Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The Green Bay Phoenix dominated the 2013-14 campaign in Horizon League play during the regular season, earning the title after going an impressive 14-2 in-conference. But the Phoenix were ousted from the conference tournament before they could reach the finals, meaning the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament would not belong to them. Instead, the team was relegated to the NIT, but this year returns some powerful talent as the team gets set to start up the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, it was surprising Milwaukee (7-9 in Horizon League play last year) that ended up winning the automatic bid to the tournament after defeating Wright State in the league's tournament championship.
Green Bay is the favorite this year after returning last season's Horizon League Player of the Year Keifer Sykes, along with some other strong players and large Kirkwood Community College transfer Henry Uwadiae. The Phoenix should easily finish at or near the top, but will get a serious push from typical contender Cleveland State. The Vikings return a handful of impact players, including four starters from a year ago, but do lose Bryn Forbes to transfer, as last season's team-leading scorer is now with Michigan State. Don't be shocked the see Valparaiso, which finished last season at 9-7 in the Horizon League, contend for the title in 2014. The Crusaders started three freshman last year, and now possess a youthful yet experienced lineup. Detroit, led by Juwan Howard Jr., is always a threat to finish at or near the top of the conference. Howard enters his senior season as one of the favorites to challenge Sykes for the league's player of the year status.
Wright State is usually in contention for the league's title, and can typically be seen toward the top of the conference standings. But the Raiders lost their top four scorers from last season's Horizon League championship runner-up campaign, so coach Billy Donlan will have to look to least year's bench for some help. Milwaukee was the surprise winner of the conference's automatic bid, but is guaranteed to take a back seat to every other league team after being hit with a one-year postseason ban for low APR scores. Three starters return for the Panthers, who will try and make noise in the regular season. Speaking of noise made in the regular season, Oakland lost some strong contributors from last season's team, including shooting guard Travis Bader - the NCAA's all-time leader in three-point field goals made. But with returnees Corey Petros and Kahlil Felder leading the squad, Oakland can one again pick up some surprise wins.
Youngstown State and Illinois-Chicago figure to finish toward the bottom of the Horizon League this season. The Penguins were 7-9 last season in conference play, but lost three of the leading scorers during the offseason, including the league's leading scorer from 2013 in Kendrick Perry. UIC has had six straight seasons of sub-.500 play, and didn't get much in the offseason that will make too great of an impact as the team searches for a turnaround.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Green Bay
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Green Bay, 2. Cleveland State, 3. Valparaiso, 4. Detroit. 5. Wright State, 6. Milwaukee, 7. Oakland, 9. Youngstown State, 9. UIC
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
GREEN BAY: For Green Bay this season, everything starts and ends with Sykes. Last season's Horizon League Player of the Year has already been tabbed the conference's preseason player of the year and an All-Horizon League Team watch. Sykes was the league's second-leading scorer in 2013-14, averaging 20.3 ppg, 4.9 apg and 4.4 rpg, and projects to be a top senior in the nation moving forward. He played even better against top-notch competition, averaging 25.6 ppg against teams that wen on to make the NCAA Tournament. Coach Brian Wardle's squad, which finished 24-7 overall, 14-2 in conference play, is bolstered with the return of three more starters from a season ago, including Horizon All-Defensive Team Jordan Fouse and 6-foot-9 forward Greg Mays (10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg). The biggest loss is that of four-year starter Alec Brown, but the addition of community college transfer and current sophomore Henry Uwadiae (6-foot-11) will make a huge impact. Expect great things from a Green Bay squad that easily locked up the Horizon League regular season title last season.
CLEVELAND STATE: Once Green Bay went down in the conference tournament last season, Cleveland State (21-12, 12-4) became the favorite to win it all, but was upset as well. Coach Gary Waters expects some pretty great things from his squad again this year, even without Bryn Forbes (15.g ppg, 3.1 rpg), who transferred to Michigan State in the offseason. It can't be too great of a blow to the Vikings, though, who still return four starters from last season's squad, including Trey Lewis (13.1 ppg, 3.4 apg), point guard Charlie Lee (9.8 ppg, 4.1 apg) and Anton Grady (10.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Grady led the team in rebounding a year ago despite suffering a knee injury during his freshman campaign with the Vikings. Key reserve Jon Harris isn't on the roster anymore, but senior Marlin Mason, who started all 33 games in 2013, should be a valuable senior to a squad with just two of them this season. The Vikings averaged 73 ppg as a team last season, and will need all the help they can get in terms of scoring to keep pace with Green bay, Valpo and a very offensive- driven league.
VALPARAISO: No, LaVonte Dority is not back for the Crusaders (18-16, 9-7) after a seriously strong 2013 in which he averaged a team-high 15.7 ppg. For a Valpo team that finished right in the middle of the Horizon League road a season ago, third place may seem like a surprising place to pick them to finish. But realistically, the Crusaders could challenge for the conference crown this year after a season in which three freshmen won starting jobs. One of them, Alec Peters, was tabbed as a preseason Horizon League First-Team finisher after the now-sophomore averaged 12.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg and shot 49 percent from the floor in 2013. Lexus Williams (6.5 ppg, 81 total assists) and Jubril Adekoya (5.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg) have been tested, and will be ready to go for the upcoming year. Charlotte transfer E. Victor Nickerson (6-foot-7 swing man) is eligible to play this season after missing last year. He'll team up with big man Vashil Fernandez (5.1 rpg) as go-to scorers down low. Valpo has just two seniors on the roster, and eight freshmen and sophomores, so get set to see the Crusaders near the top of the league standings for a few more years.
