Wright State’s Nagy expects league to offer plenty of challenges

Wright State's Tim Finke looks to make a pass during the Radiers' game at Purdue on Nov. 16, 2021. Joe Craven/Wright State Athletics

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Wright State's Tim Finke looks to make a pass during the Radiers' game at Purdue on Nov. 16, 2021. Joe Craven/Wright State Athletics

Raiders open Horizon League play tonight at Purdue Fort Wayne

FAIRBORN — Horizon League preseason poll voters were fairly Nostradamus-like the previous three years.

They picked Wright State as the favorite, and coach Scott Nagy’s team won at least a share of the regular-season title each time.

But the Raiders were supplanted this year by 2020-21 co-champion Cleveland State, which collected 30 of 44 first-place votes.

That’s new territory for the Vikings. And, as Nagy pointed out, the preseason-favorite role can be both an honor and a burden.

“They’ll face different things this year,” he said. “They’ve got all those guys back, and they’ve added some players, too. But when you’re looked at as the favorite, it’s a different feel.”

The Raiders start league play with games Thursday at Purdue Fort Wayne, which they’ve never played before, and Saturday at Cleveland State, which they’ve faced more than any other team in their history (77 times).

The conference has a 22-48 non-league record this year, and only Oakland at 5-2 and CSU at 4-2 are above .500 among the 12 teams. But that’s somewhat deceptive.

Most programs sign up for a smattering of high-major games to bolster the budget (take a loss, get a check).

And league teams have managed at least a couple of notable road wins: Oakland knocked off Oklahoma State, 56-55. and UIC surprised Loyola (Ill.), 74-70 in overtime.

“This is the best the league has been since I’ve been here for sure,” said Nagy, who is in his sixth year.

The league has become a haven for transfers, and no player has had a bigger impact than Oakland’s Jamal Cain, a 6-foot-7 forward from Marquette.

He’s second in the conference in scoring with a 22.6 average and first in rebounding at 11.1 per game.

He played in 100 games for the Big East school and averaged 9.6 points and 6.3 rebounds last season.

“At Marquette, he was Robin,” Golden Grizzlies coach Greg Kampe told reporters before the season. “Here, he’s going to be Batman.

“He’s going to be the guy we’re going to. He’s got to drive the Batmobile.”

Purdue Fort Wayne also has kept its uniform-makers busy. Four of its five starters are transfers.

Damian Chong Oui was first-team All-Northeast Conference at Mount St. Mary’s last season. The 5-8 guard averaged a league-best 5.3 assists and had 21 points in the conference tourney final win over Bryant.

Ra Kpedi, a 6-9 forward who started out at Vermont, is averaging 13.2 points.

Jalon Pipkins, averaging 13.7 points, is at his fourth school in five years. The 6-4 guard played in 30 games at Loyola (Ill.) in 2019-20.

And 6-8 starting forward Bobby Planutis played two seasons at St. Bonaventure and one at Mount St. Mary’s before landing at PFW last season.

“We’re facing a team where, in their top eight guys, seven are seniors and one’s a junior. They’re very experienced,” Nagy said.

The Mastodons, who were picked ninth in the preseason poll, normally wouldn’t pose much of a threat to the Raiders, who have gone 16-4, 15-3, 13-5 and 14-4 in the last four league seasons. But these aren’t normal times.

Though Nagy has been harping on defensive woes, that’s not the only facet coming up short.

The Raiders are 270th out of 358 Division-I teams in offensive efficiency, scoring .905 points per possession. They were ninth last season at 1.109.

And while they’ve played a meaty schedule, they’re tied for 318th in rebounding margin at minus-6.0 per game. Last year, they were sixth nationally at plus-9.3.

“We’ve been terrible,” Nagy said before highlighting a particularly feeble 40-minute stretch in the Naples Invitational. “In the second half against James Madison and the first half against Long Beach State (the next day), we didn’t have an offensive rebound.

“That’s really hard to do. You can just STUMBLE into one. I’m not happy about it at all, and the players know it. We’re not anywhere near where we hope we will be.”

TODAY’S GAME

Wright State at Purdue Fort Wayne, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 103.9

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