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Valparaiso at Cleveland State, 10:00 PM Eastern, ESPNU
Four days from now, the first conference tournament games will tip-off beginning the longest and most exciting week of the college basketball season, the 13 days known as Championship Week. Over the next three days, 13 conferences will be concluding their regular seasons and releasing the brackets for their conference tournaments. In the Horizon League, a conference that in our opinion does things right by giving home court advantage and a double bye to its regular season champion, a ton of questions regarding their bracket will be answered tonight and tomorrow. This is because three teams still have a shot at the top seed, and a fourth can at least tie for the regular season title and get the double bye that comes with the #2 seed. Due to the conference schedule falling exactly right, these four teams will be playing each other over these next two days. Tomorrow afternoon, Oakland is at Green Bay (2:00 PM, espn3) in a game that will give the winner a shot at getting the #2 seed, and for Oakland at least could even lift them to the #1 spot, amazingly enough for a team that has not been in serious title contention in the Horizon until this past week. Tonight, with a late night tip time in Cleveland, Valpo and Cleveland State will battle to each put their claims in for the #1 seed as well.
The easiest path to the top seed belongs to the Valparaiso Crusaders, who lost a chance to clinch it outright earlier this week when they got upset at Detroit. Valpo is a full game up on the other three teams in the league standings, sitting at 12-3 in conference and 25-5 overall. This means that winning tonight’s game will lock the Crusaders into the top spot and give them home court advantage throughout the Horizon League tournament. To do so, Valpo will need to get Trevonn Walker back on track. After scoring 20 points against Green Bay and 12 against Milwaukee two weeks ago, the past week has seen him score a total of 5 points in two games, including being held scoreless in a win over Wright State. Another performance like these past two will not be enough if the Crusaders want to knock off Cleveland State in what should be a raucous, crazy atmosphere at the Wolstein Center tonight.
Cleveland State (11-4 in conference, 17-12 overall) has a excellent chance to be the #1 seed if they win tonight, but it is not guaranteed. If CSU wins tonight and Green Bay wins tomorrow afternoon, the Vikings will be in the top spot and hosting the conference tournament. However, if Oakland pulls off the upset in Green Bay tomorrow, the tiebreaker between the two teams would go the their RPI rankings, which are right now only 16 points apart (with Cleveland State leading). Given that Oakland’s win will be a road win, which receives more credit in the RPI than a home victory, and they would have both defeated top 100 programs, that gap will be narrowed down to almost nothing. Odds are that Cleveland State will end up ahead of Oakland, but do not be shocked if it turns out that the Golden Grizzlies capture the top spot. Regardless of the RPI rankings, CSU’s first order of business will be to win tonight, and to do so they will need a much better effort from Trey Lewis than he gave in the first meeting between these teams, when Valpo held him to 5 points and 1 rebound. For a player that lit up Green Bay for 25 points and 12 boards back in January, a lot more will be needed if the Vikings want to win the conference regular season title. If he and his teammates come through, this could be one of the most exciting and fun games we have seen all season among the Under the Radar teams, and CSU fans may be able to start making plans for a home semifinal game next Saturday night as well.