For the past few weeks Dayton coach Archie Miller has been asking his team the well-worn question of the optimist: Why not us?
There were reasons. One of the last teams invited to the Dance, the Flyers had once sat 1--5 in the Atlantic 10 and would now face the vaunted defenses of Ohio State and Syracuse, in Buffalo, only two hours from the Orange's campus. Even Miller's father, John, who as a high school coach won four Pennsylvania championships, wouldn't have predicted a tourney run after he spent the fall living in Ohio with the younger of his two sons. (Sean coaches Arizona.) "[Archie] doesn't have the high-high Division I players like a Syracuse or Carolina," John said in the locker room after Dayton's 55--53 upset of the third-seeded Orange. "But he's been able to mend them together."
Miller does have two high-major transfers in guards Vee Sanford, formerly of Georgetown, who floated a game-winner over Ohio State's Aaron Craft with 3.8 seconds left last Thursday, and Jordan Siebert (24), an ex-Buckeye whose NBA-range three doubled Dayton's lead over Syracuse with 47.7 left two days later. And other Flyers showed no jitters in their first performance on college basketball's biggest stage. Senior forward Devin Oliver (5) had 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals against Syracuse, and sophomore forward Dyshawn Pierre (21), a 65.8% free throw shooter, made six of seven foul shots in the waning moments of two nail-biter wins.
Assistant coach Tom Ostrom describes Pierre as "almost oblivious to the moment," echoing what Miller has said about his team's ability to tune out standings and bubble speculation during a midseason swoon in which the team lost four straight. But in the Flyers' buoyant locker room after the win that moved the program to its first Sweet 16 in three decades, when sophomore point guard Khari Price began to say that he felt Dayton was among the country's best teams, the bigger picture was hard to ignore. "I guess you could say we're at least 16th," he said, cracking a smile.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED