams played together in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference from 1988-93 and again in the Atlantic 10 from 1996-2013.