Raiders determined to build on success, climb new heights next season
Expectations were rewritten after the Raiders scaled new heights this season.
Picked to finish last in the Horizon League preseason polls, Wright State (23-13) instead went to the precipice of the conference championship. But Valparaiso clinched the title in the last minutes of the game and earned the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“Tough times reveal your character, and this team’s been through tough times,” head coach Billy Donlon said. “It hasn’t been easy. Losing to Valpo the way we did in that moment—to respond the way they did in this tournament (the CBI), that reveals so much.”
While the Crusaders and other league foes exited the postseason early, WSU stayed alive the longest and made the semifinals of the CBI after wins over Tulsa and Richmond. They met their match against Santa Clara in an 81-69 loss last Wednesday, but the experience proved crucial.
“We can’t simulate in the spring, summer and fall the game against Tulsa, the game against Richmond [and] the game against Santa Clara,” Donlon said. “Can’t do it. Those last three games were played more intense than a regular season game, that’s for sure. You can’t put a price on that.”
“I think it (the CBI) will be key for us next year,” junior forward A.J. Pacher said. “Playing as many games as we can together will be really important for next year’s team. Just like coach said, we have to be hungrier than ever.”
Hunger is a key word for the Raiders. They’re not satisfied with almost winning the Horizon League and almost winning the CBI. They want more. Because they return every player next season while adding Butler transfer Chrishawn Hopkins, WSU may be a popular pick to win the conference.
“We just have to work in the offseason,” Pacher said. “It’s not like it’s just going to be given to us, just like last place wasn’t given to us this year. If we get picked first it is what it is. But we have to work hard every day and try to be as hungry as we can for next year.”
Though Santa Clara ended the Raiders’ season on a sour note, Donlon sees encouragement with the form his team hit.
“I think the hard part for our kids will be the way they lost the game, but they’ve got to keep things in perspective,” Donlon said. “Ultimately, they were playing their best basketball at the end of the season. When you think about not having Cole Darling, they just continued to fight, rally and claw.”
Without junior forward Darling (11.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg) for the last part of the season, WSU turned to other players to fill the void. In Darling’s absence, the junior duo of Jerran Young (8.8 ppg) and Miles Dixon (8.5) became the faces of the team. Young’s hustle and vicious dunks sparked WSU’s starting lineup, and Dixon proved the top reserve.
Other players who will play prime roles next year include the sophomore guard tandem of Reggie Arceneaux (8.9 ppg) and Kendall Griffin (6.3 ppg). Arceneaux’s quickness and dribble penetration make him a tough player to defend, while Griffin makes his name on the other end with gritty defense.
Along with Pacher (5.4 ppg), junior guard Matt Vest (5.5 ppg), sophomore forward Tavares Sledge (4.1 ppg) and the freshman duo of forward JT Yoho (6.5 ppg) and guard Joe Bramanti (1.6 ppg), the Raiders have a solid core to build on. Throw Hopkins into the equation and WSU could have something special next year.
“Our job is to make sure we promote men of character, and the guys in that locker room are unbelievable,” Donlon said. “Now what they got to do is be hungrier this year than they were a year ago.”
Donlon, the Horizon League Coach of the Year and a finalist for the Hugh Durham and Skip Prosser awards, expects heavy competition. He’s already back at work less than a week after the season ended, ready to guide his players on the next part of their quest.
“If it’s good enough for Nick Saban to start 24 hours later [after the season], then you gotta steal from the best,” Donlon said. “We’re going to start Monday (April 1). I think it sends a message of daily dedication to whatever you want to do in life.”
For a team that tied the program record for wins and earned their first Division I postseason victories, added motivation is a scary thought for the rest of the league. But WSU will go into next season with a target on their backs.
“We’re going to go from the hunter to the hunted next year,” Vest said. “I’m really proud of this team and excited about what we have ahead next year.”