The Horizon League gave us one of the nation’s wildest conference tournaments last season when 9 seed Youngstown State and 10 seed Milwaukee shocked the top two teams (Oakland and Valparaiso) in the quarterfinal round. Milwaukee then knocked off UIC (who themselves had upset 3 seed Green Bay) to make the finals against Northern Kentucky. NKU pulled out a 6 point win, and ended up in the Big Dance in their first season eligible for it after transitioning up from Division II. Crazily enough, the fourth-seeded Norse did not have to pull off a single upset to win the automatic bid.
This year, Northern Kentucky is one of three teams that are likely to battle for the conference title, along with Oakland and UIC. Oakland, however, is our pick to win it with three players that could all contend for first-team all-Horizon League honors — Martez Walker, Jalen Hayes and Kendrick Nunn. In fact, this Grizzlies team could be good enough to knock off someone in the first round of the NCAAs, and will leave whatever team draws them in the Round of 64 sweating things out. One team that will not contend for the Horizon League title this year is Valparaiso. That is because the Crusaders are now in the Missouri Valley Conference, taking Wichita State’s former place there. The Horizon does welcome in IUPUI as Valpo’s replacement, but not much should be expected of the Jaguars in their first season here.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Oakland – The Golden Grizzlies may be the team to beat in the Horizon League this season, as they not only return two of the conference’s top players, guard Martez Walker and forward Jalen Hayes, but also add in Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn, who averaged over 15 points per game for the Illini two years ago and is hopefully far removed from the off-court issues that led to his dismissal from that team.
- Illinois-Chicago – Four starters return. Dikembe Dixson, potentially the best player in the entire conference, also returns, after averaging over 20 points per game early last season before going down with a knee injury. And would you believe that only one of those five players is a senior? This team is not only going to make noise this year, they may be around for several more to come.
- Northern Kentucky – The Norse won the Horizon League tournament last season, advancing to the Big Dance in their first season eligible to do so. They have a real chance to make it back-to-back trips with four starters back led by Lavone Holland II and Drew McDonald. The two players combined to average over 30 points per game last season.
- Wright State – The Raiders are coming off 20 wins in head coach Scott Nagy’s first season, but will likely take a step back with three starters gone, including Mark Alstork who averaged 19 points per game. They do have a deep backcourt though, led by returnees Justin Mitchell and Grant Benzinger, and will remain competitive.
- Detroit – The Titans should find a way to improve on last season’s 8-23 record, especially if freshman Jermaine Jackson, Jr. proves to be the answer at point guard. The biggest (and best) offseason news was the sudden late decision of Jaleel Hogan to return to Detroit instead of transferring. He led the team in scoring and was second in rebounding last year.
- Youngstown State – Jerrod Calhoun takes over as head coach after leading Fairmont State to 34 wins and the D2 national championship game last year. Although there will be a lot of new players on the roster, his senior backcourt pairing of Cameron Morse and Francisco Santiago should keep them in a lot of games. They combined to average over 34 points per game last year, almost 23 of them from Morse.
- Milwaukee – The Panthers lost 24 games last season (despite the run to the conference tournament title game) and then saw Butler nab their head coach in the offseason. Pat Baldwin, who was an assistant at Northwestern last year, takes over but has a lot of work ahead of him. He does return four starters, but probably does not have a roster capable of avoiding a lower division finish.
- Cleveland State – Dennis Felton has led two teams (Georgia and Western Kentucky) to the NCAA Tournament, so there is a lot of optimism that he can build the Vikings into a contender in the Horizon League. It will take a few years though, especially with only one player back this season that averaged more than 10 points per game.
- IUPUI – The Jaguars join the Horizon League after Valparaiso’s departure to the Missouri Valley Conference. The combination of a new (and tougher) league plus losing their top three scorers from last season will probably leave IUPUI battling to avoid the conference basement this year.
- Green Bay – Only one of the Phoenix’s top nine scorers from last season returns, meaning that this looks like it will be a long rebuilding year in Green Bay.