Wright State may have looked as if it would breeze through the Horizon League after blowing out defending champion Northern Kentucky by 32 in January. But that near-flawless performance may have been a little misleading.
Though both teams have separated from the pack and have earned double byes into the semifinals of the conference tourney, the Raiders have begun to look vulnerable after a 9-1 league start, while the Norse have overcome injuries to post the best road record at 7-2.
Dantez Walton, a senior forward from Lima Central Catholic, is back after missing the Raider game and 10 others in the heart of the season with an injury to his upper chest and shoulder. They’re 14-4 with their leading scorer and rebounder and 7-4 without him.
“They’re a lot different team — a LOT different — than the first time we saw them,” Wright State coach Scott Nagy said. “Certainly, we don’t expect things to go that way again. There’s a lot riding on it for everybody.”
The Norse, who joined the league in 2015-16, have had the upper hand against the Raiders, posting a 5-4 record in the rivalry the last four seasons.
“No. 1, they just have tough kids,” Nagy said. “They have winners. In order to go 7-2 on the road in league, you have to have tough kids.
“They also probably have the most all-conference players on one team. It’ll be a big challenge for us.”
Drew McDonald, the conference player of the year last season, has graduated, but guards Jalen Tate and Tyler Sharpe were preseason all-league picks and made the 2019 all-tourney team after the Norse knocked off the top-seeded Raiders in the finals, 77-66.
Tate, who missed 10 games this season with a broken hand, also is a two-time all-defensive team pick.
But while the Norse have their share of decorated players, the Raiders have plenty of star power, too.
Junior Loudon Love is the favorite to win the league player of the year award next week, while teammate Tanner Holden is a shoo-in for all-freshman team honors.
Senior Bill Wampler was second-team league last season, while Jaylon Hall has made a strong case to be included on the league’s all-defensive team.
And though the Norse have the league’s top defense and have held 10 foes under 60 points (winning all 10 games), the Raiders are fourth nationally in scoring with an 82.0 average, about nine more than last season.
Nagy decided to adopt an up-tempo style because the 6-foot-9 Love dropped about 25 pounds and, at 255, could handle a quicker pace.
“We knew we were deeper. And with Loudon losing the weight, he could stay on the floor longer. We definitely wanted to play faster,” Nagy said.
The Raiders’ shooting percentage has soared from 43.6 last season to 46.4, and their 3-point clip has climbed from 34.4 to 36.9 — despite the arc being moved back nearly 17 inches.
“For anybody, transition defense is one of the toughest things. You can get great shots — if you really commit to running,” Nagy said.
“Everybody says they want to play faster, but not everyone can do it. When you show guys the kind of commitment it takes, they don’t always buy in. But our kids have done a pretty good job with that.”
The Norse are second in the league to Wright State in attendance with a 3,329 average, but they always get a spike when the Raiders show up. They drew 5,848 last season and 4,987 in 2017-18.
“They’re going to be hyped up because of the way we won last time, and it’s Senior Day for them, so they’re going to have a lot of energy and motivation,” Wampler said. “It definitely will be a closer game than it was here.”
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