Indiana State, sans Larry Bird, gives the Flyers a stern test on opening night, in the ‘new’ arena, with a lot of new faces on the floor and a ton of anticipation in the stands.
Hype is terribly difficult to live up to and for proof just ask this year’s Cleveland Browns.
The UD roster is overstuffed with what most believe is an overabundance of talent. Until proven otherwise, that is hype.
And hype is terribly difficult to live up to and for proof just ask the Alabama and Penn State football teams the morning after.
The hype for the Flyers shows up even before they take the floor. The pre-game introduction consists of lights out and swinging spotlights sweeping the new Arena floor. The team logo in shows up in red in the middle of the playing surface. And the ear-shattering music that rumbles in your rib cage lasts forever.
It’s the kind of intro where you expect the emperor of Rome to show up, not a college basketball team.
Well, the Flyers showed up Saturday night at the all dressed-up UD Arena for the debut of their 2019-20 season.
They played Indiana State, the school attended by Larry Bird, the self-proclaimed Hick from French Lick.
Bird is long, long gone, but Indiana State, picked to finish in the lower echelon of the Missouri Valley Conference, gave the Flyers more than a couple of handful of problems before bowing out, 86-81,
Fortunately for the Flyers, their most hyped player, Obi Toppin, was as advertised, with some bonus coupons to go with him.
He scored 29 points, snagged 12 rebounds and distributed three assists. And just when the Flyers needed him most, he was here, there and everywhere.
He scored eight of the first 12 UD points, a couple of baskets with thunderous dunks, then sort of slinked into the darkness.
The Flyers constructed a 10-point lead midway through the second half. Then the Sycamores came out of the trees and were within five with eight minutes left.
It was Toppin Time.
He scored 10 points in the final six minutes to keep the Flyers a step or a half-step ahead.
The Flyers led 72-69 when Toppin hit a three from the right corner, his only three of the night. Then he slammed home a dunk on a lob pass from his best friend and roommate Jalen Crutcher.
Then he made three free throws, the last two with 41 seconds left to give the Flyers an 81-76 lead.
It was the least he could do for his mother.
“My mother (Roni) was at the game and it is her birthday, so I had to put on a show for her,” said Toppin. “What did I get her? A bunch of dunks.”
And he said he had another gift for her when he took her out to dinner after the game.
About taking over the proceedings when the Flyers needed him most, Toppin said, “It wasn’t a plan. It was just my teammates finding me on the inside. They did a lot of things. Jalen (Crutcher) and Rodney (Chapman) made everybody collapse on them, which left me open. I have to give credit to my teammates because they did a lot to help me achieve what I’ve achieved.”
Asked about all the high expectations swirling around him, Toppin said, “I don’t feel any pressure. It’s just basketball. I’ve been through so much in my life, this is just me playing basketball. I don’t feel any pressure.”
Toppin made 10 of his 16 shots and 8 of 11 free throws. Take those away from the rest of the Flyers and it was a rough night. The rest shot 19 for 44 from the field and 11 for 19 from the foul line. And after Toppin’s 12 rebounds, nobody else had more than four.
Mix in a 7 for 27 night from the three-point line and it seems the Flyers still need some tweaks and twists while shooting beyond the line that the NCAA extended this year to match the international game.
Nevertheless, coach Anthony Grant seemed more upbeat than one might expect after a narrow victory that wasn’t picturesque.
“This is a group that has to learn and understand that in college basketball you have to play it through all the way,” he said. “We built a double-digit lead at the 12-minute mark. Then it changed from a defensive standpoint. They got a lot of threes.”
The Sycamores hit a trio of three-point shots and a conventional drive-and-one three-point play.
“Then they got to the rim, they got to the free throw line and they had success in the last 12 minutes,” Grant added. “Our team has to understand that we have enough talent offensively, where on any given night we have a variety of guys that can step up for us. OK?
“Our commitment is what we have to do from a defensive standpoint,” he said. “The focus of our defense will determine how special this team has a chance to be.”
Grant said there were things he saw that were keepers, “Things we can take away from tonight that were good. You have to give Indiana State credit. They have some good players. They made some timely plays and some threes. They took advantage of some things we have to get better at.”
Crutcher contributed 14 points and six assists, mostly to Toppin.
“Me and Jalen got a connection,” said Toppin. “Me and him are like twins. We have that same mindset. We can just look at each other and know what we’re thinking. We’re brothers, we’re roommates, we’re real close.”
Said Crutcher, “All he said is very true. We’re roommates and we do everything together. We go everywhere together. We even know what each other wants to eat when we’re hungry. We’ve been hanging out together since they first day we arrived on campus as freshmen.”
Ryan Mikesell and newcomer Rodney Chapman each chipped in with 12 points. But it was the Toppin-Crutcher combination that carried this day for the Flyers.
Grant, though, sees improvement in Toppin’s game and says, “It’s maturity. He understands the game better. He is a year older. As a freshman every experience you have is a new experience. This is his second time around and he is able to take advantage of some things as an older, more mature guy.
“I was proud of our guys tonight that they understood that Obi had some advantages and we were able to exploit that,” said Grant.
Most of all, though, Toppin knew that when it is momma’s birthday and momma is in the stands, she deserves a heavy dose of something special.