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Chicago should take a flyer on Dayton

CHICAGO -- It's the third week of March, so we're days away from the one-year anniversary of Jabari Parker losing his only NCAA tournament game with Duke to Mercer.

Good news, though. While Parker is rehabbing a torn ACL in Milwaukee, he has a new Gatorade commercial, and he's really rich.

Kendrick Nunn, Parker's running mate at Simeon Career Academy, had a quick exit in his second consecutive trip to the Not Invited Tournament, as the Fighting Illini were blown out by Alabama on Tuesday. He's doing well but still waiting for his first trip to the NCAA tournament.

Their old school, Simeon, lost a super-sectional playoff game and the right to go downstate Tuesday.

As for their former Simeon teammate, Kendall Pollard, he's right where they left him, playing a major role for a postseason team.

Pollard, a three-time state champion, is getting ready for another trip to the NCAA tournament with the University of Dayton, the tournament darling that made a surprise Elite Eight run last year. Pollard wasn't surprised with the team's performance last season. He thought they were going to the Final Four.

"In high school, we went downstate like it was part of our season," he said in a phone conversation. "That's how I want it to be here."

Pollard, a sophomore forward, wasn't the biggest name at Simeon -- ESPN ranked Parker and Nunn as the top two players in the state in the Class of 2013 -- but now he's come into his own playing for the Atlantic-10 program coming off an Elite Eight run. He's the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder and the conference's most improved player.

He's a guy to root for starting Wednesday evening.

Yes, it's another year without an Illinois team in the NCAA tournament. Knock us over with a feather.

But fear not, partisans. Chicagoans such as Pollard litter other teams.

In fact, I don't think any team has a bigger percentage of Chicagoans in its regular rotation than the undersized, undermanned, undeterred Dayton Flyers. Three of their seven rotation players hail from Chicagoland. Valparaiso is right there with them, with three of eight players having Chicago ties.

Pollard and sophomore guard Kyle Davis (Morgan Park/Hyde Park) start for Dayton, while third-year walk-on Bobby Wehrli (Naperville) plays around 14 minutes per game off the bench.

Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky (Lisle), Duke's Jahlil Okafor (Chicago) and Kentucky's Tyler Ulis (Chicago Heights) are fantastic talents with strong odds of making the Final Four. Notre Dame and Valparaiso are representing nearby Indiana. But if you have that Chicago basketball pride, root a little for Dayton, which has to play in the "First Four" on Wednesday evening at home.

If Dayton (25-8, runner-up in the A-10 tournament) beats Boise State, it gets a date with No. 6 seed Providence in Columbus, Ohio.

Dayton is a fun story if you're into underdogs. Flyers coach Archie Miller kicked off his starting center Devon Scott and his backup Jalen Robinson for a reported dorm room theft incident in mid-December.

With virtually no subs and no one taller than 6-foot-6, the Flyers responded to that change by winning eight in a row. Then one of their few reserves, guard Ryan Bass, was ruled out for the season in early January with concussion symptoms. Now, it's just Wehrli and Darrell Davis off the bench.

The team was led by Jordan Sibert, a 6-foot-4 guard who averaged 16.5 points per game and made the A-10's first team. Dyshawn Pierre, a 6-foot-6 forward who averaged 12.7 points and 8.2 rebounds, made the second team.

"Every coach dreams of coaching a connected group with great chemistry," Miller said in a phone conversation. "That's what we achieved through adversity."

Davis and Pollard found themselves playing around 30 minutes per game. Last season, Pollard averaged just 8.5 minutes and 2.2 points per game. Davis averaged 6.8 minutes and 2 points.

Pollard said he worked on his body in the summer, while Davis was limited after wrist surgery. Both thrived with more responsibility.

Pollard was recently named the most improved player in the A-10, after averaging 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 28.9 minutes per game. He shot 57.3 percent from the floor. He also made the A-10 all-tournament team.

"Kendall played with really great teams," Miller said. "He was never coddled or treated like a rock star. He never asked -- just earned stuff. That's why I call him a throwback. He never expects to be given anything."

During recruiting, Miller said he thought Pollard wanted to make his name away from his Simeon teammates.

"I feel like I've been under the radar since seventh grade," Pollard said.

A weekend after Parker's amateur career ended last season, Pollard scored 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting in Dayton's Sweet 16 win over Stanford.

"Kendall, the bigger the lights, the more he's ready," Miller said. "He's fearless."

Miller, a gutty former point guard from a basketball family in Pittsburgh, said Pollard "has the ability to get fouled more than anybody I've been around."

He appreciates how Pollard plays, both physically and mentally, in the paint.

Of course, he shoots only 58.4 percent from the line. But he gives a team with no one taller than 6-foot-6 a little heft.

"I'm close to 6-[foot]-7," Pollard said with a laugh.

Davis, a 6-footer, was a big scorer in high school -- 21 points per game as a senior -- but now he's averaging a more modest 7.4 points per game and is best known as a lockdown guard.

"We ask [Davis] to do dirty jobs," Miller said recently. "We ask him to do a lot of things a lot of guys aren't capable of or want to do, and he wants to do them. I think you've watched him really blossom. He doesn't look like a sophomore. When you watch him, he looks like an upperclassman. He's got a great toughness about him. He's one of the reasons our defense is good. When he's good, we can be really good."

Davis said he doesn't think of himself any differently than he did in high school. He just takes pride in what he can do.

"Coach told me my assignment is to guard the best player on the team," he said. "I take it personally every night."

Both Davis and Pollard think their background in the Chicago Public League prepared them for the A-10, a rough-and-tumble league filled with tournament-ready teams.

"In the Chicago Public League, we played against good opponents every night," said Davis, who transferred from Hyde Park Academy to Morgan Park his senior year. "It was a physical battle every night. Now that we're in college, it's the same thing."

Asked what they miss about Chicago, Pollard and Davis shouted into Davis' phone in unison: "The food!"

Not surprisingly, Portillo's and Harold's were the first two restaurant names off their tongues.

"We don't even have a White Castle in Dayton," Pollard said with a tinge of sadness.

Asked about the "Chicago toughness" cliché, Davis and Pollard said everyone on their team is tough, regardless of geography.

"We're so small, we have no choice," he said.

Dayton's lack of depth makes the Flyers a great story but a risky proposition in the tournament. They're not a great 3-point shooting team, and they were 300th in the country in rebounding. But they have guys who can score in a variety of ways, and they play stingy defense.

They're underdogs.

Yes, this is your type of team, Chicago.