Raiders begin quest for NCAA Tournament with start of league play

The Horizon League managed to put two teams in the NCAA tournament in 2007 when Wright State won the conference tourney and Butler earned an at-large berth.

The league hasn’t sent multiple teams to the event since then, but second-year Raiders coach Scott Nagy doesn’t see why it can’t happen again.

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“There’s some coaches in our league that believe there’s no way we’ll ever get two teams in again. I don’t really care to think that way,” he said. “I think if you make your team good enough, then you can. That’s the way we want to think.”

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The Horizon League may become more than a one-bid league at some point, but it’s probably not going to happen this season. The conference took its lumps in non-conference games, posting a 35-72 record against Division-I competition.

Wright State (8-5) is the only team to notch a quality win, prevailing at Georgia Tech, 85-81.

The league is ranked 25th out of 33 conferences in the nation, according to the Sagarin computer ratings, and 28th in the RPI standings.

Oakland (8-5) is the only top-100 team in the RPI at 87th. Milwaukee is 137th among 351 D-I teams, Northern Kentucky 138th, Wright State 143rd, Detroit 243rd, IUPUI 294th, Green Bay 321st, UIC 324th, Cleveland State 329th and Youngstown State 346th.

The league took a blow when perennial contender Valparaiso left after last season for the Missouri Valley Conference and was replaced by IUPUI. And several programs are in transition with coaches just getting established.

But while there isn’t a way for the Raiders to bolster their postseason résumé during league play, they’re as capable as anyone of winning the conference and claiming an NCAA bid.

Nagy preached patience in the preseason, knowing he’d have three freshmen in the eight-player rotation and wouldn’t have a true point guard until the transferring Cole Gentry became eligible after 10 games. He hoped the team would be peaking when league play started, and that’s exactly what’s happened.

The Raiders started 0-3 but have won eight of their last 10 games.

“We want to win every game. We do. But the conference is the main path to the NCAA tournament, which is where we want to get,” Nagy said. “If you want to do well in the conference tournament, finish high in the regular season. Win your conference, and the seeds are in your favor. It’s easier to win the conference tournament that way.”

Nagy was hired primarily because of his postseason success at South Dakota State. In his last five years, the Jackrabbits made three NCAA tourney trips, reached the NIT second round and also played in the CBI.

The Raiders haven’t made another appearance in the NCAA since that 2007 berth, but they’ve come close, losing in the league tourney finals in 2010, ’13, ’14 and ’16.

“Winning the regular-season in the Horizon League would be big for us,” senior Justin Mitchell said. “I know we can do it. We’re getting better each and every game. I believe in these guys, and I believe in the coaching staff. Whatever coach Nagy wants to do, I believe in it and I’m riding along with it.”

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