Checking in on the… Horizon League

Posted by rtmsf on January 30th, 2009

Damon Lewis, a reporter and play-by-play announcer for the Horizon League Network, is RTC’s Horizon League correspondent.

  1. Butler (#13/13)        9-0    18-1
  2. Green Bay            8-2    16-6
  3. Milwaukee            8-3    13-8
  4. Wright State            7-3    13-8
  5. Cleveland State        5-5    14-8
  6. Loyola                4-6    12-10
  7. UIC                3-7    10-10
  8. Youngstown State        3-7    6-14
  9. Valparaiso            3-7    6-15
  10. Detroit                0-10    5-15

I’ve used up the majority of this space over the last several weeks explaining why and/or how the Horizon League would be a two-bid league in the NCAA Tournament this year.  Actually, it was more like “explaining why” early in the season because the hopes were so high, then “explaining how” as of late, as the chances became slimmer and slimmer.  That said, let me make something very clear…

The Horizon League will ONLY send 2 teams to the NCAA Tournament if Butler stumbles in the Horizon League Tournament.  Period.

I’m really, really disappointed about this.  The fact that the HL will likely be a one-bid league once again this season isn’t a knock on the overall level of basketball.  It’s simply evidence that, right now, there’s really only one elite team/program in the Horizon League.  That program, of course, is Butler.  Having seen nearly every team play in person (and all of them via TV or Internet), I have a lot of confidence in saying that there truly isn’t much difference between team #2 and team #10.  There may be a wide margin in the wins and losses, but talent-wise and coaching-wise, the gap is much tighter.  To me, the differences between teams 2-thru-5 and teams 6-thru-10 are things like experience, lack of injuries, or mental toughness.  Some teams have better results in these areas, and because of that they’ve risen slightly higher in the league standings.  It’s not because of a disparity in talent.  The only disparity in talent I see is at Butler.  Along with doing the little things right, they have the most talent, and it shows.

No need to go on, and on, about teams that are irrelevant right now, unless I feel like poking a little fun (which I will).  There have been some impressive performances since the last time we checked in, which has prompted a lot of chatter in Horizon League circles about who this season’s “HL Player of the Year” will be, “All-HL 1st Team,” etc.  We’ll dive into that, among other things, right about…now.

Butler continues to hold serve, both on the road and at home.  The fact that they’re unbeaten in league play at this point is truly remarkable.  After a game with Valparaiso tonight (7pm ET, ESPNU), the Bulldogs will hit the road for their toughest road-trip of the season – @ Green Bay on 2/2, @ Detroit on 2/5, and @ Wright State on 2/7 (haven’t won at Wright State since ’02-’03 season).  The Bulldogs have a trio that will garner serious consideration for All-HL 1st Team honors in Matt Howard, Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack.  Howard, a sophomore, has to be the favorite for HL Player of the Year at this point.  He means the most to this team, on the floor and off, and is leading this young team to heights not thought to be possible this season.  Hayward, a freshman, likely has Newcomer of the Year wrapped up, and his stat-line suggests he belongs on the HL 1st Team as well.  Mack, also a freshman, is doing more than enough to warrant consideration for the HL 1st Team.  However, knowing how these things usually go, Mack is likely to end up on the HL 2nd team, as well as the All-Newcomer Team.  To take the talent disparity argument one step further, consider this:  following a loss to Butler last season, UIC head coach Jimmy Collins told reporters in a post-game press conference that Matt Howard was an NBA-caliber player.  This past week, while speaking with Valparaiso head coach Homer Drew, he told me that Gordon Hayward was an NBA-caliber player.  No one is even thinking that about other players in the Horizon League, although Cleveland State’s J’Nathan Bullock may have a future in the NFL.

Green Bay is keeping things interesting, two games back of Butler.  Beating the Bulldogs at home on 2/2 is crucial to keeping the pressure on.  Green Bay has been able to stay near the top of the HL thanks to a resurgent (and now injury-free) Ryan Tillema.  Tillema missed 6 games early this season, and since returning has been a scoring machine.  He’s putting in 17 ppg, and exploded for a career-high 36 points last Saturday at Valparaiso on 9-of-11 shooting from the 3-point line.  Right now, Tillema would be on my All-HL 1st team, and probably my choice for 6th Man of the Year, as well.  Yeah, that’s right, this guy comes off the bench.  Also worth noting, Terry Evans is likely to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year.

Milwaukee had a rough time last week in Indiana, losing to both Valpo and Butler.  However, they got back on track Wednesday by knocking off Loyola.  After Saturday’s tilt with UIC, the Panthers will only have 1 more home game in the HL (vs. Butler on 2/18).  Frankly, this makes me nervous, and should probably make the fans in Brew Town a little leery as well.  Avery Smith, not Tone Boyle is the All-HL 1st-Teamer on this squad.  James “Big Lumber” Eayrs could earn 6th Man honors, if Tillema ever cracks the starting lineup in Green Bay.

Wright State is back in the hunt thanks to their defensive efforts.  Last Saturday they held UIC to just 31 points.  31 points.  In an entire game.  OK, so maybe UIC held themselves to 31 points in some respects, but still, quite an effort by Brad Brownell’s team.  The Raiders also recently announced that Pre-Season All-HL 1st Teamer, Vaughn Duggins, will sit out the remainder of the season due to injury.  A tough break for sure, but all parties will be better off in the long run.

Cleveland State and UIC’s situation is starting to resemble this.  They’re the runway models and the outsiders are laughing while they watch.  All I know is, I wouldn’t want to walk in those shoes.  The team that performs better down the stretch will get it’s top-gun on the HL 1st Team, either J’Nathan Bullock or Josh Mayo.

Loyola continues to be the most anonymous team in the HL.  All they do is win the games they’re supposed to win and lose the games their supposed to lose.  This season, that’s more than some teams in the league can say.

Youngstown State, Valparaiso, and Detroit.  I can honestly say are all looking much better than they were early this season.  YSU’s transfers are getting comfortable.  Valpo is getting healthy.  Detroit is starting to understand what Ray McCallum is trying to teach.  It’s not showing up across the board in the win-loss column, but next season, I don’t think you’ll find any of teams in the HL cellar.

GAMES TO WATCH (1.16.09 – 1.30.09)

  • 1.30.09 – Butler vs. Valparaiso – 7:00pm ET on ESPNU
  • 1.31.09 – Cleveland St. vs. Wright St. – 7:30pm ET on HLN
  • 2.2.09 – Green Bay vs. Butler – 8:00pm ET on HLN
  • 2.7.09 – Wright St. vs. Butler – 7:00pm ET on HLN & Green Bay vs. Milwaukee – 8:00pm ET on HLN
  • 2.12.09 – Cleveland St. vs. Milwaukee – 7:00pm ET on HLN
  • 2.13.09 – Butler vs. UIC – 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.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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2 responses to “Checking in on the… Horizon League”

  1. some good points

    Im looking forward to the Clevland game !

  2. You’re killing me Damon.

    I think we’re a 1-bid league too, but the difference between GB/Milwaukee and Youngstown/Detroit is not just experience, lack of injuries, and mental toughness.

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