Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The Horizon League was dominated by the Butler Bulldogs up until their exit in 2011, but it has since transformed into one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in the nation, as all nine of the member schools enter the 2013-14 campaign with a legitimate shot of prevailing as champion.
Butler's streak of five consecutive Horizon League regular season titles finally came to an end when it departed for the Atlantic 10. The Bulldogs' exit opened up the door for a new perennial powerhouse to emerge. Valparaiso has managed two straight first place finishes in the Horizon League standings, but the Crusaders were upset by Detroit in the 2012 conference title game before defeating Wright State en route to an NCAA Tournament berth last season.
Although the Titans and Crusaders lost their first games in the Big Dance, the conference has an excellent track record during March Madness. Thanks in large part due to Butler's back-to-back Cinderella runs to the national title game, the Horizon League has one of the best NCAA Tournament records among the mid- major conferences with 19 wins and 15 losses since 2002. The Horizon League sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament three times during that span as Butler was joined by Milwaukee in 2003, Wright State in 2007 and Cleveland State in 2009.
The landscape of the conference will also have a different look due to Loyola- Illinois's move to the Missouri Valley Conference. The Horizon League kept its total of members at nine by welcoming the Oakland Golden Grizzlies from the Summit League.
Valpo will have a tough task ahead of it as it attempts to repeat as regular season champions for a third straight season due to the graduation of all five of its starters. Coach Bryce Drew's team is more likely to fall to the middle of the pack, while Green Bay, Detroit, Oakland and Wright State appear to be set for a four-horse race to the finish. The Titans finished just behind Valpo in the conference standings last season with the Phoenix and Raiders followed tied for third. It will interesting to see how Detroit performs in its first season without the reigning conference player of the year, Ray McCallum, Jr, who was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the NBA Draft following his decision to forego his final year of eligibility.
Although the Horizon League is very open to start the season, it is not expected to earn multiple bids from the NCAA Tournament selection committee again, which will only heighten the intensity of the Horizon League Championship.
Illinois-Chicago and Valpo are not too far from the top despite both programs having to reload. Rather than completely rebuild, UIC and the Crusaders added experienced transfers to remain relevant. The Crusaders also graduated a HL Player of the Year in Ryan Broekhoff, who took home the award in 2012.
Youngstown State, Cleveland State and Milwaukee round out the nine-team field. The Vikings hope to bounce back after having multiple injuries impede their progress. The Panthers were the only school in the league to win less than 10 games in 2012-13 and they also lost 13 of their 18 games versus conference rivals.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Green Bay
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Green Bay, 2. Detroit, 3. Oakland, 4. Wright State, 5. Illinois-Chicago, 6. Valparaiso, 7. Youngstown State, 8. Cleveland State, 9. Milwaukee
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
GREEN BAY: After a slow start had many labeling the Phoenix as "overrated", they silenced the critics down the stretch. Coach Bryan Wardle also guided his squad to a decision over Detroit. Green Bay nearly upset Valpo in the conference tournament semifinals as it held a 69-67 lead with only seconds remaining, but Broekhoff prevented the Phoenix from advancing by drilling a shot from beyond the 3-point arc as time expired. Green Bay returns four starters from its 18- in team, including All-Horizon First Team guard Keifer Sykes (15.9 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Second Team center Alec Brown (14.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg), who will be closely watched by NBA scouts throughout his senior campaign. Green Bay was one of the top defensive teams in the league with only 63 points per game allowed on 41.1 percent shooting from the floor. The team has some promising newcomers joining the mix in Eastern Illinois transfer Alfonzo McKinnie and Rutgers transfer Vincent Garrett. The 6-foot-8 McKinnie was of the Ohio Valley Conference's top post players in 2011-12 with 10.2 points and seven rebounds per game. He also finished second in the OVC in field-goal percentage at a 56.7 percent clip.
DETROIT: The Titans looked like they were destined for a fall to the bottom of the conference after losing four of their five starters from last season's unit that reached the NIT. However, coach Ray McCallum has high expectations for his squad due to the addition of Michigan transfer Carlton Brundidge. The Wolverines considered Brundidge their gem recruit until Trey Burke arrived on the scene to soak up the majority of the minutes. Although Brundidge is an excellent scorer for a floor general, his decision-making ability will be more vital as much of Detroit's success last season came courtesy of its efficiency that had it ranked third in the nation in turnover percentage. The team's top returners, Juwan Howard, Jr (7.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Evan Bruinsma (5.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg), will both have more vital roles offensively, while junior college transfer Patrick Onwenu (6-8, 210) has potential to be a force on the interior. The Titans' lack of depth may require immediate contributions from the freshman trio of Matthew Grant, Paris Bass and Jarod Williams.
OAKLAND: Coach Greg Kampe's offensive philosophy consistently makes Oakland one of the most exciting teams in college basketball. The Golden Grizzles had four players finish the season with double-digit scoring averages and Ryan Bass (9.3 ppg) nearly made that number five. The team averaged 74.1 ppg and hoisted up 239 attempts from 3-point range, but it allowed 75.3 ppg to its opposition despite averaging 2.5 less turnovers. Oakland had a disappointing conclusion to its final tour of the Summit League with four losses over the span of its last five games, including a 12-point loss at Youngstown State in the first round of the CIT. Oakland has a potential Horizon Player of the Year candidate in senior guard Travis Bader (22.1 ppg), who needs just 101 more makes from beyond the 3-point arc to tie J.J. Redick's all-time NCAA record, which he will most likely eclipse if he stays healthy considering he sank a career-high of 139 treys as a junior. Bader has plenty of help around him with Duke Mondy (12 ppg, 5.1 apg), Bass (9.3 ppg, 1.2 spg) and Corey Petros (12.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) all returning. Freshman guard Kahlil Felder (5-9, 165) could offer immediate depth behind Mondy.
