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Billy Reed: Don’t underestimate the Dayton Flyers — and keep your eye on Obi; could be a great story

I was there the night in 1967 when Dayton’s Dan Obravac jumped center against 7-foot-2 UCLA sophomore Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the NCAA tournament championship game in Louisville’s Freedom Hall.

Nobody expected the Flyers to win, unless left-handed forward Donnie May scored 50 or so. He didn’t, of course, but had a respectable 21 in UCLA’s 79-64 victory. Everybody was happy for young Dayton coach Don Donoher, who seemed headed for a long and successful career at the private Catholic college located just up I-75 from Cincinnati.

It was a good story, maybe because it was so unlikely that Dayton would get so far in the tournament. Few expected the Flyers to get that far again, and they haven’t. But what’s this? The current Flyers are 24-2, you say? Ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation? So good they’re much more than a dark horse to make the 2020 Final Four in Atlanta?

It’s all true.

Thanks in large part to Obi Toppin, a 6-9 redshirt sophomore, Dayton is in the national championship discussion. Toppin averages 19.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. He’s the main reason Dayton has lost only two games, both in overtime – Kansas by 90-84 and Colorado by 78-76. Yes, this is the same Kansas team that many experts are picking to win the title in this wild, unpredictable season.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

Toppin may have the most felicitous name of any Dayton player since Glinder Torain, who started on the ’67 team. But with all due respect to Glinder, wherever he may be, he’s a much better player, ranking right up there with such Flyer greats as May, John “The Vertical Hyphen” Horan, Henry Finkel, and Roosevelt Chapman.

A native of Brooklyn, Toppin was a late bloomer who liked what he saw and heard from Flyers’ coach Anthony Grant, who formerly worked at Alabama and in the NBA. He’s surrounded by a team that has scored at least 70 points in almost every game.

The Flyers can both shoot and defend the three. They give the citizens of Dayton far more to celebrate than the renovation of 50-year-old Dayton Arena, the site of many NCAA tournament games.

I have no idea how many Dayton fans live in Northern Kentucky, given the popularity of Cincinnati, Xavier, Northern Kentucky, and Kentucky (the Wildcats have fans everywhere). But there have to be some who go back to the 1950s and ‘60s when Coach Tom Blackburn became the father of modern Dayton basketball.

Hired in 1947, Blackburn made Dayton a fixture in the NIT when that post-season event in Madison Square Garden was considered to be virtually the equal of the NCAA tournament. Dayton was the NIT runner-up in 1952, ’55,’56, and ’58 before winning the title in 1962.

When poor health forced Blackburn to retire at the end of the 1963-64 season, Donoher took over and guided the Flyers to the 1968 NIT title. They didn’t win it again until 2010, long after the NIT had become the “consolation tournament” for the best teams who don’t get NCAA bids.

So far the Flyers have been the surprise story of the current season. They announced early they needed to be taken seriously by beating Georgia of the SEC and Virginia Tech of the ACC. But it was the overtime loss at Kansas, quite likely a No. 1 seed, that caught the attention of the basketball world.

The biggest knock against Dayton is that it doesn’t face top-of-the-line competition in the Atlantic 10 Conference. It’s the same criticism Gonzaga gets for belonging to the less-than-imposing West Coast Conference. But it also must be noted that both teams so far have avoided monumental upsets, like, say, Evansville over UK.

It has been a decent season for the D-I teams stretching from Dayton in the North to Highland Heights in the South. The Northern Kentucky Norse are 19-8, while both Cincinnati and Xavier are 17-9. Still, nobody has captured the area’s attention quite like Dayton and Obi Toppin.

Other than Kentucky and Louisville, no team from near the Northern Kentucky area has won the championship since Cincinnati in 1962. That’s 58 years, folks. I’m not going to tell you Dayton will do it in March. But I will advise you to keep your eyes on Obi. You might get to see a story that will charm everyone who loves college hoops.

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