If you know your college basketball history, you know that the Dayton Flyers used to matter.
Dayton is not just the city that hosts the First Four, and it's not just the city where a peace agreement was signed in 1995, to help mediate a tense and bitter situation in Bosnia. Dayton throbbed with life throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as the Flyers established themselves as a regular force in the world of college hoops.
The NIT used to mean more than the NCAA tournament, but even as the NCAA event grew in stature, the NIT retained a substantial measure of relevance through the 1970s. Dayton was an NIT runner-up five times in the 1950s, and it won the event in 1962 and 1968. The Flyers made the NCAA tournament more often than not in the latter half of the 1960s, reaching the national championship game in 1967 before losing to the first of Lew Alcindor's great UCLA teams. Coach Don Donoher produced a richly successful 25-year career at UD, engineering one last great run in the 1984 NCAA Tournament before running into the eventual national champion, the Georgetown Hoyas, in the West Regional Final in UCLA's house, Pauley Pavilion.
Dayton isn't just a city that occupies the spotlight in the college basketball world during the third week of March every year. The story of college basketball isn't complete without the contributions the Flyers have added to its pages.
In recent years, though, the story of Dayton basketball has been a painful one. On a seemingly annual basis, the Flyers would cruelly tease their loyal fan base, showing enough glimpses of their talents to create the idea that they could not only make the Big Dance, but go on a little run… only to fall just short of the tournament. The Flyers would win at home, lose on the road, but fail to get the final two or three wins they needed to get over the hump. Xavier and other tormentors would deny the Flyers in an Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinal on a Friday night in Atlantic City, leaving the Flyers shattered in a city where gamblers have cursed their misfortune many a time over the years.
Dayton — despite its rich basketball heritage, despite a place at the center of college basketball's life and rhythms — made only one NCAA tournament appearance since 2004.
Entering Wednesday night's game in Saint Louis against the Billikens — a team coming off two straight losses — Dayton didn't figure to be able to extend its opponent's losing streak to three games. When UD fell behind, 57-52, with 7:47 left in regulation, the outlook remained dark and cloudy… just as it's been for most of the past decade.
Then, however, coach Archie Miller — one of the rising stars in his profession — watched his players find a higher gear while a tired Saint Louis team reinforced the notion that it is running on fumes near the finish line.
Dayton exploded for a 16-3 run in the next five minutes to take a 68-60 lead. The Flyers' perimeter shooters retained fresh legs, while Saint Louis clanged a series of three-pointers at the other end. Dayton ran well off the Billikens' misses and finished plays near the rim. Dayton didn't protect its eight-point lead with much care in the final 2:30, commmitting a series of turnovers and dumb fouls that raised the possibility of another supreme stomach-punch loss, the kind that's been all too familiar for Flyer fans over the past decade. However, Saint Louis missed several foul shots down the stretch, and a refusal to make a final kickout pass off a rebound with four seconds left doomed the Billikens' final possession in a game Dayton led by three, 70-67. The Flyers added two free throws with just under two seconds to go, polishing off a 72-67 win that — as was the case with Arkansas's win over Kentucky last week — vaulted the Flyers past a large number of bubble teams.
Dayton — yes, Dayton — tucked away a huge late-season win. On the road. Against a quality opponent. This is not how the Flyers' seasons typically unfold in early March, but this time, the ghosts of history were chased away.
The Flyers didn't crash.
If you're going to set the field of 68 at this moment, you'd have to include Dayton. If the Flyers can win this weekend at home against Richmond — and they should — it's going to be very hard to keep them out of the NCAA tournament.
Dayton used to matter. Dayton is about to matter again, at least if Wednesday night's events in the Gateway City offer any indication.