“I level-headed myself.”
That’s Trey Landers simple, but linguistically-styled explanation for how he got himself from being buried on the bench last year to becoming a driving force for the Dayton Flyers this season, especially Saturday night when he scored 15 points in the first 11 minutes of the game and finished with a career-high 26 to lead UD to an 80-70 victory over Fordham at UD Arena.
Now maybe a couple of other scholarship players stuck on the bench need to “level head” if they want to trade Siberia for the court.
Saturday night, Xeyrius Williams and John Crosby, both juniors who have played in a combined 163 games for the Flyers, did not play. And 6-foot-10 Kostas Antetokounmpo played just five minutes.
Meanwhile, Jack Westerfield – a 6-1 junior walk-on who, until a week ago, had played just 16 minutes over three years here – moved around them in the rotation.
Twice he came off the bench against the Rams – for two minutes in the first half and then a minute at the end – while the others sat.
After the game Coach Anthony Grant was asked if Westerfield playing was “a statement.” That if you buy into his program and work hard in practice, you get to play.
The question momentarily caught Grant off guard.
He sighed and after an “uhhhm,” he shrugged and said: “I really hadn’t looked at it as a statement, other than I felt like he would help us.”
Although Grant later said “it’s never about an individual, I love all our guys,” he spoke specifically about the way Westerfield practiced and how his teammates and coaches “trust” him:
“As a coach you make decisions on who puts you in the best position to have success.”
Grant might not want to say it – unlike some coaches, he doesn’t call players out publicly — but I’d say that’s a statement.
Buried on the bench
A year ago the scripts were flipped for Landers and Williams, both products of Wayne High School.
Last season Landers, a muscular 6-foot-5 freshman guard, almost never played for Archie Miller’s team. He got in just nine games, played a total of 52 minutes and scored 27 points, an output he nearly equaled Saturday night.
Williams was the rising star last year. He played in 32 games, started nine and averaged 22.8 minutes and 8.2 points a game. He scored 35 points in two games against Duquesne, 17 against George Washington and Davidson, 15 against Nebraska.
As for Crosby, he played in 32 games last year and started nine games early this season. He scored 15 against Penn, 13 against Ball State. He played 36 minutes against Ohio University.
While Williams was hampered by some injuries earlier this season, that doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. Crosby asked for his release from the program when Grant first took over last spring and a month later asked to return.
As bumpy stretches go, Landers recalled his own situation last season.
Asked why he rarely got off the bench, he shrugged:
“That’s not a question for me. Obviously I felt I could help the team, but we had all those seniors….And at the end of the day, coach had a different option.
“I took it as a learning experience. It was a little bit of fuel to my fire. I just had to level-head myself…attack the offseason …and try to prove myself this year.”
He said he’s offered similar advice to Williams:
“Me and X talk. I tell him just to control what he can control. You want to play, but it’s not your decision. It’s up to coach. I tell him it starts in practice. You have to work.”
As for Westerfield, Landers said:
“Jack shows up day in and day out to practice. He’s always on time. I feel like he’s bought into what Coach Grant wants. He busts his butt ..and he deserves to play.”
Grant said the biggest change he sees in Landers from October to now is his maturity:
“He’s really matured. He’s bought into who he is and what the team needs out of him.”
Saturday night Landers did a little of everything. He scored inside, was 3-for-f5 from three-point range and made some gritty defensive plays.
He credited the scouting report with prepping him for the “weird defense” Fordham played and showing him how he could score in various ways.
“Trey did a great job,” Grant said. “With the different looks he was able to take advantage of what the defense gave him at the rim and on the perimeter.”
Landers has blossomed under Grant and after Saturday’s game compared him to Miller:
“Every coach is different. Archie was a yeller. Coach Grant is more of a calm guy and I feel he keeps us calm and level headed.
“Coach Grant is a really good coach. He’s passionate about what he does and we love him.”
That attitude has produced more than just level headedness for the 12-14 Flyers:
“He’s our engine guy,” said Jalen Crutcher, who played all 40 minutes against the Rams, scored 19 points and had six assists. “When he doesn’t come with energy, most likely we do not come with energy.”
It would have been tough not to be energized Saturday night in front of a supportive, sold-out crowd of 13,350.
“They love us regardless of what is going on,” Landers said. “That’s one thing I love about them. Whether or not we’re having the best season, the best year, they show support and it’s a great feeling to have.”
Importance of family
Last year though – buried on the bench – he needed more than that:
“It was really hard for me.”
He said his older brother Robert, a 282-pound defensive lineman for Ohio State, helped him get through it:
“With me not playing, he was always there for me. My brother is my biggest role model.”
With that, he started to chuckle: “My mom tried to chime in sometimes. But I was like ‘Mom? You’re not a Division I athlete.’ But she tried to help me keep level-headed.”
You don’t need to talk to Landers very long to realize family is big with him.
And he claimed that’s why he showed up for his post-game interview sporting a pair of earrings the size of garden peas.
“Can I be honest?” he said when asked about them. “I was about to go see my mom when Doug (sports information director Doug Hauschild) was like ‘You gotta do media.’”
Nearby, Crutcher teased: “He’s lookin’ for the camera guy. When the cameras are here, he wants to have his earrings and look good.”
Landers shook his head: “I was getting ready to go out to dinner with with my mom and brother.”
As he spoke you noticed a chain around his neck, the end of which was hidden by his shirt
He pulled it out to reveal a dog tag that was etched with a photo of a man standing behind three young boys. On the other side were the words “R.I.P. Pops”
“That’s my father right there and me and my brothers,” he said. “My father passed away when I was eight years old.”
He doesn’t say it, but his dad, Robert Landers, Sr., was murdered in front of the Big Muffler shop on Salem Avenue in 2006. Reports say he was shot multiple times by, what a bystander said, was an AK-47.
He was just 30.
The case remains unsolved.
Landers said he wishes he could wear the dog tag on the court, but that’s prohibited:
“But it’s with me everywhere else.”
He took the tag in his hand, stared at the photo a few seconds and then slipped it back inside his shirt.
Trey Landers knows about overcoming tough times off the court…and on.
Some other guys on this team could learn from him.