Saturday, March 29, 2014

For Dayton and The Mid Majority, It's Memphis in the Meantime

You say you're gonna get your act together
Gonna take it out on the road
But if I don't get outta here pretty soon
My head's going to explode

Sure I like country music
I like mandolins
But right now I need a telecaster
Through a vibro-lux turned up to ten

Lets go to Memphis in the meantime baby
Memphis in the meantime girl

"Memphis in the Meantime" by John Hiatt

For the past ten college basketball seasons, the Mid Majority has been the definitive mid major college basketball site.  The brainchild of Kyle Whelliston, the Mid Majority has chronicled the mid major college basketball teams that take up the majority of the 351 Division I College Basketball teams.   Over these past ten seasons, we have learned so much about the fabric of these mid major schools, the small towns that often comprise these schools and even the famous arenas that have a haunting quality to it.

For seven of those seasons, Kyle did the writing and traveling across the country.   His writing was beautiful, insightful, historical and even gave mid major college basketball a sense of tragedy.  Every season ends in a loss, at least in the case of the mid major team.   There was hope with the two Butler National Championship game teams.  But both Bulldogs' teams came up valiantly short against Duke and UConn.

Due to the constant grind of the road, Kyle took a permanent break from writing.  Season Eight of the Mid Majority was the 800 Games Project, where a group of writers would get together and the goal was to write 800 story recaps of mid major team games.   I was one of those writers and we made it, writing 809 different game recaps and over 900 stories total.  It also gave me a chance to bond with my older son, Matthew, who went to thirty three of the fifty eight mid major games I covered (yes, one recap didn't make it in. It was still fifty eight).

In fact, the three top writers as far as number of recaps; Matt Cayeula, Ian McCormick and I, all now live in South Carolina.  We got together for a brief reunion at the Big South Championship.

Season Nine was a contest involving teams of writers and if we hadn't learned from Season Eight, Season Nine taught us that Ray Curren is one hell of a writer, along with being an ironman covering games.   Season Ten has featured mostly Curren's terrific articles, along with the solid work of Kraig Williams and Matt Konrad.

As we entered the 2014 NCAA Tournament, for the first time since Indiana State was a  #1 seed in 1979, there was a true hope that a mid major team would finally break through that glass ceiling and win a National Championship.  This time, the mid major team was not an underdog, but a proverbial favorite.  Wichita State, a Final Four team from last season, went through the non conference season, the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and the Missouri Valley Tournament undefeated.   The Shockers stood at 34-0 entering the NCAA Tournament and earned a #1 seed in the Midwest.

But this season, the NCAA Selection Committee, led by Ron Wellman, a man so notorious in the college basketball world that Wake Forest fans created a now well known site to voice their displeasure about their basketball team, decided to stack the deck on Wichita State's bracket.  In fact, I wrote about Wellman's incredibly bad decision to fire Dino Gaudio long before the BuzzOut website appeared.

Well, Wellman and friends made the Midwest the toughest bracket in the tournament, as it featured three of the Final Four teams from last season; Wichita State, Michigan, last year's national runner-up and Louisville, the defending National Champion and who was currently the #5 team in the nation as a four seed, which boggled the minds of many, including Rick Pitino.   The cherry on top was making Kentucky, the preseason #1 team and a Top 25 team for most of the season, an eight seed.   Several basketball media pundits nicknamed the Midwest Region "The Group of Death", which is known in World Cup seeding terms as the toughest bracket.

After crushing Cal Poly in the second round, the Shockers met the Wildcats in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.  And in what many thought was a Final Four quality game, the Wildcats barely defeated the Shockers 78-76 in a truly terrific contest.  Both teams hit shot fifty four percent or higher and each team hit twenty seven field goals (it came down to a couple of more free throws on Kentucky's part). The outcome was heartbreaking to those mid major fans who had hoped Wichita State would be "THE Mid Major Team".

But in an unusual case of irony, one mid major school is still left in the tournament.  That mid major school is part of the core, the very fabric of the Mid-Majority.


Dayton has hosted the Play In Game(s), or PIG as called by Mid Majority, since 2001 when the NCAA decided to keep the thirty four at large berths for the Men's Tournament after the Mountain West was formed (unlike the Women's Tournament, where they cut it down to thirty three).  Dayton now hosts the First Four, the first four games of the NCAA Tournament, since it is now sixty eight teams.

Dayton fans have long supported their hometown school Flyers, but they have supported the PIG and now the First Four as well in droves.   In fact, the South Park Tavern has long been the host of the Mid Majority Pig Party.  I had a chance to have dinner there when I went to see Hofstra played Wright State in a nationally televised 2011 BracketBuster game.  The cheeseburger pizza is really good.

I wrote about Dayton in "The Road to Wright State", in which I talked about how the economy has hurt this proud city.  When I visited the absolutely awesome United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, I met a volunteer staff member there named Jeffery.  He talked about companies have moved out of the area and that GM had recently shut a truck plant down.  Jeffery was worried that Dayton would become "unpopulated".

I have never gone to a Dayton game or been in Dayton's arena.  But the nearby Wright State fans at the Nutter Center were very friendly to me that day, despite being a Hofstra fan.  You can see the people in Dayton take great pride in their college basketball and I can only imagine what it is like at a game at Dayton Arena.

Based on having watched the Flyers over the past seasons, as well as the musings of my friend and Dayton grad, Julia Prior, the Flyers have been known to break hearts the last few seasons.  Under former head coach Brian Gregory (now at Georgia Tech) and current coach Archie Miller, the Flyers would start out strong in the beginning of the season, then seemingly self destruct on its own, especially in the closing minutes of crucial games.

