Commentary

Expectations don't bother 'hungry' UD

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

DAYTON, Ohio -- They had a spread of chips, cookies and soda for anyone feeling hungry at the University of Dayton Arena during the Flyers' media day festivities.

Rob Lowery walked by the table but took not a nibble.

[+] EnlargeRob Lowery
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltInjured for the final month of the 2009 season, senior Rob Lowery (left) is perhaps hungrier than anyone to get back to the Big Dance.

The senior guard had just spent the past hour lamenting the growl in his stomach, but he wasn't looking for some empty calories or salty snacks to sate his appetite.

Lowery wants to take a bite out of college basketball.

"I'm hungry," he said over and over again. "Hun-gry. We all are."

Dayton stands on the brink of a pivotal precipice for its program. Almost always a player in the conference talk, the Flyers are trying to do what Xavier already has achieved: become part of the national conversation.

The last time Dayton played in the Sweet 16 was 1984, and it's been six years since the Flyers won the Atlantic 10 tournament. Since the program joined the A-10 in 1995, it has never finished with the league's best record.

Could that change this season?

The Flyers have a bona fide NBA player on the roster in junior forward Chris Wright, experience in the form of six seniors, and consistency with four starters and 10 of their top 11 scorers back. And perhaps most important, while their in-state rivals at Xavier have a new head coach, Dayton re-upped Brian Gregory through 2018.

So really, the question for the Flyers is simple: If not now, when?

"I feel different this year than I did before my sophomore season," Wright said. "I'm not sure what it is, but it's different."

Therein lies the catch to Dayton's push to the top. This will be different. As envious as the Flyers might have been of the recent attention heaped on Xavier, it has allowed them to percolate and grow away from the spotlight.

Last year, the Flyers ditched West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament, their first tourney win since 1990. Dayton was an 11-seed, not expected to topple the more highly regarded Mountaineers of the mighty Big East.

This season? This season, the Flyers are ranked in preseason Top 25 lists galore and are the conference favorites, with their spot on the NCAA bracket already presumed reserved.

"We've never worried about outside expectations before, or lack thereof, but now you have people talking," Gregory said. "You have mothers and fathers and friends, and the local radio guy. It never mattered before as you've been building it, so it can't matter now. Can we do that? That's the part we have to find out."

The players insist it won't, that the blue-collar defense that has become the hallmark of Dayton basketball won't be replaced with a gone-Hollywood attitude. They are grounded and grown up, they argue.

More important, they are still looking for respect. Jump around this team and you will find plenty of chipped shoulders to keep a team humble.

Start with Wright, since that's where everything with the Flyers begins. Last season, the highest-flying Flyer (he has a 39.5-inch vertical leap) led Dayton in scoring, rebounding and double-doubles. Wright made the "SportsCenter" Top 10 list three times, and if he had declared for the NBA draft, he likely would have been a second-round pick.

He also was named to the All-Atlantic 10 squad -- the second-team All-Atlantic 10 squad.

"I worked out harder this summer than I ever did," said Wright, who pushed himself on seven-mile runs in the stifling Atlanta heat. "I had a nice year last year, but there's more here to do."

[+] EnlargeChris Wright and Marcus Johnson
AP Photo/Jim MoneChris Wright (left) and Marcus Johnson (right) are two keys on a team that returns nearly everyone.

Now jump to guard Marcus Johnson. On a team that prides itself for its stingy defense, Johnson could be the stingiest of all. In the final 26 games of last season, he spent 21 of them on his opponent's best scorer. Thanks to Johnson, West Virginia's Alex Ruoff, who averaged 15.7 points per game, had just nine in the NCAA tournament.

Yet Johnson remains best known for a 6-year-old accomplishment. As a freshman, he played on St. Vincent-St. Mary's state championship high school team. He had a teammate by the name of LeBron James.

"It would be nice to do something myself, to not just be the guy who played on LeBron's national championship team," Johnson said. "I'm proud of that, but it's time I was known for something else. That would be good to hear."

And then there's Lowery. The chatterboxing heartbeat of the Flyers missed the final 10 games of last season after injuring his right knee (torn patellar tendon). How valuable is Lowery? With him in the lineup, Dayton was 22-3. Without him, 5-5.

Recently cleared for noncontact drills, Lowery is desperate to get on the court. He spent the spring and summer shooting baskets from his bed and struggling to answer the unanswerable question: "Why me?"

A guy who admits to "not being a real big school guy," Lowery said he was lost without basketball -- although he did bring down a 3.0 for the second semester.

Lowery should be cleared and ready to play full bore by January. In the meantime, he intends to drive his teammates crazy.

"We could be chillin', just playing a video game, and I'll start on them about how special this year can be," Lowery said. "Having basketball taken away from you is so hard, so now when I see a guy and he wants to skip a rep or take a break, I'm on him. You need to cherish this stuff, every second. I don't want guys taking anything for granted, anything at all. I've been out. Trust me, they don't want to be where I was."

Lowery's repeated message apparently has gotten through. The Flyers are well aware that they have a bull's-eye on their back, a target that's never been there before.

They seem OK with it.

"There's a greater confidence with this team," Gregory said. "We have pretty good talent and they believe in the system, so that's added to their comfort, and with that comes self-assuredness.

"But I also sense, I don't want to say anxiety, but they've worked very hard to get to this point, and here it is. It's kind of a gulp. But that's good. That means it's important to them."

Or, as Lowery will tell you, it means they're hungry.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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