Have you ever read the story of David and Goliath? Surely you know the tale, but have you ever actually read it?
We talk with such reverence in sports vernacular whenever a David has the opportunity to slay a Goliath; when a team with no business being in a fight not only finds itself facing an enormous physical task in thwarting a giant, but accomplishes the unexpected in a moment set with great stakes for both sides.
We love these truly rare moments in sports when one of the little guys has a chance to take down one of the biggest, especially when everything—to borrow back another sports cliche—is on the line.
Yes, the Dayton Flyers come from the Atlantic 10, which had twice as many NCAA tournament bids as the SEC conference the Florida Gators swept this season. But a team with just two tournament bids in a decade and five tickets to the Big Dance since the start of the 1990s are every bit the little guy as Florida—35-2 and top-ranked in the country for the final month of the regular season—is the giant.
Dayton even sounds a bit like David, an utter coincidence that conspires to make the Flyers that much more of a plucky underdog in this narrative. And while Florida does not elicit all the characteristics of a traditional Goliath, the Gators have become a nearly insurmountable powerhouse this season, winning 35 of their 37 contests, including 29 in a row to reach this point in the postseason.
Saturday's Elite Eight match up that will crown a champion in the NCAA South region is just sixth meeting between a No. 1 seed and a No. 11 seed in NCAA tournament history, with the best team in the bracket winning just two of the previous five encounters. Add this to the list of David vs. Goliath stories in a long history of similar games that make the NCAA tournament so unique and exciting. Just very few happen this far along in the tournament.
David vs. Goliath. Dayton vs. the Gators. It's as good a story as any this college basketball season.
But, wait. Have you ever read the actual story? Here is one translation, pulled from an old book that sits upon my shelf, passed down through two generations:
And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.
So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.
Therefore David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.
That…is gruesome. But in a basketball context, the narrative actually works. Look at the passage again—I Samuel 18, 49-51 for those playing at home—and try to relate the imagery using hoops terminology.
Dayton needs to hit shots, particularly from distance, and attack what makes the Gators go. In other words, watch out Scottie Wilbekin, the Flyers will be looking to cut you off wherever you go.
Dayton vs. Tournament Goliaths
It's not as if the Flyers haven't had practice in this NCAA tournament going up against some of the most talented guards in the country.
Dayton faced Ohio State and Aaron Craft in the second round, and while Craft did manage 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, he also recorded five of the Buckeyes' 14 turnovers and was beaten on defense on Vee Sanford's game-winning layup seconds before Dayton's defense did just enough to force Craft's last-second miss that would have put Dayton out of the tournament early. Goliath No. 1 was slain.
Granted, the Flyers didn't exactly cut off the Buckeyes' head, but they still did enough to win the battle.
A round later, Dayton faced another top guard in Syracuse phenom Tyler Ennis. Ennis led the Orange in scoring with 19 points, but hit just 7 of his 21 shots from the field while being limited to three—of only four—assists for Syracuse.
Syracuse shot under 39 percent from the field against Dayton, with just two players—Ennis and C.J. Fair—scoring in double figures.
Just like in the first game against Ohio State, Dayton found a way to survive late against the Orange, as Ennis missed his final two shots of the game—one with eight seconds to go and, after a trip to the foul line for Dayton, his final attempt as the buzzer sounded—that would have put Syracuse through over Dayton. Goliath No. 2…slain.
Dayton survived two fights with tournament giants before facing another team from a power conference in Stanford, far from a traditional giant in a basketball sense, but battle-tested in a tough league, nonetheless.
Dayton played a near-perfect game in the Sweet 16, efficiently working through Stanford's defense to the tune of 82 points—the 13th time the Flyers have scored 80 or more this season—shooting nearly 47 percent from the field in the first half before bettering that mark by hitting for 50 percent of the team's shots in the second half.
Dayton shot 48.3 percent from the field against Stanford, limiting the Cardinal to just 37.9 percent on the other end. Dayton had more points in the paint and scored more second-chance points than Stanford as well. The Flyers bench outpaced Stanford's to the tune of 34-2, with 11 different players scoring at least two points and nine logging at least 10 minutes for Archie Miller's squad.
Stanford's last lead came midway through the first half at 19-18, and the Cardinal never got closer than within four points in the second half, spending much of the game down by double digits or more.
After two close encounters with Goliaths, Dayton got a relatively easy fight against Stanford. The Flyers should not expect the same against Florida.
Goliath's Gator Brain
By contrast, Florida really hasn't had a close game in the NCAA tournament yet.
The Gators have flexed their top-ranked muscle through three rounds, struggling a bit to thwart a sprightly Albany squad by 12 before dispatching a tough Pittsburgh team—the Panthers had beaten their second-round opponent 77-48 before facing the Gators—by 16 points to advance to the Sweet 16 with relative ease.
Florida's win over UCLA was far from easy, falling behind early before taking a 36-30 halftime lead. The Gators pounced on the Bruins early in the second half, extending their lead to 11 points with just under 16 minutes left, making another Florida win seem rather secure.
UCLA fought back, however, capitalizing on several Florida miscues in the second half to cut the Gators' lead to just one with 10 minutes to play.
Finally, Florida had a game that would go down to the wire.
Florida outscored UCLA 23-13 in the final 10 minutes of Thursday's game, led by Wilbekin, who paced the Gators down the stretch with eight points and one assist.
Wilbekin is an extension of his head coach on the court, adeptly running Billy Donovan's offense while leading one of the top pressure defenses in the entire country.
Wilbekin's stats won't really wow anyone who is just looking at the box score. He shoots under 41 percent from the floor, averaging just over 13 points per game. He has a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio and has nearly as many steals (51) as turnovers (55) this season, which is fine, but not exactly leading the country in any of them.
He's also just a 72 percent free-throw shooter, which, on Florida, might as well be 1,000 percent, but it's hardly a lock-down, game-ending rate.
But when you watch the kid play—when you watch the entire Florida team do everything it can to get the opponent out of its rhythm—you see what Wilbekin and his teammates are capable of doing to Dayton, or anyone they might face in the Final Four.
Smote and Slew Goliath
For Dayton to reach the Final Four, there is just one more giant in its way. Unfortunately for the Flyers, Florida is the biggest and baddest Goliath they will face all tournament long. That could be good if the Flyers actually advance but grim in terms of realistically expecting to do so.
Dayton needs to find a way to—figuratively of course—cut off what makes Florida go.
If the Flyers can get to Wilbekin, they might have a chance to knock the rest of the Gators down as well. Just like David in that fabled tale from that dusty old book on my shelf, the Flyers will need all the courage they can muster. After all, they only get one shot, so they better not miss.