(SportsNetwork.com) - Move over two-time defending Horizon League champion Valparaiso, there's a new ruler in the conference.
The Green Bay Phoenix came out as the Horizon League's regular season title winner, which means the Phoenix will earn an automatic double-bye into the semifinal round and serve as the hosts of the tournament for as long as they remain in the field.
It's the first time in 18 years that Green Bay won the regular season Horizon League title, as the Phoenix clinched the top overall seed back on Feb. 20 with a dominating win over defending champion Valpo, 67-53. The Phoenix finished the season with a 24-5 overall record, and ended the Horizon League conference slate at 14-2.
Green Bay closed out the season with a two-game lead in the conference over Cleveland State, and was four games ahead of Wright State, which, as a three- seed last season, made it to the conference championship game before bowing out to Valparaiso. The Phoenix won the final five games of the regular season, last losing to Milwaukee on Feb. 8.
Cleveland State, with the second seed in the conference, will also get a double-bye into the semifinal round. Wright State, which finished a game ahead of the defending champion Crusaders in the regular season, gets a first-round bye as the three seed and will play the winner of the Youngstown State and Oakland matchup.
First-round action will get underway on Tuesday, March 4, with eighth-seeded Detroit - champions two season ago - playing at fifth-seeded Milwaukee, sixth- seed Oakland hosting seventh-seeded Youngstown State, and fourth-seed Valparaiso entertaining the ninth-seed Illinois-Chicago.
The tournament begins with the Milwaukee Panthers playing host to the Detroit Titans.
Milwaukee ended its regular season on Thursday with a 68-62 victory over the same Titans the team will see at home in this first-round contest. The defeat of Detroit snapped a four-game Panthers' losing streak that set Milwaukee back to 6-9 in the conference, then the win over Detroit improved the team to a final Horizon League record of 7-9. Jordan Aaron led the way for Milwaukee this season in scoring, averaging 14.2 ppg, despite his late-season suspension, while Kyle Kelm chipped in 12.4 ppg and Matt Tiby added 12.2 ppg with a team-best 6.7 rpg average. Detroit played on Saturday and was dropped by regular-season champ Green Bay, 75-66, which capped a three-game losing skid for the Titans to end the regular season. Detroit finished with a 13-18 overall record and slipped to 6-10 in conference play, never winning more than two games in a row in the Horizon League. Juwan Howard Jr. paced the Titans with 18.2 ppg this season, good for fourth in the conference. Evan Bruinsma was the only other Detroit player to average a double-digit point total at 12.5 ppg with a team-leading 7.7 rpg. Detroit defeated Milwaukee at the Panthers' home back on Jan. 24 (73-54).
Sixth-seeded Oakland hosts Youngstown State as Horizon League first-round action continues Tuesday.
Oakland, in its first season as a member of the conference, struggled mightily to begin the season, starting out at 0-7 in league play, and wasn't able to stay consistent in the conference this year. The Golden Grizzlies finished the regular season at 12-19 overall, but held a 7-9 conference record, losing out on the tiebreaker with Milwaukee. Oakland ended the regular season with its second victory over Youngstown State, 87-81, at the home of the Penguins. the Grizzlies sported three players in double-digit scoring totals this year, led by the NCAA's new all-time leader in 3-point field goals made in Travis Bader. Bader scored 20.1 ppg - third in the conference - hitting 41 percent from 3- point range. Corey Petros chipped in 13.4 ppg with a team-best 8.2 rpg average, and Duke Mondy netted 11.7 ppg for Oakland. Youngstown State must try and turn around from a loss to the Grizzlies Saturday. The Penguins finished the year at 15-16 overall, but had a 6-10 mark in the Horizon League. YSU boasts the conference's leading scorer, Kendrick Perry, who netted 20.9 ppg on the season. Ryan Weber (11.9 ppg), Kamren Belin (11.3 ppg) and Bobby Hain (11.3 ppg) contributed to a strong offensive attack for the Penguins. The Penguins will hope their league-leading offense (76.4 ppg) will be enough to cancel out any of their opponents.
First-round Horizon League action will end with a matchup featuring defending champion Valparaiso hosting the troubled Illinois-Chicago Flames.
The Crusaders dropped a pair of conference contests early on, then recovered with three straight wins. It was a back-and-forth season for Valpo, which finished with a 17-14 overall record and a 9-7 ledger in conference play. The Crusaders dropped their final two contests of the regular season, which could have played a crucial role in getting the team a first-round bye had they been wins. LaVonte Dority finished as the Crusaders' top scorer this season and fifth in the conference with 16.2 ppg. Alec Peters was the only other Valpo member to average a double-digit scoring total at 12 ppg. The defending champion Crusaders averaged 72.7 ppg as a team. Illinois-Chicago suffered through an excruciatingly long losing streak of 17 games and ended the season 6-24 overall with a 1-15 mark in conference play. Kelsey Barlow provided a bright spark for the Flames with a 14.9 ppg average and 120 assists to pace the team. Marc Brown was the only other member of the Flames to average a double-digit point total, netting 11.1 ppg. UIC dropped its first contest at Valpo back on Jan. 2 (87-72), and lost against at home to the Crusaders on Feb. 1 (70-46).
The winner of Oakland and Youngstown State will take on third-seed Wright State in second-round action on Friday, March 7th. The Raiders finished the regular season with an 18-13 overall record, and reached the double-digit win plateau in conference play with a 10-6 mark. Wright State only lost to one conference team twice this season - conference title winner Green Bay. The Raiders suffered through a three-game losing streak at the end of January that spanned into February, but was halted with a win over Youngstown State. Scoring was a bit of an issue for the Raiders this season, as the team averaged just 67.4 ppg and had one player record a double-digit point average through 31 games played. A.J. Pacher netted 10.9 ppg for Wright State, with Jerran Young the next closest scorer at 8.3 ppg. The Raiders pride themselves on defense, allowing just 62.3 ppg to opponents, but are second to last in the Horizon League in defensive rebounding, grabbing just 21.9 defensive rpg. Plus their tournament record all-time is against them, entering the fray at 15-18 overall.
Cleveland State had a less than stellar season when it came to playing out-of- conference opponents, but really found its groove when Horizon League action started up. The Vikings won their last three games to end the regular season, and won 10 of their last 11 overall. Cleveland State won 21 games this season, finishing at 21-10 overall and 12-4 in the conference. The Vikings haven't exactly been aces in the Horizon League Tournament, entering this competition with an 11-17 overall record in the event with just one conference championship - back in 2009. But the Vikings will be trying to forget their tourney history, as they trot out a dangerous lineup led by Bryn Forbes (15.7 ppg) and Trey Lewis (13.3 ppg). Jon Harris provides a spark off the bench, adding 10.6 ppg in 30 games played with zero starts, while big man Anton Grady chips in 10.4 ppg.
The last time Green Bay won a Horizon League title was back in the 1995 season, which was the only conference title the school has seen. The Phoenix own a sub-.500 tournament record at 15-18, but this was a different type of year for the regular season conference champs. Green Bay finished with a 24-5 record, and with a 14-2 mark in the conference. The Phoenix used a 12-game win streak that bled into the start of conference play to propel them forward, and then a five-game win streak at the end of the season to cap things off. The team didn't lose back-to-back games all season long. The Phoenix own the league's second-best scoring offense (74.9 ppg) and the league's best scoring defense (59.5 ppg allowed) headed into the conference tourney. Led by Keifer Sykes offensively, who checks in at second in the conference in scoring (20.4 ppg), Green Bay can be deadly. Alec Brown adds 15.8 ppg, and Greg Mays is just shy of scoring double digits with 9.9 ppg.