This NCAA men’s tournament has been a source both of exasperation and elation, so far. There are some perennial power conference contenders still standing, but also some upstarts who have laid waste to professional statisticians and hobbyist bracket-eers alike.
But for their loyal fans, double-digit seeds such as the the "Cinderella" Dayton Flyers, the 10th -seeded Stanford Cardinal and the 11th -seeded Tennessee Volunteers are the source of unexpected jubilation.
One of the most talked about matchups of this round features two upset specialists from the South Region - Stanford, who defeated New Mexico and Kansas, and 11th -seeded Dayton, who has felled, in succession, Division 1 powerhouses Ohio State and Syracuse. Stanford has proven itself less of an underdog than many might think - having defeated the University of Connecticut, Oregon and U.C.L.A. this season. But they have never met Dayton in a game before, and that’s where it gets interesting.
Stanford defeated Kansas by shutting down its premier shooting guard, Andrew Wiggins - holding him to four points and no three-pointers. This was largely a result of Stanford’s aggressive 2-3 zone defense, which effectively boxed out the Jayhawks’ big men on the inside, while baffling their outside shooters. Look for the Cardinal to rely on that again tonight.
Dayton’s hopes lie largely on their 11-man rotation that coach Archie Miller deploys in waves, not unlike a hockey team. Their defense is typically well-rested in addition to relentless. But the Flyers’ scoring also is balanced - with eleven different players who have achieved more than ten points per game this season.
Three of the Dayton players to watch closely are Devin Oliver, Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre―the Flyers’ best scorers. Shooting from the outside, they will have to contend with a big Stanford front court. The Cardinal, on the other hand, have four players who typically score in double-digits - led by guard Chasson Randle, who’s averaged over 18 points per game on the season.
Ordinarily, the Cardinal doesn’t turn the ball over a lot. But if Dayton’s defense is as persistent as it was against Syracuse, it could make life difficult for Stanford, who had their problems against Kansas’s full-court press.
Archie Miller, the young coach of the Flyers, comes from a winning tradition in his family - his older brother Sean is head coach of Pac-12 power Arizona. On the other bench, Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins originally came to the Cardinal from an assistant coaching job at Duke and, after four losses in the team’s last seven games - on top of no March tournament appearance last year - he was rumored to be on the way out. But with Stanford’s resiliency this postseason, Dawkins’ fortunes have improved dramatically.
This game will go to the wire and come down to who controls tempo. If Stanford’s zone defense is as effective as it was last week, the Cardinal should take it. But if Dayton can keep its players fresh and hold Stanford big men Stefan Nastic, Josh Huestis and reserve power forward John Gage off the boards - while pestering Randle and the rest of Stanford’s back court, the Flyers should edge past.