Wright State coach Scott Nagy thought his players may have felt some added pressure by being the preseason favorite in the Horizon League last year.
He also knows they’d better get accustomed to that lofty status because they’ll likely be in the same spot next season.
“That was the first time Wright State was picked to win the league in forever. I’m not sure early in the season how well we handled that,” Nagy said, referring to a 6-7 non-league record and 2-3 start in the conference.
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“We did end up winning the league, so we bounced back. Our hope will be that we get off to a way better start next year. We think the conference will be a lot better. But, certainly, there will be very high expectations for our team.”
The Raiders will give poll voters ample reason to make them the favorites again this October. They return their top three scorers — Loudon Love, Bill Wampler and Cole Gentry — off a squad that shared the regular-season title with Northern Kentucky, finished with a 21-14 record for their fourth straight 20-win season and played in the NIT for the first time.
But Parker Ernsthausen and Mark Hughes, who made the league’s all-defensive team, are graduating — along with another dependable starter, Alan Vest.
Plus, the transfer of guard Malachi Smith is a blow. He was a stalwart in the last 17 games, averaging 8.2 points and 3.9 rebounds while making the league’s all-freshman team.
Nagy was perplexed by that decision.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us. It’s kind of like Everett,” he said, meaning the unexpected transfer last year of freshman wing Everett Winchester, who ended up at Florida Atlantic. “Some of these kids, with college basketball the way it is, just think it’s the thing to do — without really understanding the consequences of it and how bad it can be for them.
“In my opinion, with social media and all the things that play into it, they see guys making changes. I’m not even sure HE could tell you why. It was a shock, really, to all our team.”
But the Raiders are capable of filling the void. Jaylon Hall, a 6-6 wing, will provide a much-needed jolt of athleticism after sitting out all but one game last season with a shoulder injury. He averaged 9.1 points as a freshman in 2017-18.
And freshman wing Skyelar Potter, known for his above-the-rim exploits, appears to have star potential.
Nagy said Hall “probably would have been our second- or third-leading scorer. I think everyone has just kind of forgot about him.
“And Skyelar is back with more experience. He’ll be a better player. We should be way more athletic next year.”
While the defensive-minded Nagy will fret about the graduation losses, he concedes the Raiders shouldn’t have much trouble generating offense.
The 6-9, 280-pound Love was named first team all-league after averaging 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds. Second-team all-conference wing Bill Wampler averaged 15.0 and hit a team-high 78 three-pointers. And steady point guard Cole Gentry averaged 11.7 and shot 90.2 percent on foul shots, becoming only the fourth Raider to top 90.0.
But Love, who has 964 career points after just two seasons, can leave fans conflicted because he clearly is the Raiders’ most indispensable player but seems to have so much untapped potential.
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“Loudon’s tough because almost everyone I run into feels like he can do more — and I always do, too,” Nagy said. “The big challenge for me is not making Loudon feel like a disappointment and still coach him and get more out of him. He’s getting 15 and 8 and you feel like he can get 22 and 12.
“We need to help him improve and shoot a higher percentage (than 49.8) — because most of his shots are around the basket. He’s had some tremendous games, and then he throws a couple clunkers in there. We feel like he needs to lose a little weight and get in better shape because we’d like to play faster next year.”
A starting lineup that includes Love, Wampler, Gentry and Hall could give opponents fits, although Nagy needs someone to claim the power-forward spot.
Grant Basile, a 6-8 freshman, sat out last season after ankle surgery and still isn’t 100 percent. And the only other returning frontcourt player is 6-7 freshman James Mann, who played 45 total minutes.
Depth at the other spots, though, shouldn’t be an issue — especially with the talent in the pipeline.
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Tanner Holden, a 6-6 signee from Wheelersburg, had two 50-point games this season and averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds while being named first-team all-state. He also was an Ohio Division-V offensive player of the year as a receiver in football.
“Once he makes basketball his complete focus, he’s going to make even bigger jumps. We’re pretty excited about him,” Nagy said.
Trey Calvin, a 6-1 guard from Chicago, averaged 17 points and twice was a runner-up in the Illinois high school 3-point shooting contest.
Noah Freidel, a 6-4 guard, was the South Dakota Class A player of the year after averaging 23.2 points. And Andre Harris, a 6-3 guard from Lyndhurst Brush, was named first-team All-Ohio in D-I after averaging 17.0.
“All of them are good offensive players. That’s always been a key for us — try to recruit good offensive players and work on the defensive side of the ball,” Nagy said.
“Plus, we’re not done recruiting. We’re still chasing players. There’s a lot to be decided yet.”