Dayton responds to top big man’s injury with two huge wins

Jeff Eisenberg

When Dayton lost starting forward Josh Benson to a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 30, it was difficult to envision the Flyers absorbing the absence of a double-digit scorer without missing a beat.

Perhaps Benson's absence will be a longterm issue for Dayton, but for now it seems to have brought out the best in his teammates.

Dayton produced its best week of the season last week, defeating Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis at home on Wednesday night and ending Temple's 25-game home win streak three nights later. Add that to a decent non-conference resume that includes victories over Alabama, Ole Miss and Minnesota, and what appeared to be a transition season for the Flyers (12-4, 2-0) as recently as a month ago suddenly has some promise.

"Josh's injury has put a very heightened awareness on each individual for how good they have to be each and every day," first-year Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "Whether it's offensive and defensive rebounding or staying out of foul trouble, each individual guy has a set list of things that I'm looking at them dead in the eye and evaluating them on a daily basis. It has nothing to do with scoring, and I think our team has really bought into those concepts."

The scoring and playmaking of Kevin Dillard, the rebounding of Chris Johnson and the perimeter shooting of Luke Fabrizius contributed to Dayton's strong start to Atlantic 10 play, but it's the performance of center Matt Kavanaugh that has been most eye-opening.

Known primarily as a defensive specialist prior to last week, the 6-foot-10 Kavanaugh took advantage of his opportunity to contribute on offense. Nobody will mistake him for Thomas Robinson or Jared Sullinger anytime soon, but he scored on put-backs and finished at the rim against St. Louis and Temple, tallying a combined 22 points on 10 of his 15 shooting.

"He has an amazing ability to practice hard every day, and what he does in practice, he typically does in a game," Miller said. "He's not going to be a great, great scorer for us all the time, but he has a unique skill: He offensive rebounds. He's got a great motor. He's physical. If we can keep him on the floor for longer stretches, I do think he gives us another guy who can put stick-backs in or finish off penetration."

With Xavier trying to emerge from its post-brawl skid and Temple fighting inconsistency in the absence of top big man Micheal Eric, the Atlantic 10 appears to be as balanced and as wide open as it has been in years. One week into conference play, the only three teams who are still undefeated are Dayton, Charlotte and LaSalle, picked sixth, 11th and 13th respectively in the league's preseason poll.

It remains to be seen whether Xavier and Temple will restore order and rise to the top as league play continues, but one noteworthy Atlantic 10 coach seems to believe that Dayton has staying power even in the absence of Benson.

"Benson is really a good player, and I think they really rallied around the fact that they didn't have him," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "I was impressed with some of Archie's comments that they were talking about doing the little things that everyone can be accountable for. Being accountable to one-another is a wonderful way to build teams, and I think Dayton has figured that out now."