Ibi Watson’s last game at Michigan was on college basketball’s biggest stage, falling to Villanova in the 2018 national championship.
But as the Pickerington, Ohio, resident decided to transfer closer to home to Dayton over a couple other Midwest mid-majors, Watson frankly thought his Final Four days might be behind him.
He’s hoping to prove himself wrong over the next couple of months.
Watson and the Flyers are everyone’s hot pick for a Final Four run, compiling a 21-2 record and ranked sixth nationally in the Associated Press and coaches polls.
“When I first decided to transfer, I definitely wasn’t expecting this type of national recognition and stuff like that,” Watson told The Detroit News in a recent phone call. “I understood how difficult it was to get there. The fact that there’s so many great teams that don’t even get there. So I felt like there was always a possibility, but it wasn’t something that I was like, sure of.”
The more and more wins piled up by coach Anthony Grant’s team, the more and more the Dayton Flyers are looking like a sure thing.
Watson, who sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules and has another year of eligibility remaining, is Dayton’s third-leading scorer at 11.3 points per game. He’s a candidate for Atlantic 10 Conference Sixth Man of the Year, and Watson has a bunch of fans in Ann Arbor who are thrilled for his opportunity and success.
“He be balling, man,” Michigan forward Isaiah Livers said after Saturday’s win against Michigan State. “I talk to him every day. I see his highlights. We all knew he could do it. Some guys just need a change of scenery, and I think that was very good for him.”
At Michigan, Watson received limited minutes in two seasons, averaging 2.2 points, 0.8 rebounds and 5.2 minutes per game as a sophomore. In his final game for the Wolverines, Watson scored two points in one minute against Villanova.
“That could wear guys down, especially not getting the minutes you think you deserve,” Livers said.
Livers said Watson’s play style didn’t quite mesh with what coach John Beilein wanted to do, but Livers credited his former teammate's resilience. Watson worked as hard as anyone, Livers said, despite playing behind Jordan Poole, who became a first-round pick by the Golden State Warriors.
While Poole and former teammates like Duncan Robinson and Moritz Wagner are thriving as pros, Watson’s game has taken off in Ohio.
The move closer to home was a tough one for Watson, who said he rarely misses a Michigan game on television and counts fellow Ohioan Zavier Simpson, Michigan’s senior point guard, as one of his best friends. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Watson also considered Duquesne and Ohio for his next move.
“It was one of the toughest decisions of my life,” Watson said. “It was pretty stressful, the whole process, because I was trying to decide whether it was the right decision for me or not. And I had so many people that I loved and care about at Michigan, coming off a team that was just in the national championship. It was hard to leave that for sure.
"I felt like at the end of the day, I had to sit down and talk to my mom (Molly) and some people close to me, and we felt like the best decision for me was to explore my options and try to go play at another place."
Flyers fans would agree, as they are enjoying a Dayton team ranked as high as any since 1967. They’ve been hungry for this success in Ohio’s sixth largest city, where the Flyers are the biggest game in town.
“The unique thing about Dayton basketball is the people in the city, they absolutely love Dayton as if it was Duke or Kentucky. The support is always there,” Watson said. “I know Coach Grant was saying, in his first year here in Dayton, they were 14-17 and they still almost sold out every game.”
Now in Grant’s third year, the former VCU and Alabama coach has Dayton flying high, regularly packing UD Arena — tucked between Interstate-75 and where the Great Miami and Mad rivers meet.
“It’s pretty awesome to see just how great the fans are,” Watson said. “Us winning right now, they have a big part in that, and we’re also excited to be able to do that for them. Their support means a lot to us, so it’s nice to be able to give back a little bit with some wins.”
Watson sat out last season along with fellow transfers Jordy Tshimanga from Nebraska and Rodney Chatman from Chattanooga. The trio developed a bond on the scout team, adding to an NIT group that went 21-12 in Grant’s second year at Dayton.
“We honestly felt like this was where we were going to be, we felt like we were a top-10 team,” Watson said. “Whether we were nationally recognized or not, we still felt like we were always going to be this this year.”
This year, Dayton made their way to the national scene by reaching the Maui Invitational finals in November with wins against Georgia and Virginia Tech and an overtime loss to now-No. 3 Kansas in the finals — the first of two overtime losses this season, the other coming in December against Colorado in Chicago.
In Hawaii, sophomore forward Obi Toppin propelled his All-American candidacy and NBA draft status that was already budding after being named first-team Atlantic 10 as a freshman.
The 6-foot-9 forward could be a lottery pick and Watson said he shares some of the same traits as his former Michigan teammates who are now in the NBA.
“It’s very rare in terms of the fact that he can move like a guard,” Watson said. “He’s one of the fastest guys in the country, he’s one of the most athletic guys in the country. People don’t really know that Obi is very unselfish, he wants to see everybody win, he always has a smile on his face.
“His passion for the game is what I think takes him to another level.”
Toppin’s star power has helped move Dayton from a Final Four dark horse to a favorite. The Flyers are eighth nationally with 22-1 odds to win it all, according to Bovada, and tied for seventh at 14-1, according to gambling site My Bookie.
The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee unveiled its preliminary rankings Saturday, listing Dayton as a No. 2 seed in the Midwest, with a possible road to the Final Four going through Indianapolis.
Watson’s old school in Ann Arbor didn’t make the committee’s top-four seeds and Michigan State was given a nod for a fourth seed, only to lose 77-68 to Michigan later in the day.
The Flyers play host to Rhode Island on Tuesday night, a team just behind Michigan State in the AP’s “Others receiving votes” category, just two spots out of the Top 25.
It’s shaping up to be an exciting March once again for Watson, who has two conference tournament titles, a Sweet 16 run and a run to college basketball’s championship to his name so far.
More could be on the way.
“At the end of the day, I think I made a good decision and I’m in a great home,” Watson said. “I’m very excited to be a part of what’s going on here at Dayton.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer. James Hawkins contributed to this report.