Wright State Raiders have tough task to repeat as tourney champions

Wright State freshman Malachi Smith during a game against Cleveland State last month at the Nutter Center. Keith Cole/CONTRIBUTED

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Wright State freshman Malachi Smith during a game against Cleveland State last month at the Nutter Center. Keith Cole/CONTRIBUTED

Wright State coach Scott Nagy worries before every game. Most coaches do. Even when his team was getting ready to face Northwestern Ohio from the NAIA ranks, he expressed concern, saying, “I view every opponent as a threat.”

That’s why he’s going into the Horizon League tourney with some trepidation. The Raiders are the top seed, but he realizes that’s no guarantee of success.

“It’s hard for any team to win three games (in a row),” he said.

»RELATED: Wright State-IUPUI preview

A new Horizon League format this year will help — the top four seeds have home games instead of holding the entire tourney at a neutral site — but that’s little comfort to Nagy.

“This league was incredibly tight this year, and everyone knows (seeds) eight through one are very close,” he said. “I think the fact that we won it last year should help our guys. But the last two years since I’ve been here, the No. 1 seed hasn’t won it.”

The top seed has emerged victorious only three times in the last 10 seasons. The last to do it was Valparaiso in 2015 when the semifinals and finals were held on Valpo’s home floor.

»RELATED: Nagy getting the most out of Raiders’ roster

“We (coaches) talked about this earlier: I didn’t think the top of the league would be quite as good as it was last year, but the middle of the league would be way better, and that proved to be true,” Nagy said.

The Raiders, though, are the hottest team in the field going into their opener at 8 p.m. Tuesday against eighth-seeded IUPUI. They’ve won 11 of their last 13 league games, which also coincides with the emergence of freshman sub Malachi Smith.

He’s averaged 8.8 points and 3.2 assists over the last 13 games, going 41 of 82 from the field and 28 of 30 on foul shots.

Wright State (19-12, 13-5), which has climbed to No. 145 in the NET rankings out of 353 Division-I teams, has gone from trying to divvy up minutes between seven players to having a solid eight-man rotation.

»RELATED: Raiders clinch share of Horizon League title

“Obviously, Malachi has made a really big jump, and it’s helped us a lot,” Nagy said.

So, are the Raiders confident going into the tourney? Yes.

But as Nagy said, “I think there are probably eight teams that are confident.”

Here’s a look at the rest of the field (seeds in parenthesis):

Northern Kentucky (2)

Record: 23-18, 13-5

NET ranking: 122

Best win: Wright State, 56-52

About the Norse: They won a share of their second straight league title with a gritty 86-82 win at Green Bay. Conference player of the year candidate Drew McDonald has had back spasms, missing the previous game, but he came off the bench to score 13 points. The 6-7 senior became the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,011 points. Guards Jalen Tate (14.1 points per game) and Tyler Sharpe (14.0) are a handful. Tate leads the league in field-goal percentage (57.0).

Oakland (3)

Record: 15-16, 11-7

NET ranking: 212

Best win: Northern Kentucky, 76-74

About the Grizzlies: They’ve won their last four games, the longest active streak in the league. Forward Xavier Hill-Mais, a 6-7 junior, is fourth in the league in scoring (18.6) and fifth in rebounding (6.8). Brad Brechting, a 6-11 junior, scored in double figures just three times in the first 20 games, but he ended the regular-season with 11 straight double-digit outings with a high of 32 against Cleveland State.

Green Bay (4)

Record: 16-15, 10-18

NET ranking: 219

Best win: Belmont, 100-92

About the Phoenix: Sandy Cohen III, a senior guard who transferred from Marquette, is a complete player. He had 24 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks in a win Thursday over Wright State and 25 points while playing all 40 minutes in a narrow loss Saturday to Northern Kentucky. The Phoenix has won at least 10 league games all four years under coach Linc Darner.

UIC (5)

Record: 16-15, 10-8

NET ranking: 216

Best win: At Wright State, 75-72, in OT

About the Flames: They’re the only team to beat Wright State twice this season and have won at least 10 league games for the second straight year under coach Steve McClain. They reached double-digit wins just five times in their first 23 years in the league. Tarkus Ferguson is 10th in the league in scoring (15.3), sixth in rebounding (6.7) and second in assists (5.2). The 6-4 junior and Green Bay’s Cohen are the only players in the top 10 in all three categories. Ferguson also has tied the single-season program record for 3-pointers with 94.

Detroit Mercy (6)

Best win: Bowling Green, 82-67

Record: 11-19, 8-10

NET Ranking: 235

About the Titans: They were sitting near the top of the league standings early in the season but have lost nine of their last 12 games. Antoine Davis is third in the nation in scoring with a 26.0 average. The 6-1 guard broke Steph Curry’s NCAA record for 3-pointers by a freshman last week and is up to 128. He needs just 17 points to surpass Spencer Hayward’s single-season program record of 771 points set in 1968-69. Senior guard Josh McFolley has racked up 1,432 career points.

Youngstown State (7)

Record: 12-19, 8-10

NET ranking: 268

Best win: At Oakland, 75-74

About the Penguins: They started 2-7 in the league, caught fire with a six-game winning streak and then ended with three straight losses. Darius Quisenberry, a freshman guard from Wayne, looks like a future star after leading the team in scoring (13.9) and assists (3.7). Naz Bohannon, a 6-6 sophomore, is a coach’s dream since he’s content to be a prolific rebounder and let others do the shooting. He’s second in the league with 8.3 boards per game but fifth on the team in shots.

IUPUI (8)

Record: 16-15, 8-10

NET ranking: 200

Best win: At Boston College, 76-69

About the Jaguars: They’ve got the third-best NET ranking in the conference despite being the eighth seed because they’re one of only two teams that had winning non-league records (NKU is the other). They have the league’s lone win over a Power-5 conference school. Camron Justice, a Vanderbilt transfer, is third in the league in scoring (18.9), and Jaylen Minnett, a sophomore sub, is the team’s second-leading scorer (11.9). They had a chance to earn a home game as a top-four seed but lost their last two games, including a 74-63 setback at Oakland on Saturday.


TUESDAY’S GAME

IUPUI at Wright State, 8 p.m., ESPN+, 106.5

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