Checking in on the… Horizon LeaguePosted by rtmsf on January 16th, 2009
Damon Lewis, a reporter and play-by-play announcer for the Horizon League Network, is RTC’s Horizon League correspondent.
- Butler (#17/18) 6-0 15-1
- Milwaukee 6-1 11-6
- Green Bay 5-1 12-5
- Cleveland State 4-3 13-6
- Wright State 3-3 9-8
- UIC 2-4 9-7
- Loyola 2-4 10-8
- Youngstown St. 2-5 5-11
- Valparaiso 2-5 5-13
- Detroit 0-6 4-11
Much to my surprise, there seems to be as much attention on the Horizon League this year, as any year I can remember. Maybe some of that has to do with the often-mentioned “reload” at Butler, or maybe it’s the HL’s tendency to impress when the lights are at their brightest.
In my RTC Horizon League season preview, I mentioned how tough HL teams have been once they make the NCAA Tournament. During the regular season, the lights are brightest in the Horizon League when teams get the opportunity to play on national television, via the ESPN family of networks. To date, Horizon League games on one of the WWL’s platforms have featured a buzzer-beating win by Butler over Cleveland State, a HUGE road win by Butler over Xavier, and an overtime win by Green Bay over Milwaukee. Not to be forgotten, Cleveland State’s 70-foot buzzer-beating win over Syracuse was broadcast on the Big East Network (AKA – ESPN Regional). Both buzzer-beaters were the “Top Play” on ESPN’s SportsCenter that night, and this play from Green Bay’s Terry Evans and Ryan Tillema also brought home “Top Play” honors on SportsCenter, in Green Bay’s 77-75 OT win last Friday night at the home of the Panthers.
Those are only a few examples of what’s going on this year in the Horizon League. The level of play is as good as I’ve seen it many years, but that may not translate into multiple NCAA bids. Unfortunately, as you can probably see by the current standings (shown above), There aren’t 2 or 3 teams separating themselves from the rest of the pack. Yes, I see the 2-game gap between Green Bay and Cleveland State, but looks can be deceiving. There are 3 teams in the HL who have yet to play Butler. Wanna guess who they are? Yep…Milwaukee, Green Bay (Butler hosts both next week), and UIC (hosting Butler on Saturday afternoon). It’s still early, but this thing is trending more and more toward one-bid with each passing road loss by Cleveland State and UIC.
Now that we’re in the heart of league play, my position with the Horizon League Network allows for a fair amount of travel to see a lot of these teams in person. With that in mind, my thoughts on specific teams will hopefully be a bit more concise from here on out, as I no longer have to speculate solely on what “seems” to be true by reading game recaps and looking over box scores. Remember folks…games aren’t played on paper.
MILWAUKEE (11-6, 6-1)
BIG LUMBER. Before last Friday’s gem of a game between the Panthers and Green Bay on ESPNU, James “Big Lumber” Eayrs was a commodity only fully known to the Milwaukee faithful. I had heard the name and was impressed that, despite his size, he had shown that he could drill it from downtown. But after his game-tying, overtime-forcing triple on national television…Eayrs and his nickname (a moniker created by Dave Kaplan and Jim Chones, who called the game for ESPNU) have become somewhat of a national phenomenon. Just look at all the press he received last week. Our first chance to see Milwaukee in person left me thinking more positively about the Panthers than I had expected. Avery Smith is without question the go-to-guy, and for good reason. Tone Boyle was a disappointment, but has shown throughout the season that he is the perimeter threat Milwaukee so desperately needs. Anthony Hill played an outstanding game on the block against Green Bay. With Smith, Boyle, and even Eayrs emerging as consistent scoring threats, I feel like the play of Hill will determine whether or not this team challenges for a Horizon League title.
#17/18 BUTLER (15-1, 6-0)
Even last year’s team wasn’t on top of the HL standings this early in the season. Does that mean this year’s version of the Bulldogs is better than last season’s? Some people think so…
BU Fan (Indianapolis, IN): What do you make of Butler this year?
Kyle Whelliston: Each of the past three Butler teams have been progressively better, no matter what the final postseason result has been. The 2007 and 2008 versions relied on ball control to win, but this team can outshoot, outrebound and outclass anybody. I don’t care how young they are, this is a better team than last year.
