Kendall Pollard turned a loss into a gain, and he and Dayton basketball are better for the experience.
Pollard, the Flyers’ rugged, versatile forward, embodies the team’s uneven journey to the top of the Atlantic 10 Conference, one marked by injury, absence and a continuous search for rhythm and consistency.
“We’re playing with a little more patience,” Pollard said. “Teams are trying to speed us up, but we’re playing with more patience and we’re moving the ball well. We’re playing good defense. We’re getting out in transition. We’re letting our defense create some offense and not just scoring in the half-court.”
A fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth is attainable, and the good news for the Flyers (17-5, 8-2 Atlantic 10) is that they haven’t peaked, as they prepare for Tuesday’s matchup against Saint Joseph’s on ASN.
Pollard figures to play a major role in the Flyers’ stretch run. The 6-6, 230-pound senior from Chicago is one of three double-figure scorers on a remarkably balanced, veteran group. He averages 13.5 points and is the team’s No. 2 rebounder at five per game. His value, however, often can’t be quantified.
“Kendall gives not only the players on the court, but the coaching staff a lot of confidence when he’s out there playing,” Flyers’ assistant coach Tom Ostrom said. “Especially now that he’s getting into game shape and he’s finally healthy and he’s practicing every day and he’s starting to get his rhythm and his timing down. He provides something that no one else on the team does. It’s almost irreplaceable what he provides for us.”
Indeed, Pollard impacts games in numerous ways. He is a post presence for a team that often plays a three-guard, two-forward lineup. He can score when necessary, either around the basket or with an improved jump shot. He has the skill, and freedom, to lead the break after grabbing a defensive rebound. He is an underrated defender, using his quickness, smarts and uncommon strength against taller and heavier post players. He leads, sometimes vocally, more often by example.
“Teams play me different every game,” he said. “Some teams sit back, some teams double-team me. Some teams pack the paint. I’m just trying to find my niche every game, and let the game come to me. Just pretty much anything the team needs, I try to do.”
Pollard defies categorization, and Ostrom said that he represents the trend in basketball of players capable of playing multiple positions. Think of him as Dayton’s version of Draymond Green, the Golden State star who operates on the perimeter as well as around the basket.
“What position is he?” Ostrom asked rhetorically. “I guess he’s a frontcourt guy, but he can make an occasional 3(-pointer). He brings the ball up on the break, he can post, he can drive it. You isolate him on the wing, he can drive the ball. He just does a little bit of everything for us. Kendall’s not one of those guys you can put in a box and say, he’s a 5, he’s a 4, he’s a 3. He’s a really, really good offensive player who has a lot of different skills. Depending on who you decide to guard him with, he can use those skills to his advantage.”
Plagued by injuries, Pollard needed parts of two seasons to demonstrate his full repertoire. After being named the A10’s Most Improved Player in a breakout sophomore year, he dragged through much of his junior season, first with a nagging knee problem and then a strained Achilles tendon. He broke his wrist during the Atlantic 10 tournament, yet still played in the Flyers’ NCAA Tournament appearance.
He underwent surgery for the knee and wrist when the season ended, which left him unable to participate in summer workouts and conditioning while he recovered. Just as he was beginning to get healthy in preseason, he suffered a deep thigh bruise in early November and missed the first six games. His first game was Dec. 3, but he said that it took him a month afterward to get comfortable.
“I’m more focused and more determined than ever,” Pollard said. “When I was injured, I felt like basketball was taken away from me. So I told myself that when I got the opportunity, if that was to happen, that I would not take basketball for granted ever again. I think that’s what allows me to go out there with that determination and not to just play hard, but not be in fear.”
Pollard has ratcheted up his production of late. In his last three games, he has averaged 20 points and six rebounds, while shooting 70 percent from the field and 72 percent from the free throw line. He scored a season-high 25 points in a win against Fordham, surpassing 1,000 points for his career.
“He’s in a groove in practice, he doesn’t have to come out,” Ostrom said. “He’s out there really playing his game and finding his confidence and finding his rhythm in practice. It started there, and now it’s starting to trickle over into games. He’s starting to be the player that he was during the latter part of his sophomore year, when he never came out of the game.”
Pollard is used to success. He won three state championships in high school on a Simeon team that featured future NBA player Jabari Parker. He contributed to Dayton’s surprising NCAA Elite Eight run as a freshman and was a key part of championship-level teams the past two years. He and fellow four-year seniors Scoochie Smith and Kyle Davis are on track to be the winningest class in the Flyers’ long and distinguished basketball history.
“This is one of the most talented teams I’ve played on since I’ve been here,” Pollard said. “If we play hard and do what we’re supposed to do, we can do whatever we want.”
Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer based in Kill Devil Hills, N.C. Follow him on Twitter at @FairbankOBX.