DETROIT: The Titans, who finished the season at 13-19 and 6-10 in Horizon League play, probably should have been better in 2013-14. With a solid lineup led by Juwan Howard Jr., Detroit somehow finished toward the bottom of the conference standings, but played the role of spoiler on multiple occasions. But this year should be different, with Howard returning for his senior campaign after leading the team with 18.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 2.2 apg - the only player in the Horizon League to top his squad in all three major categories. He's joined by guards Carlton Brundidge (7.5 ppg, 2,4 rpg), who used to play at Michigan, Jarod Williams (7.7 ppg, 2.0 apg) and Matthew Grant (7.9 ppg, 2,4 rpg) that will form the team's core this upcoming season. Penn State transfer Patrick Ackerman (6-foot-10) will have an immediate impact in the post on a guard-heavy team, while Patrick Onwenu's role should increase after his 4.0 rpg mark last year. The Titans also have transfer Chris Jenkins from Colorado, who could become a productive player for them. They'll be a surprise pick once again, but should certainly improve after last season's disappointment.
WRIGHT STATE: The Raiders made their way back to the Horizon League championship game after finishing the season with a 21-15 overall record, and a 10-6 mark in conference play. But Wright State may be lucky to repeat those feats again this season after saying goodbye to their top four scorers in the offseason. Coach Billy Donlan signed seven recruits to the roster in the off time, which means he's building his bench and getting ready for future play. Grant Evans is a freshman recruit coming in who averaged 25.5 ppg as a senior in Indiana, who may be the most coveted coming into the program. Senior Reggie Arceneaux (7.1 ppg, 76 assists) will be one of the team's leaders this upcoming season, along with Kendall Griffin (5.1 ppg) and Chrishawn Hopkins (5.3 ppg). Junior JT Yoho averaged 7.9 ppg last season, along with 3.1 rpg and a 44.2 shooting percentage, and junior college transfer Michael Karena should be able to step into the lineup right away and produce. It's a transitioning time for the Raiders, but Donlan will still be looking for the right combination of guys who can produce and make an impact.
MILWAUKEE: In a conference as contentious as the Horizon League, it was only a bit surprising to see Milwaukee wind up in the championship game vying for the league's automatic bid. It was definitely surprising to see the team win and head to the NCAA Tournament, but the Panthers, who finished with a 21014 overall record and a 7-9 league record, made it work with a visibly pumped up lineup. This year will be different, considering the team is ineligible for the league title with low APR scores. But that doesn't mean the team won't still compete during the regular season, with fifth-year senior Steve McWhorter (4.1 rpg, 4.0 apg) back for another go-around. Junior center Matt Tiby (12.0 ppg) was one of the Panthers players who got an adrenaline boost in the conference tournament, and is an all-conference candidate heading into the 2014-15 campaign. Finally for the Panthers, Northern Illinois transfer Akeem Springs is eligible to play after sitting out a season. Springs averaged 7.7 ppg as a freshman for NIU in 2012-12, but the 6-foot-4 guard needs to improve his 33.1 shooting percentage from the field.
OAKLAND: The Golden Grizzlies, who finished the 2013-14 season at 13-20 overall with a 7-9 conference mark, were a very polarizing team last year. Oakland would have games to remember with huge upsets and eye-popping scoring numbers, and then fall to unlikely teams with dud performances. The latter seems like the more likely option this upcoming season after the Grizzlies lost leading scorer Travis Bader (20.6 ppg) to graduation. Senior forward Corey Petros is a First-Team All-Horizon League preseason selection after averaging 13.3 ppg and a league-leading 8.2 rpg in 2013. Duke Mondy will be missed by the Grizzlies after his departure, but point guard Kahlil Felder (9.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 6.4 apg) returns from his Horizon League Freshman of the Year season for another shot. Felder turned into a triple-double threat toward the end of last season, and was by far the leading passer on his team. St. John's transfer Max Hooper will get the first shot at winning the vacant shooting guard job for head coach Greg Kampe.
YOUNGSTOWN STATE: Youngstown State finished the 2013-14 season with a 15-17 overall record and a 6-10 mark in league play, despite averaging 76.9 ppg as a unit. That certainly won't happen again this upcoming season, as the Penguins are without not only their top three leading scorers from a year ago, but the conference's top overall scorer in Kendrick Perry (21.3 ppg). The only returning player that averaged double-digit points for YSU in 2013 is big 6- foot-10 forward Bobby Hain (11.1 ppg, team-best 7.7 rpg, 16 blocked shots). Point guard D.J. Cole should be the go-to player this season after averaging 8.3 ppg and registering a team-best 143 assists last year, which was third in the league. Incoming freshmen Bryce Nickels and Sidney Umude are expected to compete for playing time right away, considering the holes left by seniors Perry, Ryan Weber and Kamren Belin. Fifth-year senior Shawn Amiker (5.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg) should see plenty of additional minutes.
UIC: The Flames were a mess again in 2013-14, finishing with a 6-15 overall record and a dismal 1-15 mark in Horizon League play. It was the sixth straight season for Illinois-Chicago with a below-.500 record, and coach Howard Moore is now 39-87 in four seasons at the helm of the Flames. Despite the loss of Kelsey Barlow (14.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 121 total assists), the Flames may still compete for a middle-of-the-road spot in the conference, if things go well. Senior Marc Brown (11.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg) will likely be the go-to scorer for the Flames, while Jake Wiegand (7.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg) will be the man in the frontcourt. Moore and the Flames are hoping three junior college transfers and three freshmen will provide some sort of spark, but it's a long shot for the ice-cold Flames. It will be an extremely long road with teams like DePaul, Southern Illinois, Dayton and SMU all on the non-conference schedule, but there isn't a whole lot worse the team can do after last season. Unless something drastic and unforeseen occurs, UIC will be at the bottom of the Horizon League once again.