MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Matt Kavanaugh has watched over the past several years as mid-major programs like Butler, VCU and George Mason have made runs to the Final Four.
The 6-foot-10 Dayton center said the Flyers would be a good addition to that list.
But another upstart double-digit seed stands in the way of that dream.
No. 11 Dayton (25-10) faces No. 10 Stanford (23-12) on Thursday in the Sweet 16 of the South Region with the winner earning a shot at playing for a spot in the Final Four.
“Every year there’s that one team in the like final eight, Final Four that no one expected to be there, and that’s been our mantra like ‘Why can’t that be us this year?’” Kavanaugh said.
Both have reached this point by winning games against favored opponents. Dayton toppled Ohio State and Syracuse. Stanford foiled New Mexico and Kansas.
Now they’re into the second weekend of the tournament and ready to prove the early upsets were no fluke.
Stanford forward Josh Huestis says his team has never considered itself a long shot. The Cardinal have had plenty of big wins this season — even before the NCAA tournament — beating teams like UConn, Oregon and UCLA during the regular season.
“Coach (Johnny Dawkins) always tells us that there are only a handful of teams that come into this tournament thinking they have a chance to win,” Huestis said. “The rest of them are just happy to be here. We pride ourselves on being a team that believes we can win this whole thing.”
Stanford certainly looked capable when it stunned Kansas last weekend. The Cardinal defense held the Jayhawks’ freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins to just four points on 1 of 6 shooting.
Dawkins said the postseason has brought out the best in his veteran team, which starts three juniors and two seniors.
“What we’ve done very well the last several games is we defended at a high, high level every possession,” Dawkins said. “We always talk about the importance of defending every possession. It’s one thing to say that — it’s another thing to go out and execute it.”
Dayton hopes to use its deep bench to wear down Stanford. Flyers’ coach Archie Miller uses an 11-man rotation to keep players fresh for the team’s aggressive defense, which smothered Ohio State and Syracuse during the opening weekend.
Dayton’s balanced offense is led by 6-4 guard Jordan Sibert, who is averaging 13.1 points and shooting nearly 51 percent in March. But the Flyers’ production is liable to come from anywhere — 11 different players have scored in double figures this season.
Stanford is heavily reliant on just a six-man rotation. Chasson Randle, the Cardinal’s star 6-foot-2 guard who scored 23 points against New Mexico and 13 against Kansas, has played all 40 minutes in both games.
But Miller said NCAA tournament games — with their frequent TV timeouts — would mitigate much of that advantage.
“I’m not sure if depth’s really an issue,” Miller said. “I think, once you get late in the year, you’re fresh. You’re not talking about it a lot. When you’re on this stage, it is adrenaline.”
Stanford’s main advantage over Dayton is its size. Of the Cardinal’s six most-used players, five of them stand at least 6-6 and three are 6-10 or taller. Miller acknowledged Stanford would present some matchup problems, but was confident his team could handle it.
Dayton is the Atlantic 10′s lone representative in the Sweet 16 after six teams received a tournament bid. The Flyers have won 12 of their last 14 games.
“Ohio State was big. Syracuse was really big,” Miller said. “We’ve played Gonzaga and Cal and Baylor. They were big. It’s not really about playing against big people. It’s about executing your system versus the different styles you play against.”