The tone of Archie Miller’s voice on Friday as he talked about his Dayton men’s basketball team told you everything you needed to know about the state of the Flyers.
This was a not a coach bent on talking about the long road ahead, or about how his team still had much work to do and improvements to make. Those quotes can wait for another day. A day after Thanksgiving, this was a coach thankful for everything his team accomplished on the road in the previous eight days.
The excitement in his voice was undeniable.
“If you had told me we’d come back 3-1, I would tell you that’s a job well done,” Miller said. “The way we handled the trip, the way we handled the travel, the way we were mature in approaching Maui, we were really ready to go out there and compete. Not only did we compete, we got better.”
The Flyers’ success at the Maui Invitational — an 84-79 victory over No. 11 Gonzaga on Monday and a 82-64 victory over California on Wednesday — almost overshadowed the fact that they started the trip with an 82-72 victory at Georgia Tech on Nov. 20. Georgia Tech, Gonzaga and California entered this weekend with a combined record of 16-4. Three of those losses were to the Flyers.
Those three quality victories more than made up for the one game Dayton lost, 67-66 to No. 18 Baylor on Tuesday. That heart-breaker, a game Dayton led for all but the first two minutes and the last 16 seconds, served a purpose in the end. The Flyers were able to put the defeat behind them, Miller said, and concentrate on the California game — not an easy thing to do at any point in the season, let alone in the paradise of Maui.
“There’s a reason we won the Cal game,” Miller said. “We had a good mind-set. Devin Oliver, in particular, has taken a good leadership role. We have a lot of guys who believe in one another. You learn a lot in times of adversity. We responded to adversity the right way in every game other than losing to Baylor.”
A number of players stepped up at different times in the four games. Oliver was the most consistent star. He scored 20 against Georgia Tech and then 12, 14 and 21 in Maui. His season averages show what a complete player he is: 14.1 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals and only 0.9 turnovers.
“He really has a good way about him in terms of his role on the team,” Miller said. “He’s a communicator on both ends of the floor. He’s taken a very big role in terms of his effort level on defense. He’s a much better defender than he’s ever been. He’s not the point guard, but he makes a lot of plays for other people. What’s happening to him is he’s seeing the benefits of playing the right way. To make the All-Maui team, that says a lot.”
Oliver described the Maui experience on Twitter as extraordinary.
“I’ve never played with such a special group of guys,” he wrote. “To have my family out here with me, all of the incredible Flyer Faithful and all of the support of friends and loved ones from back home, this has been awesome.”
Contributions came from all over, of course. Freshman guard Kyle Davis played so well against California with 12 points in 16 minutes, including a dunk that landed him on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays, Miller kicked himself for not playing Davis more than two minutes against Baylor.
Most importantly, Dayton saw improved play from some big men who didn’t play a big role in the first three games of the season. Sophomore Devon Scott had his best game of the season against Georgia Tech with 13 points. The next game it was Kendall Pollard with nine points in 11 minutes. Jalen Robinson starred against California with 17 points.
While the other big man, senior center Matt Kavanaugh, continues to struggle, Miller has confidence he’ll turn it around. Kavanaugh has played single-digit minutes in three of the last four games.
“Matt’s trying a little too hard to play well,” Miller said. “He wants to play well so bad. He’s got to loosen up a bit. I’ve got great faith in him. We’re going to need him. Everyone knows that.
“Moving forward out of Maui, we’ve got to do a better job of helping him. Why is he struggling offensively? He’s doing a great job of offensive rebounding right now. He’s a big, physical guy. The more comfortable Matt gets, the better.”
Besides losing to Baylor, Dayton lost one other thing last week: Thanksgiving day. The Flyers spent most of Thursday traveling home from Maui. Miller said they had a team Thanksgiving meal planned for Friday.
Dayton doesn’t play again until Wednesday when it hosts Delaware State at 7 p.m. For now, the Flyers can bask in a 6-1 start that has landed them at No. 9, through Thursday, in the RPI.