Favored Raiders begin a new challenge

Championship rings were given to the Wright State men’s basketball team two weeks ago. They like to look at the big green stone, the “Horizon League Champion” stamp and the engraved #believe reminder of Ryan Custer’s recovery. Wednesday night, just before they begin their season, they will look up as the NCAA Tournament banner takes its place in the Nutter Center rafters.

The memories of Scott Nagy’s second season as head coach are good ones. But it’s time for the Raiders to focus on the present.

“They don’t give any rings out this year because of what you did last year,” senior center Parker Ernsthausen said Tuesday.

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The quest for more rings and banners begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday against Western Carolina, a 12-16 team last year. Ernsthausen said Nagy has created a winning culture that could make the Raiders a mid-major power. What happened at Butler, formerly of the Horizon League, gets talked about.

“He sees that our program can get that,” Ernsthausen said. “The freshmen are great, so I think that’s attainable now, whether it’s next year or in five years. I don’t think it’s out of the question at all.”

Whether or not national relevance comes, the Raiders are certainly relevant in their league. The official league preseason poll and at least five preseason publications picked the Raiders to win the league’s regular-season title.

“People saw how good we were last year and they expect us to stay at that level,” senior guard Mark Hughes said. “Our expectation around here is definitely different. We’re expected to win games, and that’s what we’re going to try and come out and do every night.”

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The Raiders were 25-10 last season and finished second in the league at 14-4. Then they won the league tournament to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2007. Nagy isn’t concerned that his team won’t be hungry.

“Right now the No. 1 goal is to win the league and we didn’t do that last year,” he said. “So this should be a good drive for it.”

Ernsthausen and Hughes see two areas in which Nagy’s ability to be flexible has lifted the Raiders to the top of the league. Ernsthausen is an example of it. Last season he started, but this season he’s coming off the bench. Loudon Love, the team’s top returning scorer, will start at center. The Raiders will start four guards and bring Ernsthausen off the bench to help with the rotation. Love and Ernsthausen are the only players with experience guarding the post.

“(Nagy) has a good feel for guys individually and feel of a team,” Ernsthausen said. “I can tell he’s coaching this team different than he did last year, and he coached last year different than he did the year before. It’s not big changes, but just having a good feel.”

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Nagy said he isn’t trying to follow the national trend of smaller lineups with more perimeter and play-making players. He feels good about his top eight players and the added depth this team has.

“We’re probably a little bit better defensively when Parker’s on the floor,” he said. “We probably spread the floor more when we play smaller. We have six guys who can start for us. With any of those six we’re pretty good on both ends.”

Hughes appreciates the freedom Nagy allows the team to play with on both ends of the floor. It’s a mix of principles and reading the play.

“We talk about a lot of situations being FIO — figure it out,” Hughes said. “Whatever the situation may call for, whether it’s a switch or something like that, we’ve got to figure it out. I like having that sense of freedom. We’ve got a lot of guys who know basketball, know how to play the right way and it’s really showing.”

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