The Bulldogs were nearly tripped up by Detroit last weekend, but pulled it out. It didn’t take long for them to get back on track, however, as they backhanded Loyola by 23. The sheer amount of double-doubles being posted this season by Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward is something not seen in several years at Butler. That, in my mind, is what makes them so dangerous. They actually rebound now, along with not turning the ball over.
SIDE NOTE: I can’t begin to explain how impressed I was with the way the Titans played at Butler. New head coach Ray McCallum is currently without the services of two of his more productive players (one injury, one suspension), but his squad is committing on the defensive end, which kept them in the game against Butler. Hearing McCallum in his post-game press conference only verified what I already thought to be true – UDM hired the right man for the job. Given this team’s overall size and athleticism in general, they could cause some problems down the stretch for many Horizon League teams, perhaps even in the league tournament.
GREEN BAY (12-5, 5-1)
I’ll be the first to admit that I thought Green Bay was once again heading toward mediocrity after the two transfers they picked up this season (Chop Tang and Jesse Childs), checked out of the program. Tang’s decision was his own, Childs’ was not. But, it appears that the positions vacated by these two short-timers has allowed the Phoenix to relocate a chemistry they displayed at times last season. Ryan Tillema is as sharp as ever after an early-season injury and point guard, Rahmon Fletcher, is causing headaches for a lot of teams. Green Bay is as solid as any team in the HL defensively, but the fact that they put up 80 points against Cleveland State (16th nationally in defensive points-per-possession, allowing 56.8 points-per-game) should turn some heads. You know who else turns some heads? Terry Evans. The guy is a human highlight reel. Check out some Green Bay highlights on HLN if you need proof. If only they hadn’t lost to Loyola.
CLEVELAND STATE (13-6, 4-3)
The Vikings just can’t seem to put it all together when it really counts. J’Nathan Bullock got some help in the scoring column from Cedric Jackson last time out, but the defense wasn’t there against Green Bay. At the midway point in the season, Bullock, in my mind, gets the nod for Horizon League MVP (with Butler’s Matt Howard a close second). This team really has me scratching my head.
Elsewhere, watching Wright State in person this past week made me realize how much I undervalued the loss of their starting frontcourt from last season. The Raiders’ offense is predicated almost entirely on mid-to-deep jump shots, even from their big men. They can hit the three-ball, which will keep them in a lot of games, but will also make for some very ugly losses. Loyola is a team I thought would take a step forward this season. Not happening. And, given their rotation of virtually all juniors and seniors, it’s not getting better anytime soon. Youngstown State hasn’t done much of anything noteworthy this season, but having the most recent HL Player of the Week, Kelvin Bright, is certainly worth noting. The Penguins have talent, but it came in from so many different places that it’s not gellin’ quite yet. Speaking of talent, Valparaiso picked up a transfer last week in UNLV malcontent, Beas Hamga. Hamga will be eligible to play after the fall semester next season. Lastly, UIC appears to be destined for another .500-type season. Their chance to save this season happens Saturday on ESPN2 when they host Butler. And trust me, Josh Mayo is exactly the type of player to could add to the HL’s current string of big performances in front of big audiences.
GAMES TO WATCH (1.16.09 – 1.30.09)
- 1.16.09 – Detroit vs. Wright State – 9:00pm ET on ESPNU
- 1.17.09 – UIC vs. Butler – 2:00pm ET on ESPN2
- 1.22.09 – Butler vs. Green Bay – 7:00pm ET on HLN / WNDY (Indianapolis-area)
- 1.23.09 – Youngstown St. vs. Cleveland St. – 9:00pm ET on ESPNU
- 1.24.09 – Butler vs. Milwaukee – 2:00pm ET on HLN
- 1.30.09 – Butler vs. Valparaiso – 7:00pm ET on ESPNU
*HLN refers to the Horizon League Network, the Horizon League’s broadband initiative, which is set to webcast 130 men’s basketball games this season…including out-of-conference “home” contests and ALL in-league matchups. The Horizon League offers the service for FREE, and signing up takes about 30 seconds. The site also offers on-demand content, team-specific features, and a weekly update featuring the “goings-on” around the league. The site also features a blog, if you’re really craving more Horizon League content.