Men’s Basketball: Raiders 40 minutes from NCAA berth
Wright State head coach Billy Donlon knew his squad could be champions all along despite a 6-6 conference record to start this season. The Raiders have battled back to win their last six and are a game away from going to the NCAA Tournament.
Key players rehabbing from offseason surgeries and having tough road games on the schedule led to worse than expected results, said Donlon.
“I think everybody wants to point towards our record but I have never waivered,” Donlon said. “I said at the beginning of the season we were a month behind because of the surgeries. You don’t just recover from being a month behind overnight.”
In order for Wright State to reach the NCAA Tournament, it must earn an automatic bid by beating Milwaukee Tuesday in the Nutter Center in the Horizon League title game.
The No. 3-seed Raiders won back-to-back contests in Green Bay to open the Horizon League Championships. With No. 1 seed Green Bay falling to Milwaukee Saturday, the Raiders will host a conference final for the second time in the last 19 years.
Though the odds were not in the Raiders’ favor, Donlon thought there was a possibility his squad would return for one final home game Tuesday. This year’s tournament is the first time the Horizon League’s postseason playoff has switched venues from the semifinals to the finals.
“I thought it was possible,” Donlon said. “Everyone gets caught up in records. Coaches, we get caught up in how challenging it is to win at the Division I level. Coach (Rick) Pitino said he has never seen this amount of parity in his tenure as a basketball coach.”
The last time the Raiders hosted a conference final was in 2007 when Wright State topped Butler 60-55. Current Wright State guard Matt Vest was at the game sitting courtside as a sophomore in high school.
“It is going to be an awesome atmosphere,” Vest said. “We are going to be ready to play a very good team in Milwaukee. Very disciplined, very tough, very well coached. We’re just focused on Milwaukee and doing what we need to do to win.”
Donlon hopes seniors like Vest will be given an opportunity to play in front of a packed house in the Nutter Center Tuesday.
“I don’t know if there is a group of young men, and there have been some phenomenal people play at Wright State, but no one has been more deserving to play for a sold out Nutter Center than the five seniors on this team,” Donlon said. “What they have been through from a year ago to one year later; surgeries, challenges with the schedule, close losses. I really hope we can have that same environment that we had in 2007.”
The Raiders are a year removed from falling just short from a Horizon League title losing to Valpo in the finals. Wright State’s five seniors can use the experienced they had last year to help them through this year’s title game.
“I learned you need to focus on the basketball,” Vest said. “You can’t pay attention to any of the distractions, all of the things that come with the big game. Focus on the game plan, I know our coaches will have a great game plan ready for us.”
Donlon said his team will have its entire roster available sans Kendall Griffin, who has missed the last month with a head injury… Due to league rules, WSU confirmed that the Raiders Rowdies student section will be moved to the opposite side of the Nutter Center. Arena staff is preparing a set of risers that will seat 400 students. Additional students may be seated in sections 203 or 222… Wright State split the season series versus each other with the games played nine days apart. WSU won 73-57 in the Nutter Center Jan. 21 but UWM won Jan. 30 68-64 in Milwaukee.