By HAL McCOY
If Josh Cunningham was a selfish guy, a me-only guy — which he isn’t — he could ask, “What do I have to do to get some attention around here? Tear down the backboard and eat the glass?”
That’s because, on a balmy December night in UD Arena, Cunningham lit up Western Michigan like a cheap Christmas tree as the University of Dayton Flyers pinned an 85-72 defeat on the Mid-American Conference’s Broncos.
What did Cunningham do?
How about 28 points? How about 10 of 13 shooting? How about eight-for-eight from the foul line? How about game-high eight rebounds? How about four assists from an inside player. How about h0lding his defensive assignment, a 7-footer, to four points and one rebound?
Amazing stuff, eh? Yeah really good stuff. But as songstress Shirley Bassey once sang, “You aint heard nothin’ yet.”
The 12,590 fans left UD Arena talking about a tandem performance, a performance by two guys joined at the hip — Jalen Crutcher and Obi Toppin.
They are like a baseball battery with Crutcher as the pitcher and Toppin as the catcher.
So here is how it went. Toppin, a 6-foot-9 red shirt freshman from Ossining, N.Y. prowled the base-line and the area near the rim like a coyote searching for a roadrunner.
Crutcher, a 6-foot-1 sophomore from Memphis, Tenn., roamed the perimeter, handling the basketball, looking for Toppin to make his move. And when he did, “Wham, bam, slam,” Crutcher-to-Toppin-to-dunk.
Toppin shot 11 times. Toppin made 11 baskets. A basketball perfecto. And Crutcher had 10 assists, eight of them to Toppin. And with Crutcher’s 14 points, he had himself a double-double.
The hook-up is no accident. The two share a room at the Caldwell Apartments on the UD campus. They swear they get along and neither one ever annoys the other, “And we even like the same food,” said Toppin. “Mostly we just order Domino’s or something.”
The Crutcher-Toppin Connection began last year, but it wasn’t in games because Toppin was being red-shirted. But he practiced with the team.
They were asked if they had some kind of signal of the floor — something from Toppin to Crutcher to tell him he would be swooping toward the hoop for a lob pass.
“It started last year in practice when he was sitting out,” said Crutcher. “He was on the scout team. Sometimes he would be on my team in practice and started doing it then.”
“It’s like the Krabby Patty secret formula,” said Toppin. “The Krabby Patty formula is secret. We can’t tell you.”
So is there a code, a secret word, a quick gesture from one to the other to set their lob-and-dunk in motion?
Said Crutcher, “We can’t tell you the formula because then other teams will be listening for it. So we can’t really say.”
Asked they talk about it, Toppin said, “All the time, man. All the time.” Crutcher said, “We just know each other, sir. That’s it.”
In a home game recently against Detroit Mercy, Toppin set a school record with eight dunks. On Wednesday against Western Michigan he had five.
But his last was his best, even better than any of the eight against Detroit Mercy. With 33 second left in the game, Crutcher hit Toppin with another pass. Toppin had his back to the basket and dunked it over his head, his back still to the basket.
“He couldn’t even see the basket, man,” said Crutcher. “I don’t think he was even looking at the rim.”
“Yeah, I thought I missed it,” said Toppin. On this night he didn’t miss anything.
And he had a left handed dunk, too, also on a pass from Crutcher, who said, “I don’t know how you did that, man. But you know what, he is really left handed. Nobody knows that but us.”
Crutcher was asked, “So what does Toppin ever do for you?” They both laughed and Crutcher said “Sometimes we do the pick-and-roll that gives me open threes.”
That unfolded early in the game. Early in the game, with the Flyers down, 6-2, Crutcher buried three straight three-pointers in a 90-second spree that pushed the Flyers in front, 11-9. From there the Flyers built an 18-point lead to 40-22.
And they led at the half, 45-33. Western Michigan, though, didn’t go away. Midway through the second half the put on a 9-0 spurt to close to within seven, 64-57.
Then the Crutcher-Toppin pass-and-stuff connection worked two straight times to push the Flyers back up to 68-57. The Broncos never got closer than nine the rest of the way.
Somebody said it seems as if Crutcher and Toppin can hook up and connect any time they want, score at will, even over a 7-footer like Western Michigan’s Seth Dugan.
“Yeah,” said Crutcher. “I always tell coach to run the pick-and-roll when we’re both in the game.”
Crutcher said there are innumerable times when he dribbles down the middle, right down Main Street, for an easy driving lay-up, but he sees Toppin heading hoopward and lobs it up.
“Yeah, he even gives me the no-look pass sometimes,” said Toppin.
Crutcher laughed and said, “Sometimes I’ll be about to shoot it, then I see him and just throw it high enough above the rim so he can get it. It’s an easier shot for him.”
Asked if he ever had a big man in high school like Toppin, Crutcher said, “No, never. In high school our ‘big man’ was 6-foot-3.” And did Toppin ever have a guard in high school like Crutcher? “No. Nuh-uh. Never.”
It is obvious UD coach Anthony Grant is trying to keep Toppin’s head from expanding to the width of a basketball rim.
Asked about Toppin, who tied the team field goal record percentage with his 11-for-11, Grant said, “Obi finished a lot of great plays and he is one of the few guys that finishes some of the plays he finishes.
Asked if the Crutcher-Toppin Show juices him up the way it does fans, Grant said, “Maybe when I go back and watch it next May or June. I’ve been around a lot of good basketball. I know they are exciting plays. For me, though, it is two points and we have to get on to the next play. I guess that’s a sad way to look at it, but I’m just being honest.
“His teammates did a great job of getting him the ball,” he added. “We had 23 assists on 32 baskets. That is really good. So he was the recipient of a lot of that and did a good job of making himself available.”
And Crutcher? “Ten assists and one turnover. That’s how I look at it. He did a great job of finding his teammates and doing a great job of running our team.”
Grant likes to talk more about his senior, the forgotten man who was super-good, Josh Cunningham, certainly deserving of high plains praise.
“Josh really led our team with great energy. Offensively, he was a rock for us. When we needed a basketball, we could go to him and he would get fouled and finish. Defensively, he did a real good job of using his voice and being in the right spot. He had the main job on their big guy inside and he did a really good job of making it difficult for him.”
The 7-footer, Seth Dugan, came into the game averaging 16.6 points a game and 10 rebounds. He was 18th in the NCAA with five double-doubles. He scored four points and had one rebound. One.
Grant was pleased with the way his Flyers responded when they blew a big lead and Western Michigan cut it to seven late in the game, something the Flyers haven’t done during a four-game losing streak to highly-ranked teams.
“They made a run, cut it to seven, and our guys really answered the bell,” he said. “It was good to see the way our guys finished. There were a lot of lessons we can take from this game.
“These experiences for a young team, you have to go through that,” he added. “The hope is with all the lessons you become more experienced and more prepared for what lies ahead. It is good to be able to win as you learn those lessons.
“We have not been able to win some of our other games because of breakdowns, be it offensively or defensively.”