DAYTON, Ohio – The niftiest U-turn this college basketball season? Consider the Wright State Raiders, those veterans of Navy SEAL training. But we’ll get to that part in a minute.
First, the Raiders went thisaway. They started 3-7, with injuries so numerous, eight different starting lineups had been used only 11 games into the season.
Then, the Raiders went thataway. They’ve won nine of 10, and after blowing past conference leader Valparaiso 73-62 Friday night, they’re sharing the penthouse of the Horizon League.
"If you’ve got an ego and you’ve got pride, you’re not going to like losing. You should demand more of yourself,’’ guard Joe Thomasson said Friday after scoring 21 points. "I think the last month and a half, we started demanding more of ourselves.
"Our expectation level is just rising, and we don’t know our ceiling.’’
It looked pretty high Friday night, when they shot 61 percent the second half and put together a 16-0 run against a Valpo team that was fourth in the country in points allowed and fifth in field goal percentage defense.
"I hope now people outside of locally will start to see we’ve got some pretty good players,’’ coach Billy Donlon said.
A Wright State orientation:
The Raiders went 11-20 last season, largely because of a remarkably overworked trainer’s room. There were four Horizon League games that Wright State could not use its six top players. There were nights a walk-on was starting at point guard. "We didn’t play a single game with our four best players on the floor. We didn’t play a single minute with our four best players on the floor,’’ Donlon said. "That’s not excuse-making. But I’d like to know if that’s ever happened in college basketball.’’
Donlon had two responses to the bad dream. One, was amnesia. ``I told them my response to last year was, it didn’t happen. I’m normally an accountable person, but when you have four starters go down . . .’’
Another was work. That’s where the Navy SEAL program comes in. There the Raiders were in the preseason, lugging logs before dawn. And for unity, they slept the night in the gymnasium. A team-building slumber party.
"We went through that for all of this,’’ Thomasson said, meaning the current surge. ``I’m a true believer in order to get to the good, you have to go through the bad, and that’s what we did. Nobody believed that we’d be like this right now, but us.’’
The 3-7 start was not unfathomable, between injuries and Kentucky and Xavier among the road games. "A month ago we were struggling, but we still believed,’’ senior forward JT Yoho said. "Now we’ve got some confidence.’’
Thomasson went one use of the word belief further. "We have unbelievable belief in each other.’’
Donlon mentioned three non-conference home wins in six days in December as the start of the revival. Charleston Southern, Bowling Green, Murray State. Then came Horizon League play, and they haven’t looked back.
"You get a second season with your first conference game,’’ Donlon said. "But if we didn’t do what we did in those three home games, it would have been fragile. That sent a message to me, these guys can do something."
Look at them now. They blow a 17-point lead in the second half at Milwaukee, but win in overtime. They come from 14 back in the second half to beat Detroit on a late 3-pointer by Grant Benzinger, whose father Todd played for the Cincinnati Reds just down the road, and caught the last out in the 1990 World Series sweep of Oakland.
More Benzinger deeds Friday, the son burying a 70-footer at the first half buzzer, setting the tone for what was to come, not to mention making ESPN.
Mark Alstork is the leading scorer at 12.4. Yoho is next at 12.2, but comes off the bench. Thomasson is the leading free throw shooter in the Horizon League at 90 percent, after making 14 of 16 against Valpo.
"I don’t joke around at the free throw line,’’ he said. "Free throws, it’s what you put into it, in the gym.’’
They might have been 296th in the nation in scoring going into Friday, but they’ve put up enough points to win. And they take their defense seriously. "When they score,’’ Thomasson said, "it matters to us.’’
Friday was something of a right of passage from the dark times. Yes, Wright State is that good.
"What these kids have gone through the last 16 months is really remarkable,’’ Donlon said. "They’ve had to deal with a lot.
"We’ve just got to keep the train moving in this direction.’’