Dayton flying high; program reaches Sweet 16 after 30-year drought

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

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It was one of the most unappealing games -- style-wise -- we've seen so far in this tournament, but I've got a good feeling about what just happened in Buffalo.

I think we'll remember Dayton beating Syracuse for a few years to come. It had the energy, the commentating (Verne and Raf: never a letdown) and the upset factor that should carry over a few years down the road. In part because it involved a nationally known team being taken down when most of the country was watching. Mercer over Duke it is not, but Dayton slicing Syracuse out of this tournament is clearly one of the biggest moments of this opening weekend.

And one of the most surprising.

No buzzer-beater to decide it, no iconic play that will be looped from here on out, but you know what? A lot of these games usually lack that. It was a thrilling game nonetheless; 30 minutes of torture for 10 minutes of melodrama. You could start to feel it creeping in, that sense the game would be decided in the final few possessions.

Archie Miller, just 35 years old, was all of 5 the last time his program reached the Sweet 16. But thanks to two missed perimeter shots by Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis in the final two possessions, No. 11 Dayton won 55-53 in Buffalo to move on to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

It's huge for that program, and for the A-10, which gets an unsuspecting team into the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. In 2013 it was La Salle that busted up the party. Now these anonymous Flyers have guaranteed, as we see each year, a feel-good story to carry us through the next few days. If Miller's brother, Sean, wins Sunday against Gonzaga, our research indicates it will be the first time ever two brothers have made the Sweet 16.

Dayton beating Syracuse feels big -- for Dayton, which had one tournament win in 23 years entering this year's event. The opponent had little do with it, because Syracuse had turned into something totally different from the team we saw for the first three months of the season. SU swirled to a 3-6 finish after that charmed 25-0 start. This was once a team considered co-favorites to win it all, right there with 'Zona.

But now, in Jim Boeheim's 31st trip to the NCAA Tournament, his team fails to reach the Sweet 16 for the 13th time. It happened in part because Syracuse went 0 for 10 from 3. Even upping that percentage from 0 to 20 probably alters the outcome. Heck, 10 percent: If Ennis' last shot falls, Dayton's likely on a charter flight back home in about an hour from now.

One shot, falling or not, does so much. Fair or not, to tell our stories and alter our perceptions, this tournament changes things. Logic gets overswept with emotion, and I think most people like it that way. Even Miller realized the pragmatic nature of the ending, though.

"That's about as-together a group as you're gonna find," Miller said on TBS afterward. "If you're going to beat Syracuse in here, you'll need a little bit of luck. Fortunately that last one didn't go in."

It was Ennis who scored the team's the last 11 points. Such a fun talent. Hopefully he'll be back to give Boeheim's guys a chance against next year.

But it's Dayton that's flipped from the team it was nearly two months ago. A group that was 1-5 in league play and had an NIT profile. Four losses in a row. It turned it around and scratched enough to get into the NCAAs.

This tournament will do wonders for programs who finally break through, after years and years. For Boeheim and SU, it's a short-term burn. A year removed from a Final Four, it's disappointment but no real knick against Boeheim's stature. Syracuse will not be "back" because it's not gone away. This is a group that shouldn't be moving much in regard to national standing. If it loses one or two players to the pros, a ding will come, but Boeheim's been uncanny in preventing SU from slipping too far from within the rankings over the past decade.

For Miller and Dayton? An entirely different situation. Miller earned himself a raise with this run. Maybe he'll be coaching at a new spot next season (Marquette would be wise to make some calls tonight, for the record). If he leaves or if he stays, 2014 will be known as the year a really good young coach named Archie Miller brought Dayton back to a national stage. He changed the outlook for the program.

You can't pay for that kind of moment. Look at this, and tell me you'll soon forget what the Flyers arrived at Saturday night.

C (USATSI)
Kyle Davis (3) celebrates with Dayton Flyers forward Devin Oliver after the win. (USATSI)

 
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