WRIGHT STATE: The Raiders have plenty of reason to believe this is their year to go dancing with nine of the players that made up their 10-man rotation back to build upon. Wright State paced the conference in scoring defense by holding its foes to only 58.5 ppg, but it averaged the fewest points with an average of only 62 ppg. Coach Billy Donlon's squad performed well after falling to Valpo in the conference tourney as it defeated Tulsa by 20 points and Richmond, 57-51, before falling to Santa Clara in the CBI Tournament semifinals. Due to the unusually deep rotation, senior forward Cole Darling (11.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg) was the only Raider with a double-digit scoring average. Jerran Young (8.8 ppg, 4.1) and Miles Dixon (8.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) played a huge role in the team's success last season by providing energy and scoring off the bench. Wright State will also have the services of Butler transfer Chrishawn Hopkins after the fall semester. The junior guard averaged 9.1 points and 23.2 minutes for the Bulldogs in 2011-12.
ILLINOIS-CHICAGO: After failing to do so in his first two years at the helm of the program, coach Howard Moore finally managed to implement his defensive system with the Flames last season which propelled them to an 18-16 overall record with a 7-9 mark versus league rivals. This came after an 8-21 campaign in 2011-12 that included only three HL wins. UIC came out of the gate hot with nine wins through its opening 10 games, including impressive decisions at Northwestern and versus Colorado State. It then cooled off with three consecutive losses to weaker opponents in Western Illinois, Miami-Ohio and Toledo before entering league action. Although the Flames were sporadic throughout the campaign, they stayed steady on the glass with 33.3 rpg. Although senior forward Hayden Humes (10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) is the only returner with proven scoring prowess, UIC will have other options on the offensive end due to the additions of Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow and 6-8 Central Arkansas transfer Jordan Harks.
VALPARAISO: The Crusaders graduated all five starters from last season's team that finished second in the conference in scoring (71.7 ppg) on a league leading 48.9 percent shooting from the floor. Coach Bryce Drew's team was dangerous from beyond the arc as well, hitting on 37.2 percent of its 3-point field goal tries. Valpo's totals of 26 overall victories and 13 conference wins will most likely be out of reach unless a Crusader has a breakout season. Senior guard and former USF Bull LaVonte Dority showed off his ability to fill it up with 8.6 ppg after joining the team in the second semester. Dority will most likely be the focal point offensively, at least until Saint Louis transfer Keith Carter becomes eligible at the start of the second semester.
YOUNGSTOWN STATE: Although the Penguins ended the 2012-13 season with a 7-9 mark in league play, they went 18-16 overall after being defeated by Canisius in overtime in the second round of the CIT. The setback to the Golden Griffins dropped YSU to 0-4 in overtime games on the season. The Penguins had never competed in a postseason tourney as a Division I team previously. Coach Jerry Slocum will need to inspire his team to step up its effort on the defensive end to lower its scoring defense average of 69.3 ppg. YSU also has to do a better job converting its attempts from the charity stripe after hitting on only 69.2 percent from the free-throw line. The Penguins have a fighter's chance due to superstar point guard Kendrick Perry, who tallied 17.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals per outing as a junior. Perry is one of the early favorites to win the HL Player of the Year Award, but he will need the help of senior forward Kamren Bell (11.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and junior guard D.J. Cole (6.9 ppg) if the Penguins want to make a run at the league crown.
CLEVELAND STATE: Coach Gary Waters had led his unit to 20 triumphs or more in four of his six previous seasons at Cleveland State before a disappointing 14-18 display in his seventh year. The Vikings never recovered from the early setback of an injury to 6-8 forward Anton Grady (13.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), which ended the 2011-12 All-Newcomer team selection's season after just six games. They also lost their intensity on the defensive end of the floor and allowed their opponents to torch them to the tune of 69.6 ppg. CSU scored only 64.1 ppg itself and never won more than two games in a row. Waters added depth at guard and also to his frontcourt to prevent another significant decline due to an injury. The Vikings return a decent one-two punch to the backcourt with the reigning HL assist champion Charlie Lee (11.6 ppg, 4.8 apg) at point guard and the team's leading scorer Bryn Forbes (12.7 ppg). Penn State transfer Trey Lewis will be eligible after posting 5.6 ppg as a freshman for the Nittany Lions with six starts in 20 games. In addition to Grady, CSU has some talent on the interior with Marlin Mason (8.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Miami-Ohio transfer Jon Harris (8.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg) in the mix.
MILWAUKEE: Rob Jeter's Panthers have plenty of room for improvement after finishing the 2012-13 season ranked second to last in the conference in both scoring offense (62.7 ppg) and scoring defense (70.8 ppg). Milwaukee had not experienced a losing season in five years and it will rely on several newcomers as it attempts to climb back above the .500 mark this season. The Panthers indicated they had talent in the early part of their season with a hard-fought overtime loss at South Carolina and a five-point win over the Davidson Wildcats, who went on to win the SoCon regular season and tournament championships. Milwaukee fell apart and lost 19 games by double-digit margins, including its final two at Green Bay to end the disappointing campaign. Senior guard Jordan Aaron is the only returner that ended 2012-13 with a double-digit scoring average at 14.4 ppg and also handed out 4.0 apg. Although Aaron is only 5-10, his scoring ability makes him much more valuable at the shooting guard position. He will be able to play off the ball much more this year when Indiana State transfer Steve McWhorter becomes eligible along with Malcolm Moore, who last played for the UTEP Miners.