The past few seasons showed that.  The 2012-13 team started the season 10-4, but would go 7-10 the rest of the way.  The 2011-12 team started 14-5 overall, including 4-1 in the A-10.  The 2011-12 Flyers had won the Old Spice Classic and even knocked off nationally ranked Alabama.  But those Flyers would lose four straight games, finish only 9-7 in conference and then lose a heart-breaker 70-69 to arch-rival Xavier in the A-10 tournament. In that game, the Flyers were up ten at the half, only to lose on a jumper with 21 seconds left.

The Flyers started this season 12-3, including wins over nationally ranked #11 Gonzaga, California, Georgia Tech and Iona,  They also lost a tough one to Baylor in the Old Spice Classic by a point, but finished third in the Tournament when they beat the Bears.  You could see the team is talented with Jordan Siebert, Devin Oliver, Dyshawn Pierre and Bill Raferty's favorite, Scootchie Smith.  I saw several of their games on TV early in the season, including the entire Old Spice Tournament.  They went ten deep, pressed like anything and collectively, they can bury lots of three pointers.

But given their team's past history, Dayton fans must have been waiting for the other shoe to drop come A-10 conference season.

It did.

The Flyers started the A-10 conference season 1-5, with their lone win over lowly Fordham. It looked like once again, a talented Flyers team would come up short of their goals.

But not this time.

The Flyers would win nine of their final ten Atlantic 10 Conference games, including wins over George Washington, St Joseph's, UMass and St. Louis.  They would win their first round game over Fordham.  With twenty three wins overall and their solid non conference schedule wins, all they needed was to get to the A-10 Semifinals at the Barclays' Center and they were likely in the NCAA Tournament.

But Dayton would lose a heartbreaker to the eventual A-10 Tourney Champions, St Joseph's 70-67.

Come Selection Sunday, Flyers' fans were likely nervous, wondering if they would be the sixth A-10 team in the tournament.  St Joe's had the automatic bid.  St Louis, VCU and UMass were locks, given they were all nationally ranked for part of the season. George Washington, given their record and standing, was also a likely team in the Tournament (and they did make it as a #9 seed).

Dayton did make it, getting an eleven seed and a first round game against intrastate rival Ohio State, a team that has been "avoiding" the Flyers for a long time.  Don't ever say the Selection Committee doesn't have a twisted sense of humor or irony.

Still many pundits and coaches didn't think Dayton deserved to make it.  Coach K stated "I’ll get in trouble probably for saying it. Like the Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference.  I hear people saying there are six teams in there. Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through."

Meat grinder would become a popular sarcastic Twitter reference for Duke's quick tournament exit at the hands of Mercer and the ACC's performance in the tournament overall.

I don't do brackets on my own anymore.  But I have a dear friend who asks me to do her bracket the past couple of years and I can't say no.   So in her bracket this season, I picked Dayton to go to the Sweet 16.

Yes, I picked them to beat Ohio State and then their likely next opponent Syracuse.

I just thought the Flyers were more than talented and quick enough to beat both teams.  Plus I thought Dayton could shoot over Syracuse's zone.

Sure enough, the Flyers beat the Buckeyes 60-59 in the first round on a last second layup by Vee Sanford (cue some Sanford and Son music).  Then despite a low scoring first half, Dayton held Syracuse without a three pointer for the entire contest.  Despite the vaunted, Orange Zone, the Flyers would go seven from sixteen from beyond the arc and defeat Syracuse 55-53.  Dayton had just beat one of Coach K's meat grinder ACC teams.

For the first time since 1984, the Flyers were in the Sweet 16.  They were the last Mid Major team in the field.  And all of the Mid Majority's fans, like Julia Prior, so proud of their accomplishment, put their hopes on them.

The Flyers now faced the Cardinal of Stanford, another double digit seed, at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.  The fact that the Flyers, the team that represents the very core of the Mid Majority and the PIG, was not lost on a certain someone.

Kyle has gone to Memphis and wrote a Mid Majority article about Dayton.

The Flyers received their nickname from the plane the Wright Brothers successfully built and flew in 1905.  Much like this team, the Wright Brothers didn't give up, the Flyer was third iteration of their prototype plane.

And sure enough, on Thursday night, many pundits thought Stanford's size, which had allowed the Cardinal to upset both New Mexico and Kansas, would be too much for the Flyers.  But the Flyers' didn't give up. It turned out to be Dayton's pressure, speed and depth that was too much for Stanford as the Flyers impressively handled the Cardinal 82-72.

So for the first time since 1984, the Dayton Flyers are in the Elite Eight.   And with the win, Julia Prior booked a trip to Memphis to see her beloved Flyers play for the chance to make the Final Four. Their task is now their most daunting one; defeat the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Florida Gators.   Nate Silver, he of the famous Five Thirty Eight site and his 2012 Presidential prognostications, gives Dayton a one percent chance of winning the NCAA Championship.

My guess is back in 1905, people observing the Wright Brothers probably gave them a one percent chance of getting a plane to fly.

We all know what happened.

Maybe it's poetic that the team that could possibly break the Mid Major National Championship glass ceiling is named the Flyers, a team that can fly through that glass ceiling.  It would be a fitting end to ten seasons of the Mid Majority.  The season ending without a loss, but a victory.

But the task, as noted, is a daunting one.  The Flyers must beat the Gators, then win two more games against equally as tough competition that Florida will provide later today.   But then again, very few thought that Dayton would beat Ohio State, Syracuse or even Stanford.  The Flyers have broke a lot of brackets.

The Wright Brothers broke a glass ceiling over hundred years ago. Maybe it's time another Flyer breaks another one.

Go Dayton Flyers!

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