Wright State coach Billy Donlon doesn’t want his players looking beyond tonight’s game with Milwaukee, and he believes concerning themselves with the Horizon League race is a needless waste of brain cells.
But with just 23 days to go in the regular-season, it’s nearly impossible for the top-tier teams not to take notice of their place in the standings — especially with so much at stake.
The top two finishers earn double byes into the semifinals of the league tournament. And with the event being held for the first time at a neutral site in Detroit, the second seed won’t have to worry about the potential of playing on the No. 1 seed’s home court for the title.
The eight teams that finish third or lower will have to win two games to get to the semis, where they’ll face a fresh opponent.
In past years, the third seed received a single bye.
The athletic directors decided on the format after Northern Kentucky was added this year to give the league 10 teams. And while Donlon is sympathetic to the challenge of coming up with an equitable system, he can see the league needing to tweak the tourney in the future.
“I have a hard time, knowing how close it is in most leagues throughout the United States, saying the first and second seeds should have that big of an advantage,” he said. “Being a one or two seed, and you’re going to be playing an opponent that is on their third game, I would say that’s a bit much.”
Valparaiso is atop the standings at 9-1 with eight games to go, while Wright State (7-3), Oakland (7-3), Milwaukee (6-3) and Green Bay (5-4) appear to have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
“There’s Valpo, and then there’s probably five of us after Valpo that can beat anyone at anytime. When you’re playing you’re first 40 minutes (in the league tourney), and they’re having to play 120 minutes, that’s a huge, huge deal,” Donlon said.
“If the top three teams get an advantage for the regular season, I can see that. No matter how it shakes out, we’re going to say, ‘Man, the difference between the team that finishes second and the team that finishes third was very, very thin.’ And that second-place team is going to get a huge advantage (in the semis) — IF the third seed can get through two games to play the second seed. That’s not going to be easy, either.”
Despite losing their last two games, the Raiders seem to be in the most enviable position among the contenders after Valpo. They play Milwaukee, Green Bay and Oakland all at home.
They also look to be at full strength for the first time this season. Senior forward J.T. Yoho, who has been battling knee issues, is coming off a 31-point effort at Detroit where he made 13 of 15 shots. He started for the first time since the Miami game Dec. 13 and played 39 minutes.
After Milwaukee, the Raiders host Green Bay at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“The biggest thing is trying to win the first possession against Milwaukee and then win the second possession,” Donlon said. “It’s not about where you are in the Horizon League.
“Basically, the top five teams all have to play each other again. A lot can happen. You better worry about that game, that day, that possession, that moment. If you do, you have a chance to be successful.”
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