They’re 12-4 in the league while the Norse, who play at Milwaukee on Thursday and Green Bay on Saturday, dropped to 11-5. And the teams appear headed in opposite directions.
The Raiders have solved their depth issue with the emergence of freshman Malachi Smith, giving them a solid eight-man rotation. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games to improve to 18-11 overall.
“That’s why we didn’t panic early,” Nagy said. “We knew we had the toughest schedule in the league. Obviously, we thought we’d have (injured sophomore wing) Jaylon Hall through that, and it just took us a while to figure out what was best for us.
“We finally got good defensively, which is really what changed for us. And our freshmen have started playing more minutes for us, and that changed things.”
When NKU lost at Wright State, 81-77, on Feb. 15 to create a tie at the top, coach John Brannen said: "We've got to worry about us getting better from here on out (instead of the league race). I don't think we're playing very well right now."
He was right. The Norse have lost four of their last seven games to fall to 21-8. And even more troubling, preseason conference player of the year Drew McDonald is ailing, though the senior forward scored 22 points against the Vikings.
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“Their big guys kicked our big guys’ butts,” Brannen told the NKy Tribune. “Drew is hurt. He probably shouldn’t have played in the second half. He had severe back spasms, and I was unaware of that until halftime. I probably should have made more adjustments in that area.”
The Raiders only need one win to clinch at least a co-championship. They also shared the league crown in 2006-07 with Butler.
They never finished higher than fourth before that breakthrough year, and they’ve had three second-place finishes since then.
But Nagy is taking a cautious approach.
“Green Bay is fighting and scrapping for second place. We know they’re going to be tough,” he said. “They play faster than anybody we’ve played all year. It’s going to be a challenge for us to get back (on defense) and get them guarded.”
The players, though, are thrilled to be playing for high stakes.
“I’ve been on teams that at the end of the year weren’t even close to being in the race,” senior Parker Ernsthausen said. “It sure makes these last two games exciting instead of having February drag on.”
Wright State at Green Bay, 8 p.m., ESPN+, 106.5-FM