They were walking from history to history, though they probably didn’t know it.
When the Wright State basketball players walked into the school’s Student Union late Sunday afternoon and came down the staircase into The Atrium for the NCAA Tournament’s televised Selection Show, they were met by a cheering crowd of some 750 people, a blaring pep band, cheerleaders, the school mascot, a bank of TV cameras and a brand new tournament banner that now was affixed to a second-floor banister but one day will hang above the court at the Nutter Center,
“It’s indescribable, coming down the stairs with every one of their feet cheering us and high-fiving everybody,” Grant Benzinger, the senior guard and emotional leader of the team, said when he stepped up to the microphone and addressed the crowd. “I’m so thankful you guys are out here with us.”
One of the “guys” in the crowd knew the history the team had just walked past.
“This feels great, especially doing it in this building where is all began ,” said Mark Vest, a WSU star from the 1980s whose son, Alan, is a backup guard on this team. “This (Union) is the old P.E. Building. It’s where we used to play our games. The court was right there where the bookstore is now.”
When the Raiders played in the P.E. Building they were regulars in the NCAA Division II tournament and won the national title in 1983. It was also their home for their first years as a Division I program, until they moved into the Nutter Center in 1990.
“To think back on all that and think all of us who played here might be a little part of what is happening here now, it makes you really proud,” Vest said.
Not long after the Selection Show began – and the assembled Raiders were twice shown to a national TV audience – they were named a No. 14 seed who would play No. 3 Tennessee Thursday afternoon in Dallas.
And that’s where more history could be made.
The Raiders have been to the NCAA Tournament two other times – in 1993 and 2007 – but they have never advanced. They were overwhelmed in both of those appearances, once by Indiana, once by Pitt.
“We believe we can win games in the tournament,” point guard Cole Gentry said. “We have a belief in our system and as long as we stay together, we believe we can win.”
While that might seem like a long odds proposition – Wright State is a 13 ½ point underdog to the Vols – the Raiders have beaten long odds all season.
The team’s leading scorer last season Mark Alstork transferred to Illinois for his final season. Promising 6-foot-7 freshman Ryan Custer suffered a spinal cord injury jumping onto a pool at a party in Oxford and now is wheelchair bound.
Senior captain Justin Mitchell left the team after 16 games this season. An incoming freshman decided to opt out of basketball. Benzinger, the team’s leading scorer, missed the entire preseason recovering from surgery. Gentry, the transfer point guard, couldn’t play until midseason.
As the season progressed, Coach Scott Nagy, who took over a year ago from Billy Donlon – has worked with a seven-man rotation that includes three freshmen.
And yet the Raiders are 25-9 – that’s the program’s most wins in a D-1 season – and won the Horizon League Tournament March 6 to make the tournament,
“This team has embodied perseverance,” said athletics director Bob Grant. “If you said a year ago you’re gonna lose this and this and this tragedy is going to happen and you’re still going to make the tournament…that’s what makes this so special.”
The team persevered, in part, said Nagy, because of a mindset it embraced more and more as the season progressed.
“Some people looked at this team this year in terms of some of the losses and what we had coming back and thought it was a rebuilding year because of the freshmen we’d be playing,” he said Monday afternoon following the Raiders practice.
“But that’s not the way we want our guys to think. I go into every season thinking that (the NCAA Tournament) is a possibility.”
The team persevered, said 6-foot-9 center Loudon Love, the Horizon League Freshman of the Year, because of “toughness and grit.”
“Benzinger hits on that all the time with us,” he said. “A lot of teams talk about that but don’t really have it. It means diving on the ground getting the tough balls, doing the things that are most difficult.”
He nodded toward Custer, who sat in his wheelchair at the celebration:
“Right there, Ryan Custer embodies it for all of us top see. You keep fighting no matter what happens to you.”
“We practice what we preach,” said Benzinger, who has more diving slides than Pete Rose ever did.
The Raiders will need their pregame preaching put into full practice against the 25-8 Vols, who played one of the toughest schedules in the nation this season.
They beat Purdue and N.C. State, played Villanova and North Carolina tough, met several other formidable foes in their non-conference schedule and then knocked heads in the Southeastern Conference, which has sent a record eight teams into this year’s tournament.,
They swept two games from Kentucky in the regular season and topped Florida, Texas A&M and Arkansas. They beat Clemson in a charity exhibition and scrimmaged Davidson.
All of those are NCAA Tournament teams.
Third-year Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who has the Vols in the tournament for the fiirst time in four years, said Monday that he hopes the tough schedule pays dividends this time of year.
But Everett Winchester, WSU’s freshman guard, sums up the belief the Raiders rally around:
“Everybody is beatable. All that matters now is one game, one play at a time.”
Tennessee has the fifth-youngest team in Division I basketball and, as Nagy pointed out to his team, none of their players have been to the NCAA Tournament before either.
As he thought about that, Nagy shrugged and showed a faint smile:
“All this stuff is easy to talk about but hard to do. We’re doing the best we can to prepare them mentally for the things they’ll face.”
The players look at Nagy as their Pied Piper. He took three South Dakota State teams to the tournament in his last five seasons at the school.
“Coach Nagy has been there, he knows what goes into it,“ Gentry said. “He’ll have us ready.”
Nagy said while he knows what to expect on the NCAA Tournament stage, he does not know what it feels like to win a game there.
In 2012, his 14th-seeded SDSU team fell to Baylor, 68-60. The next year his 13th-seeded team lost to Michigan 71-56.
And in 2016, his Jackrabbits were a No. 12 seed and lost to Maryland, 79-74.
“I try to explain to the guys that all that’s going on now is fun and they’ve earned the attention, but it’s not a lot of fun to go there and play and lose and they send you home two hours after the game because they want you out of there.
“And then you’re home that night and it’s over. Over that fast.”
Nagy said the key is, “getting them to believe they can compete. If you believe you can beat them that gives us a chance. If you look at the two teams, it’s a small chance…But it’s a chance.”
Already, Grant said, “It’s a beautiful story.”
And with a chance, there’s the possibility of making history, too.