By Jeff Louderback
Fresh from hosting another enormously successful First Four, Dayton continues to bask in the notoriety of being a feverish college basketball town.
Few cities its size call two Division I programs home. And, yes, there are TWO Division I programs in the Miami Valley – the longstanding veteran University of Dayton Flyers and the younger yet flourishing Wright State University Raiders.
Now that their respective 2018-2019 campaigns are completed, UD and Wright State are preparing for next season. Will it include a return of the Gem City Jam? That remains to be seen, but there is no valid reason why UD and Wright State should not meet in an annual clash that would further bolster the Miami Valley college hoops allure.
Every school benefits from an in-town or regional rival. Duke has North Carolina. Kansas has Kansas State. Michigan has Michigan State. Kentucky has Louisville. Indiana has Purdue. Look no further than an hour south to find what the Gem City Jam could emulate in the Crosstown Shootout between Cincinnati and Xavier, minus the occasional brawls, of course.
Wright State’s most intense rival right now is Horizon League competitor Northern Kentucky. UD’s chief rival? Considering that Xavier is no longer on the schedule, the Flyers have nobody. VCU and Davidson are consistently among the top programs in the Atlantic 10, but matchups against them don’t bring to mind the old classics with DePaul, Notre Dame and Marquette. Sure, UD and St. Louis have met for years, but you can count on one hand and still have three fingers left the number of UD fans who eagerly anticipate the opening tip against the Billikens. Ditto for Duquesne, another longtime Flyers’ opponent.
UD schedules non-conference games like Coppin State, Fort Wayne, Presbyterian, Georgia Southern and even Horizon League’s Detroit Mercy, yet it is unwilling to schedule a series with Wright State that would alternate between the UD Arena and the Nutter Center.
Wright State and UD need each other. The Atlantic 10 is a tier above the Horizon League, but without Xavier, the conference lacks a high-profile opponent that ignites UD fans. Though Northern Kentucky has swiftly emerged as a quality program, the Horizon League has no other school that remotely matches the intensity Wright State saw when Butler was a member.
Wright State athletic director Bob Grant has long said that he would like to see the Gem City Jam revived, and the Raiders welcome an annual meeting with UD as long as the rivalry alternates between the UD Arena and Nutter Center. UD and Wright State have met eight times with the Flyers holding a 5-3 series lead. Five of those games were played at UD Arena with the other three at the Nutter Center.
Gem City Jam
|March 5, 1988||Dayton||L 71–89|
|January 6, 1990||Dayton||W 101–99|
|December 11, 1993||Dayton||L 56–83|
|January 8, 1994||Wright State||W 77–65|
|December 12, 1994||Wright State||W 74–53|
|December 9, 1995||Dayton||L 80–98|
|January 9, 1997||Wright State||L 63–72|
|December 13, 1997||Dayton||L 63–94|
During the years when Ralph Underhill transformed Wright State into a Division II powerhouse, the Raiders clamored for a chance to play UD. At the time, during the late 70s and early 80s, the Flyers were perennial NCAA or NIT participants, and Don Dohoher was every bit as legendary as rival coaches Digger Phelps at Notre Dame, Ray Meyer at DePaul, and Al McGuire at Marquette.
Call us when you become a Division I program, and we’ll play you, is what Donoher politely told Wright State. UD’s reasoning that it had everything to lose and nothing to gain by scheduling Wright State was understandable back then. That thinking is no longer relevant today.
In three campaigns under Scott Nagy, Wright State has logged records of:
- 20-12 with no post-season bid in 2016-2017
- 25-10 with a Horizon League tournament title and an NCAA bid in 2017-2018
- 21-14 with a Horizon League regular season championship and an NIT bid this season
In two seasons under head coach Anthony Grant, UD has recorded marks of:
- 14-17 and no post-season bid in 2017-2018
- 21-12 and an NIT bid this season
In the Ken Pomeroy Ratings this season, UD finished 61 while the Raiders were at 121 out of 353 Division I schools. UD hosted non-conference games against Western Carolina (277), Coppin State (342) and Fort Wayne (190).
