Conference Preview: Horizon League

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The battle for the Horizon League championship last season came right down to the wire, with as many as four teams chasing the top seed in the conference tournament and the right to host it on their home court heading into the final weeks of the season.  In the end, a pair of late season losses by Cleveland State helped give the title to Valparaiso, which rode their home court edge into an NCAA Tournament bid where the Crusaders narrowly lost as a 13 seed in the Round of 64 to Maryland.  Green Bay received a bid to the NIT while the other two contenders, Cleveland State and Oakland, both played in the CIT.

Things will be different in the Horizon League this year.  First and foremost, the advantage of hosting the conference tournament no longer goes to the regular season champion.  Instead, the entire event will be played in Detroit.  The membership of the Horizon League is different too as Northern Kentucky moves over from the Atlantic Sun to become the conference’s 10th member.  On the court things do not appear to be nearly as close as last season’s exciting race.   Valpo returns virtually everyone from last year’s championship team and, with the other three postseason participants from last season all having lost key pieces, appears to be head and shoulders better than anyone else in the league.  Of course, being the best team on paper does not win conference titles and NCAA Tournament bids — winning on the court does.

Predicted Order of Finish

1.  Valparaiso – With pretty much everyone back from season, all signs point to a repeat title and a return to the NCAA Tournament.  In fact, with Alec Peters leading the way and plenty of depth, do not be shocked if the Crusaders are involved in at-large bid discussions should they need one.

2.  Milwaukee – The Panthers will be led by Matt Tiby in the frontcourt and Akeem Springs in the back, while adding in a fairly strong recruiting class.  Forward Austin Arians returns from a medical redshirt season and his addition should help the team be strong enough to be near the top of the conference standings.

3.  Oakland – Despite losing two of their top three scorers, the Golden Grizzlies do bring back Kahlil Felder and his 18.1 points per game.  They also add in three noteworthy transfers in guards Martez Walker (Texas) and Sherron Dorsey-Walker (Iowa State) plus forward Percy Gibson (also Iowa State).

4.  Wright State – The Raiders will be looking to rebound following an injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign.  JT Yoho and Steven Davis are both healthy heading into the season and there is no reason why they will not be vastly improved from last year’s 11-20 record.

5.  Detroit – Paris Bass was Freshman of the Year in the Horizon League last season and should be even better this time around.  However, it will be tough for the Titans to make up for the loss of Juwan Howard, Jr.

6.  Green Bay – Keifer Sykes is gone.  So is head coach Brian Wardle, who took the top job at Bradley.  However, the Phoenix are the only DI team other than Duke that can claim their head coach won the NCAA Tournament last season.  Linc Darner led Florida Southern to the Division II title last year and will try to continue his success at the Division I level.  He has already brought in a solid group of newcomers, including twin brothers Anthony and Avery Brown from the State of Florida.  This year may be a tough one, but the rebuild should go quickly.

7.  Illinois-Chicago – Steve McClain takes over as head coach and has some solid depth plus a strong first recruiting class, even if the team has no true star.  A repeat of last season’s 24 losses would be a shock for the Flames.

8.  Northern Kentucky – The conference’s newest member is in its final transitional year from Division II and is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament (though the Norse will be allowed to participate in the Horizon League tournament).  With Tyler White in the backcourt and Jalen Billups down low, the Norse could make some noise this year.

9.  Youngstown State – Senior forward Bobby Hain will be the clear leader for the Penguins, but the program was crushed by transfers and another long season looms ahead.

10.  Cleveland State – The Vikings were crushed in the offseason, losing their top four players including Trey Lewis, who transferred to Louisville, and Anton Grady, who transferred to Wichita State.  Head coach Gary Waters must now start to rebuild from the bottom up and it appears that they will go from battling for the championship last year to fighting to avoid the league cellar this one.

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