DALLAS, TX - MARCH 15: Grant Benzinger of the Wright State Raiders sits on the bench in the second half against the Tennessee Volunteers in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at American Airlines Center on March 15, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Archdeacon: Raiders a feel-good team about to get better

In the dressing room in Dallas after Wright Sate was easily handled by Tennessee, 73-47, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at the American Airlines Center, Benzinger was talking about the final minute and a half of the game when the end of the bench guys, including his pal, fellow senior Trey Stacey, all got in the game.

“It was really cool to see those guys get in,” Benzinger said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience …”

That’s when the Raiders senior guard suddenly caught himself:

“Well, not for the young guys. They should come back every year. If they put in the work, they should be in it.”

That’s the mindset Raiders coach Scott Nagy is trying to instill in his players.

He doesn’t want Wright State’s NCAA appearances to be as rare as those cicadas that emerge from the ground every 13 to 17 years.

Before Thursday’s game, WSU was last in the NCAA Tournament 11 years ago when it faced Pitt in 2007. Before that it was another 14 years when the Raiders met Indiana in their only other Division I Tournament game.

“The key now is to make this a habit,” Nagy said Thursday. “And it’s hard. It’s hard for teams at our level to get back here. But if you can get in here and have players that have been to it two or three times, then these kind of things change.”

That’s the way it worked for him at South Dakota State University before he came to WSU last year. That program was similar to the Raiders in that it went from success at the NCAA Division II level into Division I.

After six lean years following the transition, Nagy had a run of success with SDSU and took three teams (2012, ’13 and ’16) to the NCAA Tournament in five years. That part of his resume is what got him to Wright State, where he took over a program that had four winning seasons in six years under Billy Donlon.

The Raiders had a wondrous season. They were undermanned, young and had endured the Ryan Custer tragedy that left the promising 6-foot-7 forward in a wheelchair after a swimming pool accident.

They ended up a team – with Custer still very much a part of it – that truly cared for each other and stuck together in good times and bad.

After Thursday’s game, Nagy, in his 23rd year as a head coach, shared his feelings with the players:

“One thing I told them: I haven’t enjoyed every team that I’ve coached, though I wish I could say that I have. But I have really enjoyed these guys. This team has been a joy to coach and, for us to be as thin as we were and as young as we are, they accomplished so much.”

Next season the Raiders bring back everyone but Benzinger and Stacey.

They return three good freshmen in 6-foot-9 Loudon Love, the Horizon League Freshman of the Year, Jaylon Hall, the team’s fourth leading scorer, and Everett Winchester, who was one Raider who played with some confidence against the Vols and finished with 11 points.

Also returning are a trio of upper classmen in solid point guard in Cole Gentry, a defensive specialist in Mark Hughes and 6-foot-11 Parker Ernsthausen.

“The expectations for our whole team should change in terms of how we prepare for next year and what they think,” Nagy said. “We primarily lose one guy that has played for us and we’re adding six good players. So our depth is going to change a lot. It’s going to be very competitive.”

The Raiders should fare we’ll in the Horizon League. UIC will have a talented team as well, but the league certainly is winnable, especially since Butler and Valparaiso are no longer in the conference.

To bolster their schedule for league play and the NCAA Tournament afterward, the Raiders should continue to upgrade their non-conference schedule like they did this year with games at Loyola, Murray State, Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech.

They need to jettison games with Division II opponents like Ohio Valley and Tiffin. Those might help pad the record, but they do nothing to prepare you for a team like Tennessee.

Wright State did reinvigorate its presence this season, both in the college basketball world and especially in the community.

“This feels more special this year,” athletics director Bob Grant said earlier this week when thinking about the school’s three trips to the NCAA Tournament. “Maybe it’s because it’s a much needed shot in the arm for the university now.

“But it’s gotten us great positive press. And it feels like there’s more of it, maybe because social media is so much bigger now than it was in ’07.

“It feels like the community is paying more attention to us now.”

And how could it not?

The Raiders were a feel-good story.

And it helped that Dayton Flyers basketball across town wasn’t sucking a lot of the oxygen out of the gym.

The Flyers struggled through a 14-17 season and there was some discord on the roster.

Dayton will regroup in the coming year as well and maybe now the schools will find enough common ground that they can resume playing each other. Not just the men, but the women, too. Both women’s programs are solid. The Flyers are in the NCAA Tournament and the Raiders are in the WNIT.

These matchups would be good for the community and could help benefit some cause that would help the Miami Valley.

The knock on the men’s match-up – at least the way the Flyers put it – had been that the Raiders didn’t measure up on the court.

Well, this season WSU had a better RPI rating (104 to 163), a better record and made the Tournament.

Over the years, though, the Flyers have established themselves as one of the finest hoops programs in the nation.

They consistently have great crowds at UD Arena, graduate their players and have sent teams to the NCAA Tournament 17 times. They made the title game in 1967, the Elite Eight in both 1984 and 2014 and the Sweet 16 four other times.

Before this season they had made four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.

The stalwarts of that run were Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard and Kyle Davis, who first experienced the tournament as freshman and then made it an annual destination – with the help of transfer Charles Cooke – for the rest of their careers.

And that’s where WSU can learn something from the Flyers.

“The guys coming back now understand what it takes,” Nagy said. “They understand the culture that’s needed and they’ll be able to teach the new guys.

“We’re obviously very excited about the future.”

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