MEMPHIS — They grouped around the free throw line, draping arms over shoulders and swaying slowly from side to side, the same way they began all of their other games during this magical ride.
But as the lineups were announced here Thursday night for the South Region semifinal between 11th-seeded Dayton and No. 10 seed Stanford, a small hole opened in the circle and each Flyers starter jogged toward midcourt for recognition. The NCAA had mandated this last part, and every player wished they could just stay linked in the huddle like they had all season.
Long before becoming the NCAA tournament’s latest Cinderella story by reaching its first Elite Eight in three decades, Dayton took the unique step of forgoing traditional pregame introductions in the interest of camaraderie.
Instead of having each starter run through a gauntlet of reserves as his name is called, the Flyers huddle together as one. The intent was to get them to stop worrying about who started. It wound up symbolizing their season.
“When you have somebody running out, it’s like the spotlight on them,” reserve Jalen Robinson said Friday, one day before the Flyers would take on top-seeded Florida (35-2) in the region final. “When you huddle up, you show you’re together as a team. I think it was a good idea.”
Coach Archie Miller came up with the idea last summer, when he looked at the roster and envisioned a deep rotation with no firm starting lineup. Last season, Dayton lost seven games by three points or fewer. Miller needed closers, he told himself. Not starters.
“The more attention you take away from individuals and put on the team, eventually what ends up happening is it becomes who you are,” the 35-year-old, third-year coach said.
So Miller eliminated that problem at the outset, which some players found strange. They always had begun home games with their names booming over the public-address system and their faces flashing onto the video board, all eyes on them. Why change?
“Then a couple games in it really grew on us,” center Matt Kavanaugh said. “We embraced it.”
A long line of similar bonding activities has drawn the Flyers (26-10) closer together as their season improbably carries on. They all live in the same apartment building and often dine together. On the road, they go to the movies. Over winter break, they gathered together for Xbox tournaments on the deserted campus, like they were kings of the place.
Contrast that with Thursday night, when students on campus took to the streets to celebrate after Dayton beat Stanford and advanced to the Elite Eight.
In Memphis, scores of Flyers faithful flooded Beale Street, rejoicing together just like the players had done moments before, after 12 of them played and 11 scored against Stanford.
“I think that’s why we’re getting attention,” freshman guard Scoochie Smith said, “because nobody wants the attention.”
It echoed the principles Miller installed this season, which have since carried the team through the NCAA tournament. In the postseason, he has leaned on reserves like freshman Kendall Pollard, who in mid-February logged one minute in consecutive games. On Thursday, he received a balanced 21 minutes from redshirt senior Vee Sanford, a Georgetown transfer who started all 31 games last season but welcomed a bench role this year.
“A lot of people have one superstar or two great players and the rest of the people are just looking at them,” Robinson said. “It’s not like one person is getting 20 or 25 and the rest have four or five. It’s balanced. Across the line it’s 14, 13, 10, 8, 7, 6, 5. Everyone has an impact on the game and everyone always has their moments in the game. That’s the difference between us and every other team.”
That and the pregame huddle, which before the Stanford game was more serious than usual. Robinson has been known to crack the tension by hopping into the middle and dancing, but he did nothing of the sort on Thursday. Forwards Devin Oliver and Devon Scott typically handle the pep talks, yet from afar they seemed silent as the group rocked back and forth.
When introductions were finished, the huddle tightened. The arms rose up. A few words of inspiration were said. Then it was time to work.
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