Scott Nagy, who is in his fourth year as Wright State basketball coach and 25th season overall, has probably never enjoyed a preseason more than this one.
He’s got an ideal mix of proven performers who are self-motivated and confident newcomers who may be even better than he thought.
He never has to plead for more intensity in practice. The competition takes care of that.
“We really expected that our freshmen wouldn’t play a lot for us because we’re so deep,” Nagy said, noting they have four fifth-year seniors, a fourth-year junior and two third-year sophomores. “We thought the experience (of the veterans) would overtake the freshmen. But our freshmen are good. They’re putting pressure on the older kids to play.
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“It makes us better. We’ve had very few flat practices. Everybody has to do what the coach says, or we just put in the next guy. Everyone understands, in order to play, you’d better do well every day.”
The Raiders, who went 21-14 last year and reached the NIT, return their top three scorers, including Horizon League Player of the Year candidate Loudon Love. But while they fell short of their goals in 2018-19 because of too few options off the bench, that won’t be an issue this season.
A talent-rich roster — which includes a pair of graduate transfers in guard Jordan Ash from Northwestern and forward Aleksandar Dozic from Marist — not only will allow Nagy to keep his players fresh, but also give him the flexibility to attack opponents in a variety of ways.
He’s so optimistic about the season that he believes the Raiders can reach new ground as a program.
They lost in the conference tourney final to Northern Kentucky last season, missing a second straight trip to the NCAAs. And when asked if that’s a motivator this year, Nagy said: “The motivator for us is that we’d be so good that we can get an at-large bid. That’s what we’re trying to get to.
“There are some people in our league who don’t think that can happen. We don’t want to think that way.”
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An at-large bid? Out of the Horizon League?
It may not be as farfetched as many think.
The league sent two teams to the NCAA tourney in 2009, ’07 and ’03. Butler had such a strong résumé those years that it earned an at-large berth after losing in the conference tourney.
The league also had multiple berths three other times after Wright State joined in 1994, sending three teams in ‘98 when Detroit went 25-6 and UIC 22-6 to join league tourney champ Butler in the NCAAs.
Nagy believes the Raiders play a strong enough schedule to earn a bid with a gaudy win total.
“In order for that to happen, you can’t be bad early,” he said. “You have to be great early. You have almost have to be perfect.”
That won’t happen unless the Raiders shore up one glaring weakness from last year. They were ranked 12th nationally in 2017-18 in defensive efficiency, giving up .929 points per possession, but they slumped to 142nd last season at .997.
Even with two league all-defensive team picks in Parker Ernsthausen and Mark Hughes, they allowed foes to shoot 45.4 percent from the field (268th nationally) and 36.2 on 3-pointers (288th).
With Ernsthausen and Hughes having graduated, Nagy has made defense his top priority in practice, though that isn’t much of a change.
“Even when we make the switch and go to an offense-focused drill, I stay down on the baseline and follow the defense,” he said. “I’ve turned the offense over to coach (Brian) Cooley a little more. I want to get off to a better start defensively than we did last year.”
Nagy thought the subpar defense was more about attitude than ability.
“We were coming off an NCAA tournament bid, and, in my opinion, we had guys who were very satisfied, like, ‘Well, I’ve got my experience of doing that, and I’m just going to try to get through these practices to get to the games,’” he said.
“We didn’t have good practices, and it showed up in the non-conference. We were awful. I couldn’t believe how bad we were. I continually point out to these guys — particularly if we want to be an at-large team — we’d better be a good defensive team right now.”
More athleticism this year should help, but the Raiders are going to need a team-wide commitment.
“Obviously, we’re going to miss Mark and Parker because their defense was incredible,” senior wing Bill Wampler said. “Mark was a guy you could put on the floor and stop any single player. We don’t have that anymore.
“But in our team defense, we should be a lot better than we were last year. We have better athletes, and we’re going to be deeper. We’re going to sub more. That’s a luxury we haven’t had before.”
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