What’s life without a little adversity?
I can only assume Archie Miller, head coach of the Dayton Flyers men’s basketball team, has been bandying phrases like this around in his head as a way to stay positive through what could politely be described as a tumultuous few years.
Once again, Dayton entered a season with high expectations. Returning almost all of their core players, the Flyers started the year just outside of the Top 25. However, this Saturday’s early-season bout with the No. 18 Saint Mary’s Gaels seemed like the perfect chance for Dayton to prove it belonged among the rest of the ranked teams.
And then came misfortune, Miller’s old friend.
In the waning seconds of this past Tuesday’s win over the Alabama Crimson Tide, forward Josh Cunningham landed awkwardly on his leg after committing the game-sealing dunk. It was such an ugly fall everyone on the floor immediately knew something was wrong. Seen as a crucial piece to the puzzle this year, the Bradley University transfer was eventually diagnosed with bruising in his knee and lower leg. Though there was no ligament damage, his return date is uncertain.
Now, Dayton heads into the marquee match-up with the Gaels without both Cunningham and star forward Kendall Pollard, who’s still recovering from a knee injury himself. As a result, Miller will once again need to roll with the punches and get creative for the Saint Mary’s game and beyond.
As mentioned, life without Cunningham doesn’t exactly get off to the easiest start. The Gaels bring with them junior center Jock Landale, who’s averaging 23.3 PPG this year. At 6-foot-11, the big Australian poses a major threat, a fact he hammered home with a 33-point night against Nevada in the season opener.
Landale makes for a mismatch even with a fully healthy Flyers roster. As it stands, it’s not exactly the ideal situation for a team missing Cunningham and Pollard, therefore needing to rely on the often-questionable defense of sophomore Sam Miller.
Unfortunately, these are just the cards Dayton’s coach was dealt. Pollard will eventually return, but the loss of Cunningham significantly hurts the Flyers’ front-court depth. It’s yet another hurdle Miller has to guide his team around.
If there’s any silver lining in this situation, though, it’s that he has plenty of experience in handling obstacles like this before.
It’s an impressive feat that Miller has this team ready to make another tourney run in the first place, especially after he and his players already suffered a physical and emotional loss with the offseason death of center Steve McElvene. Playing through the pain of losing a teammate is already enough for any college player to deal with, yet Miller is doing everything he can to ensure this team still maximizes its full potential.
The setbacks from losing Cunningham also bring to mind Dayton’s 2014-15 season, during which the team was forced to dismiss center Devon Scott and backup Jalen Robinson for trespassing and theft. The losses left the Flyers without a single player over 6-foot-6, and should’ve derailed their season.
Instead, Dayton rattled off eight straight wins after Scott and Robinson were removed, finishing the year with a 25-8 record. Despite utilizing a six-to-seven man rotation and being out-sized by nearly every opponent, Miller somehow brought his team within the brink of another Sweet 16 berth.
So, while Cunningham’s loss is a significant blow, and both his and Pollard’s absence this Saturday will be extremely difficult to handle, Miller’s resume proves he’s capable of overcoming.
The Flyers still have a sizable amount of talent on the roster, which will now be leaned on more than ever. If Miller can once again survive another major loss, it will just be more proof he’s the perfect coach for a team which continues to see its fair share of adversity.