The message Wright State coach Scott Nagy and his staff have been trying to get across to the players all week is that Friday night’s showdown against Northern Kentucky is just another game and they all count the same.
And factually, that is true.
But technically, tonight’s nationally televised game against the defending champion Norse could be worth 1.5 wins.
That’s because Wright State (19-8 overall, 11-3 Horizon League) essentially would leapfrog NKU (19-7, 12-2) by completing a season sweep — they won 84-81 at NKUon Jan. 11 in their first game without the departed Justin Mitchell — to secure the key head-to-head tiebreaker.
That, of course, assumes third-place Illinois-Chicago, which sits one game back of the Raiders and will play host to NKU and WSU to finish the regular season next weekend, doesn’t surge past both squads.
“We don’t spend any time looking forward or talking about hey, if this happens then that,” Nagy said. “We’re just preparing for the basketball game and not adding all the other stuff that goes along with it. Because everybody around (the players) I know is already doing that.
“You just focus on the things you can control, and one of them is attitude and the other is just playing hard and having good focus and paying attention to the gameplan,” Nagy added.
Friday will mark the first time WSU (19-8 overall, 11-3 Horizon League) has entered a game as anything other than a first-place team since conference play began Dec. 18.
The Raiders fell from the top spot Saturday when they dropped a 74-73 decision at home against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
But the five-day break between games comes at a good time for a hobbled WSU squad.
Starting forward Parker Ernsthausen suffered a chest contusion that sidelined him for the second half of the loss to the Panthers. And freshman forward Everett Winchester is still shaking off the rust from missing two games Feb. 1 and Feb. 3 due to a concussion.
“Some of it’s rust and some of it’s mental,” Nagy said of Winchester, who has missed all five of his field goal attempts since returning while registering just three points and five rebounds.
“Sometimes you just buy the conventional wisdom of what everybody else has been saying your whole life and so you kind of think that’s the way it is,” Nagy added. “And we really don’t have time for it right now. We need Everett in rhythm right now.”
Nagy said Ernthausen had some lingering effects for a couple of days after the injury but is past that and expected to return to his regular starting role against the Norse.
“The word I’ve been using with the players is ‘courage,’” Nagy said. “That’s what we need. Playing with young guys not having been in this position, they’re starting to figure that out and see what it’s like. Every night they have to show up.
“There’s a lot of pressure, and it just takes courage,” he added. “We just need one guy to show it and everybody else will follow. I’m real proud of our kids and the way they’ve played this year, but it doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to finish strong.”
The final three games are home against Cleveland State (5-10), which beat the Raiders in their first meeting, at IUPUI (5-9) and at UIC (10-4).
NKU’s final three are home against Youngstown State (6-9), at UIC and at IUPUI.
While a win Friday would put the Raiders in control of their own destiny, a loss would drop them two games back with three to play, making it unlikely they would win their first regular-season title since 2007.
“They all count the same, but where (this game) falls and the records and all that certainly makes it feel like it’s bigger,” Nagy conceded. “I think we’re developing a pretty good rivalry with (the Norse), and I think they would say that, too. So it should be fun. I know our guys are looking forward to it.”
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