The 2016 Horizon League tournament is a painful memory for Justin Mitchell — never mind that Wright State pulled off three wins in three days to reach the title game.
After beating UIC, Detroit and Oakland at Joe Louis Arena to put themselves one way away from just the program’s third NCAA tourney berth, the Raiders fizzled in a lopsided loss to Green Bay . They trailed by 19 in the second half before falling, 78-69.
“It’s always an accomplishment to get (to the finals), but the main goal is to win,” Mitchell said. “We were heartbroken.”
But coming oh-so-close to being a part of March Madness has fueled the returnees this season. And the path to the league’s automatic bid has been made easier because of changes to the tourney format.
The fifth-seeded Raiders (20-11) will need to win just three games in three days reach the NCAA field. Their first game is against fourth-seeded Northern Kentucky (21-10) at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in Detroit.
“We put in the work this summer. We won 20 games, which is a big accomplishment. Now, everybody is 0-0. You win or go home,” Mitchell said. “
“We want to win it all this year. There’s definitely good competition in the Horizon League, but anyone can win this championship.”
That’s the way first-year coach Scott Nagy sees it. Though he acknowledges some limitations with the roster he inherited, he likes his team’s attitude.
“The most important thing is that you believe you can go up there and win. My guess is not every team believes that, but I know our team does,” he said.
“You just can’t do it if you don’t. That doesn’t mean you’re GOING to do it because there’s a bunch of teams that believe they can. But at least it gives you a fighting chance. If I had a team that I thought didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t even want to go up there. But I definitely don’t feel that with these guys.”
The Raiders are coming off a resounding 87-49 home win Sunday over UIC , which is the No. 6 seed.
And while they were swept this season by Northern Kentucky and Valparaiso, they split a pair of games with top-seeded Oakland.
“We are a little up and down,” Nagy said. “We’re an emotional group. If we’re going to do it, we’ll have to go three nights in a row, which is a disadvantage for us since we’re not very deep. We’re just going to have to figure out a way to do it. But our kids know they can.”
The Raiders have just nine scholarship players available, and Nagy isn’t sure about the status of top guard sub Mark Hughes, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
But the emergence of freshman Ryan Custer has been a promising development. The 6-foot-7 forward from Cincinnati Elder swished a trio of 3-pointers in the first half against UIC to finish with a season-high nine points, and Nagy won’t hesitate to go to him in the tourney.
“Everybody on our team knows Ryan can shoot it,” Nagy said. “He’s not playing very many minutes off bench, and it’s not an easy thing to come in and heat it up. But we continue to encourage him.
“We just noticed the 5’s (opposing centers) don’t guard him. They don’t respect his shooting. And it’s the one thing he really does well.”
The Raiders also were buoyed by their defensive effort against the Flames, who shot 30.8 percent from the floor and had as many turnover as field goals (16).
That’s a big improvement over the first meeting with UIC, when the Raiders survived an 88-86 shootout.
“If we guard how we guarded (Sunday), the confidence is going to be there,” Mitchell said. “We’ll take it game by game. But we made it to the finals last year, and we can do it this year and win it all.”
Northern Kentucky vs. Wright State at Detroit, 7:30 p.m., 106.5