This year’s Dayton team will be Archie Miller’s best Flyers squad yet

Dayton fans must be in a constant state of giddy ambivalence. Their prideful program has maintained national relevance while cresting to mainstream success in the past two years under Archie Miller.

Since 2014, few teams have been as fun to watch or as interesting to track as the Flyers. By now, the 37-year-old Miller has proven himself as one of the most cunning, talented coaches in the sport. Not “one of the most talented young coaches.” No: he’s just a freaking really good coach, age being of no effect. His program is so quality, so respected, so clearly one of the most well-run in the nation.

So Flyers fans must be wondering how much longer they can hold on to a guy who is considered by many in the business to be in line for perpetual success at a premier school. It’s just a matter of time, even if he did sign that new deal through 2022 in March. Evidence keeps mounting that indicates the unostentatious Miller will keep proving his worth and increasing his value as the months go on.

To wit, a 72-67 win at No. 21 Vanderbilt on Wednesday night. With his team trailing by 16 expertly coached his Flyers back into the game against a Vandy squad boasting multiple future NBA picks. Dayton’s slithery comeback against the Dores signaled the program’s biggest win this season and one of the most deft-yet-impressive coaching jobs of Miller’s time with UD. (The Flyers subsequently moved into the CBS Sports rankings on Thursday, coming in at No. 21. They’re likely not to leave the rankings for some time now.)

“The Vanderbilt win was the result of not handling [Xavier] well two weeks ago,” Miller told CBS Sports on Thursday of Dayton’s 90-61 loss to undefeated Xavier on Nov. 29. “We learned our lesson in getting down and people not trying to make a play for themselves, to score 10 points on one basket.”

The Flyers are now 7-1, have five wins against top-100 teams (which is as many as anyone else in the country) and they’ve achieved this in a way few other coaches/teams could. They’ve made headway and gotten better without their best player. That would be Dyshawn Pierre, who was suspended for the first semester by the school after allegations of sexual assault. This is no shock for Dayton. The line last year about the Flyers winning despite having only six scholarship players and nobody over 6-foot-6 became so overused it was practically secondhand knowledge to anyone with even a passing interest in college basketball.

But Miller said last year’s sapping of the roster absolutely helped with how the team started this season, and how it overcame not having Pierre from the get-go.

“Adversity a year ago was incomprehensible,” Miller said. “But I will say, after going through it and battling, we saw what was possible and gave us a chance. We started this season out already understanding we were going to be up against it with six new players and five freshmen.”

For Miller to have Dayton revved again despite not having his best player at his disposal, to have a horde of newbies playing in the fire so quickly, I mean, what else would you expect? This is what he does. Win no matter the obstacle. It’s got to make other coaches mildly nauseated to see Miller thrive regardless of circumstance.

“If you told me on we’d be 7-1 with or without Dyshawn, I’d take it because the schedule’s so hard,” Miller said.

The Flyers have the 10th-hardest schedule according to the fickle RPI; on KenPom’s computer, Dayton’s SOS comes in No. 37. Either way, here’s what we have before us: Dayton looking like the best team in the Atlantic 10 this season while also looking like the best group Miller’s had since arriving in 2011. Yes, Dayton almost definitely is going to be its best under Miller over the next three months. This team, which earned gobs of publicity off the 2014 Elite Eight run and the 2015 attrition atrocity, is now set up to have a wire-to-wire season of success.

“Coming into this season it was ‘next man up’ mentality,” Dayton junior Kendall Pollard told CBS Sports. “We’ve got four freshmen coming in and giving good minutes. I’ve been dealing it with since I’ve been here.”

The team’s per-game points average is up from 67.8 to 75.9. Rebounding has popped from 31.1 last season to 40.9 this season. UD’s field goal percentage, steal and block rate are also up to date from last season. By height, Dayton ranks 125th in the country, according to KenPom.com. Yet five guys are grabbing 3.5 rebounds or more per game.

“We do the same thing each and every day, no matter who the opponent is,” Pollard said.

Miller’s team has won in a few different ways this season already, thanks to the reliable play of Pollard, Scoochie Smith and Charles Cooke. Plus, a 6-11 freshman named Steve McElvene. He’s the kind of player Miller’s never had. A guy who can work the post well and has also changed the way Miller and the Dayton coaching staff have approached their schemes on defense. Dayton has not worked through the post before.

Now it can. The team is probably playing to about 75 percent of its capability at this point in the season. That’s a scary state of affairs for the Atlantic 10. You check in on that Vandy game and see a guy like Darrell Davis go on a personal 8-0 run that pulled Dayton back in.

“I thought, Darrell, to be quite honest with you, wasn’t all in earlier this season,” Miller said.

And now he’s a key reason for the Vandy victory. That’s Miller’s motivation in mid-season movement.

“I feel like every game we play is going to be close,” Miller said. “We have to find different ways to win here early. There are different, unique combinations (of players) that I’m not used to coaching yet.”

Despite the youth, the Flyers are likely to get to 11-1 to end conference play because its next four games will be played at UD Arena against beatable opponents. With strong schedule strength, Dayton is looking at a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and its first showing as a single-digit seed under Miller, whose career record now sits at 97-48. He should get win No. 100 on Dec. 22, a home game against Miami (Ohio).

“Chattanooga, I’m scared to death for them on Saturday,”Miller said. “We have to find a way to win the game by one point. It’s not about style, it’s about winning. … Having McElvene’s promise, the reliability of when you look at Scooch and Kyle (Davis) and Kendall, very few players have won as many games as they have in their first three seasons. They know how it feels to win on that big stage and they always want to be a part of that.”

As for the promise of Pierre, don’t expect immediate playing time there.

Miller went into detail about what’s to come with Pierre’s reintegration process. The suspension from school is lifted Dec. 20, and on that day Miller will likely sit down with Pierre and his family to put together a program for getting him back onto the team. Miller spoke of Pierre’s “academic obligation” first and foremost, and also knows Pierre could physically not be up to Dayton’s standards for playing.

There’s no assurance Pierre’s going to be in game shape, and Miller will not risk messing up team dynamic and chemistry at the sake of throwing Pierre back into the lineup right after Christmas.

“Then there’s the mental component of being away,” Miller said. “If there’s one guy who can do it, it’s him. We’re going to do what’s best for him. He has as chance to be a hell of a player, and for him it’s not just this year. It’s for down the road. We’re not going to just throw him out there.”

Pierre’s teammates are ready for his return. With him in the mix, they no doubt feel like a Final Four-quality team.

“I believe we’ll be an even stronger team,” Pollard said. “The only way we can go is up by adding a player like Dyshawn. He can rebound like no other.”

Pierre averaged 12.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and three assists last season.

“We’ll keep the basketball team out of it, keep our season out if it, and look at him as his own entity right now,” Miller said of Pierre. “He’ll be champing at the bit to play. But it might not happen right away. If it’s going to take him until February 1 or 5 or 7 to get him into a rhythm, then I have one of the best players in the country that I just wasted [a month] of basketball on. I do think there’s a chance he’ll come back to play in January — maybe late December — depending on how he feels. I won’t know anything until I meet him face to face.”

Pierre will almost definitely become a major factor by the time Dayton is in the thick of the A-10 chase. By then, it should be fairly clear this team will be better for being denied of his inclusion for the first half of its campaign. Because, even with that pummel job by Xavier, 2015-16 Dayton looks better than the team that reached the Elite Eight in 2014. Better than the team that overachieved to a 27-win season a year ago.

This is no trendy team. Dayton is credible and viable nationally so long as Miller is calling the shots.

Archie Miller has once again done more with less and has Dayton playing superbly. (USATSI)

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