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Earlier practice good thing for veteran WSU team

The Wright State men’s basketball team will have to wait another five-plus months to win the big prizes it seeks: the Horizon League championship and an NCAA tournament berth. On Thursday, three days before the start of practice, coach Billy Donlon settled for a smaller prize: dessert.

Freshman Daniel Meyer brought out a box of cookies sent from his mom in Montana. He handed them out to Donlon — and the assembled media at the Mills Morgan Center — instantly turning himself into a preseason favorite for newcomer of the year.

Time will tell if the end of the season will be as sweet for Donlon and his team as that beginning, but it has the potential to be a box of cookies and a whole lot more.

Preparation for the season never really ends. Even Thursday, players were going through individual workouts. However, the official start of the 2013-14 season, the first full practice, 40 days before the season opener, is today. That’s 10 days earlier than in seasons past.

“I think it’s good for the coaches,” Donlon said. “They did a study. I learned this over the summer. College basketball coaches spend 11 percent of their time actually coaching the game of basketball. If we can get on the court sooner and be with our team for a longer period of time, it’s a good thing.

“But you have to be careful because college basketball is the longest season of all the college sports. By starting practice at the end of September, you’ve just made it a little longer. Depending on the makeup of your team, the experience level of your team, you’ve got to consider all those things when you get started.”

Donlon’s team finished third in the Horizon League last season and led Valparaiso with four minutes to play in the Horizon League championship game before losing 62-54.

The Raiders then won two games in the College Basketball Invitational. All in all, it was the longest season in program history in terms of games played and among the best since Wright State moved to Division I in 1987. The Raiders finished 23-13, tying the 2006-07 team (23-10) for most wins in the D-I era.

The Raiders return their nine top scorers. It’s a good bet they’ll be the preseason favorite in the Horizon League when that poll is released Oct. 16.

“I think everyone’s really excited,” said AJ Pacher, one of five seniors for a team that had no seniors last season. “Coming off the loss to Valpo, everyone’s been really hungry in the offseason. Hearing all (the predictions), you can’t really worry about it. You’ve just got to focus on getting better every day.

“It’s not really about being picked to finish first or last because obviously it doesn’t really matter. We made it to the championship game last year after being picked to finish last. You’ve got to ignore the noise from the outside world.”

Pacher is one of three seniors entering the season returning from injury this season. His foot, Cole Darling’s shoulder and Matt Vest’s hip are three of the biggest question marks for the team.

“Cole is really far along,” Donlon said. “He’s got to gain weight. He hasn’t done anything with contact. AJ can do some things with contact. They both look good. AJ has to get back to playing. Obviously, Cole was all-conference. He’s by far our best offensive player.

“What nobody understands is AJ didn’t play the entire month of December. It took January to get back. If you look at his February numbers, he was playing as well as any big guy in our league. If he can have that kind of output, we’re going to be really hard to beat because of his ability to score with his back to the basket.”

Vest, a Chaminade Julienne graduate who was the only Raider to start all 36 games last season, underwent hip surgery after the season.

“He’s working tirelessly to come back,” Donlon said. “The possibility of him sitting out and redshirting is probably 50-50 to be fair. It’ll be up to Matt. He’s worked really hard. He’s ahead of schedule. He’s coming back from major, major surgery. He hasn’t done anything from a basketball standpoint for six months.”

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