- Jay Morrison Staff Writer
After giving up 81 points in back-to-back road wins a few weeks ago, Wright State has dialed up the defense to secure its hold on first place in the Horizon League.
The Raiders (17-6, 9-1 HL) head to last-place Cleveland State (5-18, 2-8) on Thursday having held opponents to 67 or fewer points in five consecutive games.
The last time that happened was 2015.
“We’ve had some inexperienced players that are gaining experience, but we’ve also had some experienced players who have been better defensively, and one of those guys who has gotten a lot better is Grant,” WSU coach Scott Nagy said of senior guard Grant Benzinger.
“You would think it’s the young guys who are growing the most, but Grant has been a lot better defensively,” Nagy continued, while also including sophomore guard Cole Gentry and freshman forward Jaylon Hall among the list of improved players. “If he gains experience, Jaylon should be the best of all of them. He’s 6-6, he’s athletic and long. He can cause a lot of problems for small guys, he can guard big guys.”
With Mark Hughes handling the lock-down duties on the opponent’s top scorer and those around him defending batter, Wright State has limited opponents to 37.6-percent shooting and an average of 61.2 points the last five games.
Prior to this stretch, the Raiders were allowing opponents to shoot 42.7 percent while averaging 66.5 points.
Keeping the other team from making shots is only half the battle. The Raiders need to rebound the errant attempts to end the possession, and that’s another area where Nagy has seen growth.
“We saw what defense and rebounding did for us last weekend in both games, Detroit and Oakland,” he said, referring to an 87-55 rout of the Titans and 64-51 triumph of the Grizzlies.
“We rebounded the ball extremely well, which we had not been doing,” he added. “We’re pretty good defensively on the first shot. If we can get the rebound, it puts us in a good spot.”
WSU out-rebounded Oakland by 15 on Sunday, the team’s largest margin of the season. And the Raiders out-rebounded the Titans by nine Friday. The last time they had a bigger advantage was Dec. 5 against Ohio Valley (11).
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The impetus for that, of course, is Loudon Love, the conference’s leading rebounder at 9.3 per game and the winner of five of the last seven freshman of the week awards.
In addition to his 6-9 frame and natural instincts, another reason Love has been able to dominate on the glass is that he’s been able to avoid foul trouble. He’s fouled out of two of 10 league games but hasn’t had more than three fouls in the other eight.
And some of the credit for that goes back to the better defense displayed on the perimeter, which prevents Love from having to provide help on drives.
“If the guys on the perimeter aren’t very good, it puts him in peril,” Nagy said. “Loudon’s done a good job of avoiding (foul trouble), and he’s been a good rim protector for us.”
In addition to protecting the rim, the Raiders are trying to protect their one-game lead on Northern Kentucky in the HL standings.
And even though WSU is facing two of the bottom teams in the conference this weekend, Nagy said the Raiders can’t afford to let down their guard and get caught looking ahead to the large home game looming against NKU on Feb. 16.
“We don’t look ahead,” he said. “We want our players super focused. We’re inexperienced in a lot of ways. No. 1 of being in this position (in the standings), and No. 2, the youth on our basketball team.
“All road games are tough. We know that,” he added. ” Cleveland State’s played five (league) home games and they’ve all been close, whether they’ve won or lost. It’s very important that every game we have good focus, because if we don’t, we can easily lose.”