BUFFALO, N.Y. — The last time Syracuse and Dayton played was in 1977.
But it was almost in November at the EA Sports Maui Invitational. The Flyers lost in the final seconds of the semifinals against Baylor, failing to earn a date with the Orange, who went on to win the tournament championship.
While in Maui, both teams got a chance to watch and scout each other. Four months later, SU and Dayton have taken different trajectories to get where they are now.
But Saturday at First Niagara Center, Syracuse (28-5, 14-4 Atlantic Coast) and Dayton (24-10, 10-6 Atlantic 10) will have a chance to play the game that never happened. The No. 3-seed Orange and No. 11-seed Flyers will square off at approximately 7:10 p.m. with a berth to the Sweet 16 in Memphis, Tenn., on the line.
“They’re a really good team,” SU guard Trevor Cooney said. “We were surprised we didn’t play them. They lost to Baylor on a game-winner. It was a very close game.”
That game-winner came from Cory Jefferson with a mere 16 seconds to go. Baylor led 1-0, then trailed the rest of the game until Jefferson’s putback.
Dayton’s Devin Oliver had a chance for a putback of his own in the final two seconds to give the Flyers the win, but the ball ricocheted off the rim, effectively giving Dayton its first loss.
“I think we really proved ourselves out there,” Oliver said. “We were one tip-in away from playing in the championship.”
While in Maui, SU head coach Jim Boeheim was impressed with the job Dayton head coach Archie Miller has done to help jumpstart the program.
The Flyers made the NCAA Tournament in 2009, but have flip-flopped between the National Invitational Tournament and no postseason at all, since.
“I’m just impressed with how hard his team plays, how they play together,” Boeheim said. “Just a really, really well-coached team. He’s done a tremendous job coaching that team.”
Now Dayton’s back in the Big Dance and fresh off an upset of Ohio State, and Oliver said he and his teammates have prospered from Miller’s hands-on coaching style.
Boeheim, who said he has watched nearly every team except Mercer — who upset Duke earlier Saturday — had the luxury of seeing the Flyers play in person.
He learned that Dayton is a balanced team and one that can hurt you in a multitude of ways.
But the benefits were twofold. Oliver said the Flyers proved themselves in Maui. They weren’t expected to beat then-No. 11 Gonzaga or contend with then-No. 18 Baylor, but they did. A team that started out as a blip on the college basketball radar quickly transformed into a legitimate contender.
“Maui brought us all together as a team,” Dayton forward Jalen Robinson said.
Oliver said Dayton can’t get overwhelmed by the “S” on the Syracuse jersey. It can’t get mesmerized by Tyler Ennis, whom he called one of, if not the best point guard in the country.
The Flyers just have to play their game, and everything will work out OK.
“We kind of look at it as an opportunity missed,” Oliver said, “and we get that opportunity now.”
But capitalizing on the opportunity won’t be easy. The Orange pieced together one of its most complete games of the season against Western Michigan, and appears to be back on track after a topsy-turvy end to the regular season and an early departure from the ACC tournament.
Miller saw firsthand just how long and disruptive the Syracuse zone can be. He said SU thrives on forcing steals and turning defense into offense, just like it does most years.
At around 2:20 p.m. Friday, a horde of reporters gathered to watch Mercer complete its upset over Duke. Some stood right outside the doorway, others stood inside.
When Anthony White Jr.’s layup with 42 seconds left gave the Bears a five-point lead and essentially clinched the game, the crowd reveled and momentarily parted.
Out walked Miller from inside the room, a serious expression on his face, but the slightest twinkle in his eyes.
There’s already been enough madness to bust every bracket but one on major Tournament sites but Miller hopes Dayton can be the next team to stir things up just a little bit more.
“We learned that we can beat anybody,” Robinson said. “We’re just as good as the next team. As long as we’re together, we can pull out any win.”
Published on March 22, 2014 at 1:01 pm
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