Running Into the Horizon
by Jonny Gaunt
In the first full slate of conference tournament matchups, the defending Horizon League Champions showed their experience and toughness. Navigating a conference tournament is no easy task as each season provides examples of top seeds tumbling to their familiar foes when it matters most.
In a mid-major conference like the Horizon, the stakes are raised even higher with the only avenue of making the NCAA Tournament going to the postseason champion. Wright State has plenty experience on both sides of this coin, winning the title as the 4-seed in 2022, but failing to do so as the top seed in 2019.
Going into their first round matchup against Green Bay on Tuesday evening, the Raiders found themselves speeding down a hill on their rollercoaster of a season. Losing three of their last four, they missed an opportunity to earn a higher seed and a bye in the tournament. However, those defeats allowed them an opportunity to get right against a Green Bay opponent who finished second-to-last in the conference with just five wins on the season.
On paper, they were the perfect matchup for the Raiders. The Phoenix ranked 324th in the nation for scoring defense, giving up 76.5 points per game, while the Raiders ranked 21st in scoring offense at 80.3 points per game. Wright State’s 77 points in a winning effort proved those numbers to be spot on. The difference in the matchup was the inside game where the Raiders out-rebounded their opponent 42 to 20. With the Phoenix focused on getting back on defense to prevent the fast break, the Raiders attacked the inside of the zone defense to great effect, scoring 36 points in the paint. Forward Brandon Noel led the attack on the glass with 16 rebounds to go with his 20 points. Turnovers allowed Green Bay to stay in range as they took advantage of the overeager and sometimes impatient attack from their opponents. Yet, in the end, they just couldn’t make enough plays offensively to keep up with the Raiders.
After the game, Coach Scott Nagy was complimentary of the battle Green Bay gave his team and spoke on how difficult the first game of any tournament is. While he stopped short of saying it was an advantage to play instead of receiving a bye, he sees the benefit of getting the first game out of the way, which he believes can aid a team in finding a rhythm. Quite pleased with his player’s ability to effectively rebound, the turnovers in this game were clearly a concern heading into the next round against Milwaukee. When asked about the upcoming game and what challenges Milwaukee presents Coach Nagy stated, “It’s honestly amazing that we beat them when we turned the ball over that much. That’s gotta be a key for us that we take better care of the ball, because we didn’t tonight.” Wright State swept the 2nd-seeded Panthers this year, including a 78-74 win in OT on the road.
All favorites won their matchups Tuesday evening so the reseeding format the Horizon League implements won’t play an impact on the quarterfinal round. Even so, parity typically reigns in this tournament as the 1 seed has won just once since 2015. The Horizon League Tournament will continue on Thursday with the Quarterfinals hosted by the higher seeds before the semifinals and championship move to Indianapolis on March 7th.