UD has not reached expectations in two seasons with Grant. Wright State has yet to get that signature post-season victory to propel it to the next level (like Butler, Loyola and even Murray State). Yet both are quality programs. Facing each other every season would bolster their non-conference schedules because it would replace a mind-numbing match-up with a cream puff.
Wins over Presbyterian, Coppin State, North Florida and Western Carolina don’t exactly impress the NCAA selection committee or create added passion for basketball in the Miami Valley. And chances are, off the record, Nagy and (Bob) Grant would say they prefer meeting UD instead of Northwestern Ohio, North Florida and Western Carolina.
Even when one or both programs are projected to have down years, the Gem City Jam would provide a spark – the kind of game where coaches, players and fans alike would say, ‘We might not win 20 games this season, and we might not even win 15, but we better win this one!’” If Wright State and UD clash next season, it will feature two teams with lofty hopes.
Wright State returns Loudon Love, Cole Gentry, Bill Wampler, Skyelar Potter and Malachi Smith, and they will be joined by two players who were injured this season but have high ceilings in Jaylon Hall and Grant Basile. Nagy and his staff are excited about their incoming freshman as well, a class led by 6-foot-6 small forward Tanner Holden of Wheelersburg (Ohio) and 6-foot-2 shooting guard Andre Harris of Lyndhurst (Ohio) Brush. Wright State will have talent and depth in 2019-2020 and be projected to once again battle with Northern Kentucky for the Horizon League championship.
UD welcomes back Obi Toppin, Jalen Crutcher, Wayne’s Trey Landers and St. Henry’s Ryan Mikesell along with transfers Chase Johnson (6-foot-9 forward from the University of Florida), Jordy Tshimanga (6-foot-11 center from Nebraska University), Ibi Watson (6-foot-5 guard from the University of Michigan) and Rodney Chatman (6-foot-1 guard from Chattanooga). The Flyers have one scholarship available with the transfer of Jordan Davis, and they are in the running for Sinclair Community College sharpshooter Sean McNeil.
Since the Gem City Jam was last played in 1997, UD’s reasons for not scheduling Wright State and alternating between the UD Arena and Nutter Center essentially remain (in paraphrased form):
- “Find someone else to sell out the Nutter Center.”
- “We don’t want to give you PR.”
- “We don’t have anything to gain.”
Again, those beliefs were logical when Wright State was a Division II school, and even a fledgling Division I program, yet the Raiders are now a quality mid-major team and are legitimate contenders for a post-season bid every year. The school has an exciting upside with Nagy and his staff.
Evidently, the sticking point for a Gem City Jam revival is the contract. UD reportedly wants two or three years at UD Arena for every year the game would be played at the Nutter Center. Wright State’s answer has been, “Um, no thanks.” And that is the appropriate response.
Let’s face it – UD is not Duke, UK, Ohio State or even Cincinnati. The Flyers are a reputable and storied mid-major program. There is nothing wrong with that. They are not leaps and bounds above Wright State as they were in the 70s.
Just as the coaching staffs at UC and Xavier understand, sometimes you will win the rivalry, and sometimes you will lose. When you win, it’s exhilarating. When you lose, it’s agonizing. Yet, year after year, it is something extra for coaches, players and fans to feel excited about. Winning the Gem City Jam. Capturing the regular season conference title and the conference tournament championship. Earning a bid to the Big Dance and advancing. Those would be the ultimate objectives each season for UD and Wright State, if the Gem City Jam returns.
Do we really want to see the Coppin States and Western Carolinas of Division I basketball at the UD Arena and/or Nutter Center if one of those games could be replaced with a showdown that brings March Madness-esque hysteria in the non-conference portion of the season? Wright State has said it will play UD as long as the game is held one year at UD Arena and the next year at its own home. Likely, Wright State would even be willing to appease the Flyers and play the first rematch at UD Arena. The basketball frenzied Miami Valley region awaits. There are no valid reasons not to bring back this rivalry. The ball is in UD’s court. Will the Flyers accept the challenge?