Predictions are an integral part of any sport, but seem to be even more present in the world of college basketball. Every single season culminates in a billion-dollar monthlong prediction party, and the extended offseason of about thirty weeks affords more than enough time for amateur and professional seers alike to prognosticate on their favorite school's chances for next year. A staple of this annual offseason is the supermarket preview magazine. Not to rip on Athlon, Lindy's, or others (all of which I love), but they have a tendency to expound on major conference schools in great detail while delegating the prediction of a small school's success to a very simple formula. A team outside the BCS conferences is generally picked to do as well as the ratio of points returning to points lost, with slight tweaks. These adjustments can be a variety of factors (incoming impact freshmen, major conference transfers, legendary coach), but the basic principle remains. If you lose a lot of scoring, you're looking at a down year. If you return a lot of scoring, this could be the year you're in the conversation for the league crown (unless you're in the WCC, at which point you're generally just playing for second).
The 2011-12 iteration of the Wright State Raiders followed this script fairly well. The team had graduated its top four scorers from a respectable 19 win squad in 2010-11, and the only notable addition was NC State transfer Julius Mays. Mays was undoubtedly a player who could make an impact, but also a bit of an unknown commodity. He had performed well in limited time with the Wolfpack, but his potential with major minutes remained to be seen. The same could be said for the rest of the young team.
Watching practice in the months prior to the 2011-12 season, further uncertainty surrounded an apparent lack of leadership. The lone senior was a soft-spoken transfer from D-I prodigal son New Orleans. None of the team's three juniors (including Mays) were ready to assume responsibility. They 2011-12 Raiders were a group of freshmen and sophomores, set to wander in the D-I wilderness without an on-court guide.
The season was frustrating but not futile. Mays had assumed a leadership role from a performance standpoint, but never really connected emotionally. Ending the year with a roller coaster 13-19 record, the outlook was cautiously optimistic for 2012-13. A young team would lose little and return Mays. Unfortunately, it was just a couple months before news of Julius' transfer to Big Blue Nation was revealed. While addition by subtraction remains a favorite sportz catchphrase, it had little application here. A team with zero seniors, zero star and zero scoring had zero chance. Come October, peers and seers alike picked the Raiders to finish last in the nine team Butler-less Horizon League.
Perhaps as a result, nonconference scheduling was set at pillow soft (only one team north of 120 in the Pomeroys) and still only produced an 8-4 record. Culminating in a shaky nine point win over a middling D-III team, many local fans were concerned. By most accounts, the season to forget was ready to kick into high gear.
But the Raiders kept winning. A 3-0 league start made fans in the Horizon take notice, and soon after WSU got their first shot at national exposure on the stage that has become a Mid-Majority staple: the Friday night ESPNU game. Wright State's grinding, defensively minded style delivered a 62-61 road victory over Loyola (IL) in a game the Raiders had no business winning. When you can hold your opponent scoreless, you only need one point. Sophomore Reggie Arceneaux hit a three with 1:35 remaining, and the defense put the Ramblers on lockdown until the final horn. Suddenly 4-0 and atop the Horizon, things were looking up.
A renewed defensive emphasis, developmental success, and the emergence of new offensive threats have all contributed to the current 18-9 record. Five weeks later and sitting at 9-5 in the league within striking distance of Valparaiso and the Horizon League crown, the tangible reasons for success are easy to pinpoint. However, speculation on the intangibles is much more fun. This team is passionate, while keeping their emotions in check under pressure. This team refuses to quit. There's something life-affirming and wonderful about that. Emotionally led by Arceneaux and productionally led by a mature, shared responsibility, this ship is sailing straight. They may not make land at the tournament this year, but that's not the end of the world. Without a single senior on the roster, there are reasons to get excited in a world of predictions. The Raiders of 2012-13 may have defied cellar-dwelling expectations, but don't be surprised to hear the Raiders of 2013-14 picked to be champions.
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