Wright State’s return to the NCAA tournament has been building for 11 years.
The Raiders’ best chance advancing is going to depend on something that’s been in the works for three weeks.
Since scoring a season-low 56 points in a loss at IUPUI on Feb. 23 that cost Wright State a regular-season championship, the offense has put up some of its best numbers of the season.
And the 14th-seeded Raiders (25-9) are going to need to every ounce of offense they can produce in order to beat one of the top defenses in the country in No. 3 Tennessee (25-8) when the teams meet in South Region game at 12:40 p.m. Thursday at the American Airlines Center.
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“Usually in practice we focus on defense, but the emphasis these last couple of weeks have been playing a little bit faster and getting a couple more buckets,” freshman Jaylon Hall said.
Two days after the dismal loss at IUPUI in which they made just 16 shots, the Raiders scored 88 at UIC, their highest total against a Division I opponent this season. In the Horizon League tournament opener against Green Bay, Wright State put up 87.
But scoring on the Flames and Phoenix is one thing. Finding a way to do it against the Volunteers will be a whole other challenge.
The Volunteers rank in the Top 50 in the country in points allowed per possession (25th, 0.953), 3-point field goal defense (25th, .319), defensive field goal percentage (33rd, .410), scoring defense (36th, 66.4) and blocks (39th, 4.5).
And there’s no real secret to the success for a squad that didn’t put a single player on the SEC All-Defensive Team.
“They’re physical,” Nagy said when asked what makes the Volunteers so good.
“They really make it hard to score inside,” he added. “They’re hard to drive on because they’re physical. And when you throw it in, they’re physical. They just do a good job of being physical. I don’t know how else to say it.”
At 6-foot-9, 275 pounds, HL Freshman of the Year Loudon Love is built to withstand a physical battle. But it could be a case of three or four on one with the Volunteers expected to use their depth to keep throwing fresh bodies at Love, with the primary one being SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, a 6-7, 241-pound sophomore.
The rest of the Raiders will be undersized in their matchups, but they can’t let that be a factor.
“We have to be the more physical team,” WSU senior guard Grant Benzinger said. “We can’t be shell shocked that we’re playing this team. We have to be the more physical team. We have to throw the first punch.
“When you look at a lot of NCAA tournament games, it’s usually the offense that wins it,” he added. “Players step up in these moments. We have to hit those contested shots. We have to hit those hard shots where everyone says ‘There’s no way that’s going in. Oh my gosh, it went it.’ That’s what we need to do.”
Taking care of the ball is equally important, and it’s something the Raiders have done well of late. They had a season-low six turnovers in the 74-57 win against Cleveland State in the Horizon League.
It was the third time in four games, and fifth in eight, they kept the number in single digits, something they were unable to do in any of the first 26 games of the season.
The key to keeping that going, Nagy said, is to let the game seem bigger than it is.
“It’s a unique combination we’re going to have to play with, where we play tough but we play loose. We’re going to have to be tough on both ends, but offensively we have to be relaxed.
‘We’ve struggled offensively sometimes early in games,” Nagy continued. “But we’ve been able to stay in games because our defense has been good. Obviously to beat Tennessee, we’re going to have to be great on both ends.”