Wright State players, save for Illinois transfer Mike LaTulip, have never reached the NCAA tournament. They were approaching their teenage years the last time the Raiders played in the event in 2007.
But first-year coach Scott Nagy can give a first-hand account of what it’s like. So can assistants Sharif Chambliss, Brian Cooley and Clint Sargent and director of operations Nick Goff.
Nagy led South Dakota State to Summit League tourney titles and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA in three of his last five years there.
He and his staff know how exhilarating it is to be part of March Madness and they’re trying to convey that to their team.
“It’s what I want every guy here to experience — not just once, but several times,” Nagy said.
Like all 351 Division-I teams, the Raiders have a path to the NCAA this year through their conference tournament. They play Northern Kentucky in a Horizon League quarterfinal game at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and will need to sweep three games in three days to advance.
“In order to win it, you have to be tough-minded — you just do,” Nagy said. “For this team, that’s definitely got to be the case because it’s three games in a row (without a day off). There has to be a grit to you that’s not normal.”
South Dakota State also played its league tourney at a neutral site in Sioux Falls, S.D., about an hour from campus. The Jackrabbits won three games in four days each time to emerge as champs, prevailing twice as a two seed and once as a top seed. But they had some hairy moments.
Their first NCAA bid as a program came when they beat Western Illinois, 52-50 in overtime, in the 2012 league final.
They lost in the NCAA first round every year but were mostly competitive. They fell to Maryland (79-74) last year, Michigan (71-56) in 2013 and Baylor (68-60) in ‘12.
Nagy knows that navigating a conference tourney can be dicey.
“I think winning the first game is the hardest thing for everybody,” he said. “For the teams that have the higher seeds, it’s even harder to do because that’s the game you have to get by. After that, the tournament really starts.
“We’re in a little different spot (as the fifth seed). But you have to get by that first game, and then you can settle in.”
The Raiders, who have reached the NCAA twice (1993 and 2007) since becoming a D-I program in 1987, will be tested because of their lack of depth. Nagy has settled mostly on a rotation of eight players, and top guard sub Mark Hughes is questionable after sitting out the last two games with ankle injury.
They also didn’t draw a particularly favorable matchup. Fourth-seeded Northern Kentucky (21-10), led by Horizon League coach of the year John Brannen, won both meetings this year, prevailing 83-79 in the Nutter Center and 83-76 at home .
“John has done a great job. He’s very deserving of that award,” Nagy said. “They can score inside. They can score outside. They just put a lot of pressure on a defense.”
That hasn’t exactly been the Raiders’ forte — although it’s not for a lack of effort.
“I realize there are limitations that make it hard to be a good defensive team,” Nagy said. “The unbelievable defensive teams almost always have a rim protector. We just don’t have that, so it makes it that much more difficult.
“But I like that we’re a little bit of an overachieving team with some of the limitations we have. Our kids are pretty tough and very competitive.”