Wright State has been tagged with a couple of inexplicable losses while dominating virtually everyone else in the Horizon League this season.
But after the highs and lows of 18 games over nine consecutive weekends, the Raiders are right where they were expected to be all along — at the top of the conference standings.
They’ve been sitting in second place since a New Year’s Day loss to Oakland, but they picked up a game over the weekend on Cleveland State, which split with Detroit Mercy, to move into a first-place tie with two games to go.
They can clinch at least a share of their third straight crown — they were co-champs in 2018-19 and won their first outright title in 2019-20 — by sweeping Northern Kentucky on the road Friday and Saturday.
Wright State, 17-4 overall and 15-3 in the conference, was the preseason favorite and has looked like the league’s best team all season, while Cleveland State (15-6, 15-3) has been a huge surprise, having been picked to finish seventh after going 11-21 last season.
“We’ve kind of been carrying that pressure all year,” Raiders coach Scott Nagy said. “I’m so grateful for our players and how they’ve handled all this and the way they’ve played.
“I’ve said before we went into this that I didn’t think anybody would have the records us and Cleveland State have. Playing back-to-back games (against the same opponent), I thought it’d be too difficult.”
The Raiders have been the top offensive team in the conference (by a large margin) and the stingiest defensive team in the league (by an equally sizable amount), and it seemed to be just a matter of time before they’d run down the Vikings.
When the teams met in back-to-back January games at the Nutter Center, the Raiders dropped a 66-64 decision on the first night, giving up the game-winning bucket after a defensive breakdown with .7 seconds left.
They won the rematch by 36 points.
“What our guys have done, I can’t tell you how proud of them I am,” Nagy said. “It’s not like it’s over, but I want them to know that. I’ve tried to tell them. I certainly say enough of the negative things, and I’ve let them know how grateful I am for them.”
The NET rankings also reinforced the feeling that the Raiders were easily the best team in the league. They’ve been hovering in the 50s nationally out of 347 Division-I teams, while the Vikings have been the best of the rest in the 150 range.
Cleveland State fell to Detroit Mercy, 89-83, on Friday despite a career-high 33 points from Trotwood-Madison grad Torrey Patton. In the second game, Patton led the way with 15 points and eight rebounds in a 71-64 victory, snapping the Titans’ six-game winning streak.
The Raiders are shooting 48.8% from the field, which is on pace to be their best clip since the Bill Edwards-led 1992-93 team hit 51.6% on the way to an NCAA tourney appearance.
Perhaps more impressive, though, is their surge in 3-point shooting. They’ve gone 7 of 14, 11 of 22 and 10 of 19 in their last three games.
In their previous 18 games, they hit 50% or better just once: a 10-of-20 effort at Detroit on Dec. 19.
They’ve climbed to third in the league at 37.5%.
Milwaukee made it clear over the weekend that it would harass post players Loudon Love and Grant Basile — aggressively double-teaming them in the blocks — and see if the Raiders’ outside shooters had the ability to beat them.
“We’re getting people open. We shot the ball great the whole weekend,” Nagy said. “If we keep doing that, who are you going to guard? What are you going to do?”
The Raiders have definitely put foes in a pick-your-poison predicament, which is why they received some national attention on the ESPN College GameDay Show on Saturday. Analyst Jay Bilas picked 10 mid-majors that have the potential to win NCAA tournament games, and he had the Raiders ninth on the list.
Moving up: Loudon Love is third in rebounding in Horizon League history, passing Northern Kentucky’s Drew McDonald over the weekend. He’s got 1,096 and trails Xavier’s Tyrone Hill (1,370) and Saint Louis’ Anthony Bonner (1,424).
Since those latter two schools left the league long ago, Love has more rebounds than anyone who has played for current conference members.
He’s also 111th in NCAA history and is second among active players, trailing only Austin Peay’s Terry Taylor (1,165).
Record watch: The Raiders have won nine straight conference games and are one short of the all-time program record.
That mark was set by the Vaughn Duggins-Todd Brown-Scottie Wilson bunch in 2007-08. That team also set the Division-I mark for consecutive overall wins with 11.
The pre-D-I record (before 1987-88) is 22 in a row in 1985-86.
Wright State at Northern Kentucky, 6 p.m. ESPN3, 106.5