MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Brian Gregory has spent six seasons coaching the Dayton Flyers, and little calling cards are appearing all over the court that tell him the program is headed in the right direction.
His players defend and rebound with a grit Gregory learned to instill as an assistant at Michigan State under Tom Izzo. Now they have qualified for the NCAA tournament for the second time in his tenure.
When 11th-seeded Dayton (26-7) faces sixth-seeded West Virginia (23-11) in the first round of the Midwest Region on Friday, the biggest measuring stick yet will be standing on the other side of the court.
The Mountaineers, of course, are coached by Bob Huggins, who is 13-1 in his career against Dayton from his years at Cincinnati.
“He has put his stamp already on that program,” Gregory said.
And that is not a good thing for the Flyers.
Huggins is in his second season at his alma mater, and it sure hasn’t taken long for his new players to shed the backdoor-cutting, 3-point-gunning style of former coach John Beilein for Huggins’ glass-eating, rock ‘em, sock ‘em style of play.
As if they had a choice.
“You have to be a tough-minded person to play for him and have tough skin because he can get on you a little bit,” freshman Devin Ebanks said. “But, you know, it’s just to make you better. He wants to see that you can be a better player.”
West Virginia led the Big East in scoring defense, holding opponents to 61.6 points per game and outrebounded their opponents by an average of 5.9 boards a game to qualify for their second straight tourney.
“Playing for Coach Huggins has been a great experience,” junior forward Da’Shean Butler said. “When I first came here, I was pretty much a shooter. I felt like I became a better defensive player. And Coach Huggins kind of does that. He makes you care about what you’re doing.”
It turns out that they know a little bit about playing ‘D’ in Dayton, too.
“They are actually similar to us in that they base themselves a lot on defense, rebounding,” Dayton senior Charles Little said. “One of the better defensive teams in the country, rebounding teams in the country.
“So we match up. Our focuses are in common.”
Though the execution is different.
The Flyers come in waves, using as many as 12 players to stay fresh for their full-court pressure defense. They press and press and press some more, forcing turnovers and creating offense from that defense.
“It’s just hard on the other team,” junior guard Marcus Johnson said. “Especially playing the defense that we play, the full-court pressure, pressuring the ball on every catch. So it tends to wear teams down a lot faster.”
Dayton ranked second in the Atlantic 10 in field-goal percentage defense (.396) and scoring defense (61.5). The Flyers got off to a 21-2 start to the season, but lost four of their last seven while adjusting to the loss of injured point guard Rob Lowery.
If the Flyers can keep things close on Friday, watch out. Dayton is 11-1 in games decided by five points or less this season, the best in the nation.
“Our guys have a little bit of an edge about them and, in those situations, they just compete,” Gregory said. “And sometimes when you do that, good things happen.”
Sounds like something Huggins would say.
He spent 16 seasons growling up and down the sidelines for Cincinnati, tormenting the Flyers, and the rest of the old Conference USA, with super-athletic teams that had plenty of edge to them.
Huggins says he has mellowed since having a heart attack in 2002, and he is visibly calmer since taking over at West Virginia.
“It took me having a heart attack to learn, but don’t sweat the small stuff,” Huggins said. “And I don’t the way I used to. I mean, I don’t get as caught up in things that aren’t really all that important.”
While Huggins has softened, his teams are just as tough—physically and mentally.
“I think he takes even more pride in West Virginia, in being from there,” Gregory said. “And I think he really enjoys the fact that when people watch that team play now, they say, ‘That’s a Bobby Huggins team.”’