Some 30 minutes after the game – after Wright State had dispatched of Green Bay 87-72 in the quarterfinals of the Horizon League Tournament – Todd Benzinger stood off to the side as family and friends gathered around his beaming son, Grant, in the concourse of Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit Saturday night.
It was a moment filled with joy and pride, made that much richer by a decision his son – the tough guy captain of the Raiders and a 1,419 point scorer – made a little less than two years ago.
Grant had asked for his release from the WSU program,
“He said, ‘They’re not going to win anything here,’” recalled Benzinger, once the first baseman of the 1990 World Series champion Cincinnati Reds and later the Dayton Dragons manager.
Billy Donlon – the Raiders coach Grant respected, the guy who had recruited him out of Cincinnati Moeller – had been fired after a 20-win season.
Playing four games in four nights at the Horizon League Tournament that year, the Raiders had won the first three and then lost in the title game, just missing a shot at the NCAA Tournament. It was the third time in four years and the fourth in eight that WSU had fallen in the title game.
For WSU, the NCAA Tournament had become something of a mirage since it last went to the postseason celebration in 2007.
Although he left the decision to transfer up to his son, once Todd listened to new coach Scott Nagy at his introductory press conference, he said he hoped Grant would stay.
If his son did jump to another school and they did go to the NCAA Tournament, he thought the experience might not be as rich for him. It wouldn’t really be his team.
And if he did leave and WSU didn’t make the tournament during his final years of eligibility, he would be one of the major reasons.
As everyone knows, Grant stayed a Raider and at least Saturday night, it looked like the perfect script.
The only senior on the team besides walk-on Trey Stacey, Grant is the heart and soul of 23-9 Raiders, the guy every other player respects.
“He’s a hustle man,” freshman center Loudon Love said afterward. “People will tell you he’s a shooter, but coach will tell you he’s the hardest worker out there.”
He said the rest of the team feeds off of it and Saturday, for several reasons, the Raiders played some of their best basketball in the first half, holding Green Bay – who had averaged 98.7 points their past three games – to a season-low 21 points in those first 20 minutes.
Suddenly the NCAA Tournament doesn’t seem like something out there in the shimmering ether.
Big Dance two wins away
Monday night at 9:30 the Raiders meet the winner of Sunday night’s UIC-Milwaukee game in a tournament semifinal. With two victories, the NCAA Tournament would be a reality for only the third time since the program moved up to Division I 32 seasons ago.
Whatever happens, Nagy – not usually a postgame jokester – was trading quips with Love on the press conference podium Saturday and seemed almost giddy when he considered the box score.
Love explained how, after working with assistant coach Sharif Chambliss, he has improved his passing: “At the beginning of the season I just threw it into the fifth row. So that’s progress.”
“Now it’s only the second row,” Nagy deadpanned.
When it was brought up that the Raiders had six players in double figures – Love with 17, Cole Gentry with 16, Benzinger and Everett Winchester with 15 and Jaylon Hall and Mark Hughes with 10 – Nagy’s face lit up.
“That’s unbelievable balance right there, look at it,” he said and then laughed in appreciation.
Nagy is happy with his team and he should be.
Along with offensive balance, the Raiders are rebounding. Saturday he 6-foot-9 Love broke Thad Burton’s single-season rebounding mark of 305 that had stood since 1997. Love now has 308.
The biggest thing that makes Nagy smile is the defense the team is playing.
The Raiders put the clamps on three of Phoenix four best players. Although All-Horizon League first team selection Khalil Small did score 34, the other three – Sandy Cohen, Kameron Hankerson and David Jesperson – managed only a combined 12 points.
Friday night Hankerson had scored 36 in a first-round win over Detroit Mercy. In the three games before that Cohen had scored 92 points.
In the past three games, the trio WSU had bottled up for just a dozen points had scored 62, 63 and 60.
The Raiders are ranked second in fewest points allowed in the Horizon League, but the figure Nagy likes best is that they are tied for 10th in the nation is fewest points allowed per possession.
Benzinger talked about the team’s embrace of defense:
“My freshman year with Coach Donlon, that was the emphasis. Then Coach Nagy came in and had the same emphasis.
“When you hear it every day, every film session, your focus is on guarding the ball and rebounding and tough stuff. You’ll come around pretty easily and if you don’t, you’re probably not gonna stick around too long.
“And what we’re doing works. The past three seasons we’ve won 20 games so the proof is in the pudding. I’ve been blessed to have two great coaches who stressed defense.”
Donlon was the Horizon League Coach of the Year in 2013. Nagy is this season.
“I would echo what (Grant) said about Billy,” Nagy said. “When I got here, these kids knew how to play defense. There wasn’t any question about it. He worked with those guys hard and had the same expectations we do on defense. It was easy to convince our guys of that immediately.”
‘Captain of the ship’
It helped that Benzinger bought in fully after deciding to stay and now the other players follow his lead.
“Yeah, I like to think of myself as the captain of the ship,” he said as he stood in the concourse afterwards. “We have other great leaders too, but I try to keep everyone focused. Especially now, because the next game is the last one you have that’s guaranteed.
Benzinger’s role is especially important because the Raiders are undermanned, since senior Justin Mitchell left the team and Ryan Custer was lost last spring with a spinal cord injury. They play a seven-man rotation and three are freshmen.
“A couple of guys have never played a tournament game, so you were concerned how they would respond,” Nagy said. “To have a guy like Grant, who has been through it and through it and through it, that helps.”
Benzinger also knows the importance of an off day like Sunday was. As a sophomore he and the Raiders had to play four games in a row and they ran out of gas in the final.
He was going to rest.
“I’ve got some homework and a test,” said Love.
Asked what class he was studying for, Love suddenly had a blank look.
“Aaaaah….I don’t remember,” he finally confessed.
Benzinger burst out into laughter. Nagy rolled his eyes.
But hey, on this night he’d already showed himself to be quite the student.
He’s learned how to pass the ball no farther than the second row.