In May 2016, Dayton basketball player Steve McElvene was found unresponsive inside of his home in Fort Wayne, Ind. The 20-year-old died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that has taken the lives of many athletes.
McElvene had just finished his second season at Dayton. He did not play as a freshman in 2014-15 but set a school record with 55 blocks in 2015-16.
And then, just like that, he was gone.
“It was very, very difficult, as you can imagine,” Dayton head coach Archie Miller said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I don’t think anyone sort of understands until you’re put in a situation like that. You’re also responsible for a lot of people around you: your staff, their families, our players. You’re usually the one who stands up in front of everybody and says, ‘Hey, this is how it’s going to go. This is what we have to do.’”
Miller is usually good at that. This time, he wasn’t.
“I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know what to say to anyone,” he said. “You look at your assistant coach, (who’s) crying in the office. You look at your players that are floored, some of them for months at a time. To be honest with you, you just had to take a little bit more pride, had to take the foot off the pedal, so to speak, about basketball, and really just try to have it happen naturally where we could become a group that felt good about ourselves again. It took a long time.”
May became June. June became July. July became August. Eventually, practice began for the 2016-17 season, but the void left by McElvene was palpable – and it went beyond the 6.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks he averaged for the Flyers.
“Something was missing,” Miller said. “That cloud just wouldn’t go away.”
Dayton (24-7) started 2-2 before going 22-3 in its next 25 games.
“I think as we started to get into the early part of the season and we started to get into conference (play) around January, our group was together,” Miller said. “We were tough-minded. We were resilient. We were enjoying playing and practicing with one another again. I think it took us a while to sort of get over that. But he’s still here today. Last night at the selection show, there wasn’t one person that didn’t think about him not being there. That’ll be with us forever. But this group has been resilient. I’m really proud of how they’ve handled things. It hasn’t been easy, and our seniors, those guys going out for four straight tournaments – I’m not sure a lot of people thought it was going to be possible in November with what we were dealing with.”
The production and leadership of seniors Charles Cooke (16.1 points per game), Kendall Pollard (14.1) and Scoochie Smith (13.5) cannot be understated. Dayton won the Atlantic-10 regular season championship and received a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“We were thinking more along the lines of like a 9, 10, maybe even an 11,” Miller said. “If you look at VCU and Rhode Island’s seeds, clearly I think our resume was a lot better than maybe we even appreciated it. I guess 12-4 against the top 100 and 4-3 versus the top 50 probably put us in the 7-line. (That’s) probably about as good of a seed I thought we could maybe get.”
The Flyers open the tournament Friday against Wichita State (30-4). Tip-off is at 7:10 p.m. ET.
Miller knows he’s in for a dog fight.
“I think when you play Wichita State, you have to be so prepared to be uncomfortable during the game,” Miller said. “You have to play great. I don’t care who you are. You have to play great when you play them just because of how tough they are. They believe in what they do so much more than who they’re playing against. They believe they’re going to beat you before you walk on to the floor. I felt like our program has been like that as well. Regardless of who we play, if we’re prepared and we’re ready, we can give them a heck of a game. They’re a terrific team.”
A terrific team that many feel is under-seeded.
“They probably, in my opinion, could be a top-four line team when you look at their numbers,” Miller said. “Whatever it may have been in their league or non-conference, there isn’t a team in the country that doesn’t think Wichita State could advance and get into an Elite Eight or Final Four. We believe that as well. Our guys have to be ready to go. You’re going to play against a team that plays with great purpose. That’s what we have to be able to do against them – play with great purpose.”