In a league that has exhibited more parity than a lot of its mid-major counterparts, it’s only mildly surprising that the two best teams are set to meet in the Horizon League Championship. Wright State and Northern Kentucky have been the class of the league over the last couple of years, each claiming one of the league’s NCAA Tournament bids in the last two seasons.
On Tuesday night, the two top seeds will meet in the title game, marking the first time since 2011 that the league’s best survived the Horizon League gauntlet. However, the two teams took very different paths to the title game.
Wright State rolled through IUPUI in the first round in a game that was not as close as the 71-56 final margin showed. The Raiders followed it up by stifling a fast paced Green Bay team to the tune of a 66-54 win. Wright State’s calling card has been their prowess on the defensive end - especially in conference play - and it was out in full force through the first two rounds.
The Norse took a different route. They had to rally from a seven-point halftime deficit against a pesky Detroit team in the first round before ultimately winning a high-scoring affair, 99-88. Last night in the semifinals, the Norse seemed on their way to a convincing win over Oakland. However, the Golden Grizzlies went on an 11-0 run to take the lead in the final seconds, setting up the Norse for one of the postseason’s biggest collapses. Enter Drew McDonald.
The best player in Northern Kentucky did what you would have expected him to do, which is stepping up when his team needed him most. Trailing by two with only a few seconds left on the clock, McDonald rose up and knocked in a three to send the Norse to the title game while living up to the Motor City Madness namesake.
Drew McDonald. Motor City Madness Onions! pic.twitter.com/vQTnrpGZHW— SB Nation CBB (@SBNationCBB) March 12, 2019
Tuesday night’s matchup will feature a contrast in styles between a pair of teams that haven’t played a game with a final margin of more than four points over the last two years. Here are a few things to watch for.
Battle of the Bigs
Drew McDonald and Loudon Love are two of the league’s best players at the same position, despite having differing styles of play. McDonald thrives as the do-it-all forward for the Norse by being just as comfortable on the outside as he is on the interior. He’s a 40 percent shooter from deep and and hauls in nearly 10 rebounds per game. He’s one of just seven players in college basketball to connect on over 40 percent of his threes while averaging at least nine rebounds per game. Of those seven, only Belmont’s Dylan Windler (92) hit more threes than McDonald (65).
Love, on the other hand, is your old fashioned bruiser. Check out this fun stat:
Loudon Love of Wright State is 6-9, 280. He's taken 703 shots in college, and 702 of them have been inside the arc. He might be the last great brute of a center in college basketball.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) March 12, 2019
He’s here to play big boy bully ball. In four matchups against Northern Kentucky, Love has averages of 17 points and eight rebounds per game. He’s the epicenter of the Raiders’ methodical offense and will be the focal point of the Norse’s defensive scheme.
Tyler Sharpe has taken a huge step forward for the Norse this year, asserting himself as a secondary option that is capable of outbursts like his 25-point outing against Detroit last week. Jalen Tate has become a jack-of-all trades on the wing that can fill the stat sheet.
For Wright State, Billy Wampler has been one of the league’s best scorers off the bench. He’s had 18 points in both of the Raiders conference tournament games and has six 20-point outings this year. Cole Gentry and Mark Hughes both average double figures as well.
The games between these two teams have come down to who can get the most out of their secondary scorers. In the first matchup, the Norse got a big game from Jalen Tate, resulting in a win. The second matchup that Wright State was largely spurred by 29 points from Wampler. It’s not rocket science to say that both teams will need the entire roster to play well to win. But it’s the truth.
In both matchups this season, the team that trailed at halftime went on to win the game. In games with razor thin margins, a tweak or two on the fly could make all of the difference. John Brannen and Scott Nagy are two very, very good coaches who have shown that they can make the changes needed within the flow of the game to give them the upper hand. It could be something like decided to double a hot hand. It could be throwing a different defensive look at the opponent during a crucial possession. The championship game will be a chess match between two great coaches.
KenPom projects Northern Kentucky by 1. At the time of writing this, Vegas has it as a pick em. These teams really are just about evenly matched. There’s no homecourt advantage. The talent levels are relatively equal. So how do you differentiate between the two and make a pick?
I’m going to go with Wright State here, much to the ire of the Norse fans who follow me online. The Raiders have simply been playing better as of late dating back to early February. They’re playing their best basketball of the season at the right time, and that should count for something. But it’s going to be a fantastic game and neither team winning would be a surprise.