The NCAA tournament rooting interests for the Wright State coaching staff will extend far beyond the walls of the Raiders locker room Thursday afternoon.
The South Dakota State program that WSU coach Scott Nagy guided for 21 years while transitioning from Division II to a perennial participant in March Madness is back in the field of 68 again this season, and the Jackrabbits have some hearty fans wearing WSU green.
“I’m happy for them,” Nagy said. “A lot of those kids we recruited, and we want them to have good experiences. If they can walk away from South Dakota State and say they had a great experience, that’s good.”
After making the jump to Division I for the 2007-08 season, Nagy – along with current WSU assistants Brian Cooley and Clint Sargent and director of basketball operations Nick Goff – guided the Jackrabbits to three NCAA tournaments in five seasons before making the move to Wright State in the spring of 2016.
South Dakota State has made the tournament each of the last two seasons under new head coach T.J. Otzelberger and assistant Rob Klinkefus, who worked for Nagy for 10 seasons.
›› ARCHDEACON: Raiders aiming to make history in NCAA tournament
“We look at scores and boxscores and root for them quite a bit,” Cooley said. All those guys we coached and recruited, so we’re pumped for them.”
So pumped, in fact, that after winning the Horizon League championship and the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2007, the coaches took time out from their own celebration to check in on SDSU in the Summit League championship game, which began just as the Raiders were dancing under confetti after wrapping up a 74-57 victory Cleveland State.
“I watched some of it,” Nagy said of the Jackrabbits’ 97-87 win against South Dakota. “It wasn’t like I needed to watch the whole thing. I knew they were going to win. I even watched the South Dakota State women’s game earlier that afternoon. They got in, too.”
That’s right. Hours before he was to coach in one of the biggest games of his career, Nagy was checking in on old friends 900 miles away in Brookings, S.D.
Sargent took a peek, too. He was especially interested in both SDSU championship games because his wife, Jill, is the school’s career leader in 3-pointers, while he held the record for the men.
“She’s the best shooter in the family,” Clint admitted.
Jill also is the only record holder after SDSU senior Reed Tellinghuisen broke Clint’s record in the Summit championship game.
“He’s a great kid, and it was cool to see that,” Sargent said. “I’m really close to him. He’s and Iowa kid like me – he’s from Sac City, I’m from Sioux City – and we’re almost built the same way. Although he’s much tougher than I was.”
When WSU got back to campus, Cooley had Sargent strike a pose of disappointment with his head in his hand and sent it to Tellinghuisen, telling him Sargent was really upset about losing the record.
“Reed’s played more games than me,” Sargent joked. “That’s my excuse. And he won more, so he’s obviously going to shoot more.”
Sargent won eight, 13 and 14 games his first three seasons before leading SDSU to a 19-win campaign his senior season, starting the ascent. While he was playing in Germany the following season, the Jacks went to their first NCAA tournament in 2012.
The Raiders coaches aren’t the only ones with ties to the SDSU program. Sophomore point guard Cole Gentry spent a year and a half there before transferring and rejoining Nagy and Co. at WSU.
Like the coaches, Gentry remains in touch with his former teammates.
“It was tough because we’re all good friends and really close, just like this team is really close,” he said. “I didn’t really want to leave my friends, but they all understood why I was leaving, so there were no hard feelings.”
SDSU could have blocked the transfer, but instead Otzelberger was one of the first to suggest to Gentry that he could leave after the first semester last season in order to be eligible for the second semester this season, a move that has helped sparked WSU’s run to a school-record 25 wins and first NCAA tournament berth in 11 years.
“We were struggling a little bit and changed defenses and started playing zone,” Gentry said. “It didn’t really fit my best abilities. That was the biggest reason I transferred. Not just because of the zone, but the overall basketball opportunity was better for me here than there.
“I still talk to a lot of those guys back there, and it was really special that the night we won, they won,” he added.
Gentry and his coaches are hoping history repeats itself Thursday. The Raiders, seeded 14th in the South Region, will be aiming for an upset of No. 3 Tennessee at 12:40 p.m. in Dallas. Then the Jacks, whose No. 12 seed is tied with Nagy’s final team there for the highest in program history, will take on No. 5 Ohio State in Boise.
Win or lose, Nagy, Gentry and the assistant coaches will be rooting for the school 900 miles away, not 90.
“I just talked to (athletic director Justin Sell) the other day for about 30 minutes and wished them good luck,” Nagy said. “You can’t be somewhere that long and not have friends there.”