RTC Conference Primers: #13 – Horizon League

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 23rd, 2010

Jimmy Lemke is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Butler (15-3)
  2. Cleveland State (12-6)
  3. Detroit (12-6)
  4. Milwaukee (11-7)
  5. Valparaiso (9-9)
  6. Wright State (9-9)
  7. Green Bay (8-10)
  8. UIC (7-11)
  9. Loyola (5-13)
  10. Youngstown State (2-16)

All-Conference Team

  • G: Shelvin Mack, Butler
  • G: Norris Cole, Cleveland State
  • F: Cory Johnson, Valparaiso
  • F: Matt Howard, Butler
  • C: Eli Holman, Detroit

6th Man

G: Brandon Wood, Valparaiso

Impact Newcomer

Paul Carter (F), UIC

What does Brad Stevens and Butler have in mind for an encore after their run to the title game?

What You Need To Know

  • All Horizon League games and most non-conference home games will be streamed live at HorizonLeague.org, the conference’s website.  All games are free and the feed is television quality in most arenas.  It’s a service that has been around since 2007, and has expanded every year to be an all-encompassing athletics powerhouse for information, features and interviews on Horizon League basketball.  By now, if you haven’t heard about Butler‘s run through the NCAA Tournament, you’re probably still counting your hours of free America Online.
  • What most people don’t realize is how strong the conference is behind Butler. Yes, the Bulldogs ran roughshod over the conference, going 18-0 and paving their way to the title game in dominant fashion, but they had victories against the seventh and eighth place teams by a combined three points.  It’s a deep league through the top seven programs, and even UIC, who finished ninth last year, looks to be strong this season.  The Detroit Titans were seventh place despite posting a 20-win season, one of five Horizon League programs to do so.
  • It is a guard-oriented league, but post players like Matt Howard, Eli Holman, Anthony Hill and Andy Polka have proven that they can bang with the big boys.

Predicted Champion

Butler Bulldogs (NCAA #5 seed).  Losing Gordon Hayward, a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft, would hurt any team in the nation.  However, Shelvin Mack spent the summer on the USA Select team, playing against NBA guards and improving his already great game. Matt Howard is the definition of solid fundamentals, and Ronald Nored is the reigning co-Defensive Player of the Year. Detroit has the talent to beat Butler, but Eli Holman was erratic at times last year and they aren’t terribly deep.  Butler will most likely not be as good as last year, but they might garner a #5-seed based on respect; after all, they were probably underseeded in 2010.

Top Contenders

  • Cleveland State (NCAA #12 seed): With all the attention on Butler, the Vikings may be operating under the national radar.  Of all the conference teams, including Butler, CSU has the best opportunity to go undefeated in the non-conference schedule.  Road games at West Virginia and Sam Houston State and home games against South Florida and Iona will be their toughest tests.  Besides that, their schedule is mostly smooth sailing.  Norris Cole attended the Deron Williams Skills Camp this summer after posting 16.3 points and 4.4 assists per game as a junior. Gary Waters‘ teams have the reputation of being physical and dominating on defense, and they will likely continue doing so again. Newcomer Sebastian Douglas is a lockdown point guard defender and will likely challenge for big minutes from the get-go as a pass first point guard.  This last ability will allow Cole to get some time on the bench and save himself for the long season, which ended last year on some bad shots against Milwaukee in the quarterfinals that were caused by obvious exhaustion. Cole will also get the chance to play some off guard, which only increases his effectiveness and gives Gary Waters some major flexibility that he did not have down the stretch in 2009-10. Ludovic Ndaye, a true freshman at 6’9, 220, has a decent outside jumper and long arms for shot-blocking.  The Cleveland State Vikings have a great outlook on the season and, with a favorable schedule, have the opportunity to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team.
  • Detroit (NIT): The whole of the college basketball world is putting Detroit high on preseason rankings because of the commitment of Ray McCallum, Jr., but Eli Holman will be the real key for the Titans.  Holman scored at a 61.4% clip last season and pulled down nearly nine rebounds per game despite only being a sophomore in eligibility. The departure of Xavier Keeling has gone unnoticed by and large despite the fact that he was one of their best players on a 20-win team. Nick Minnerath, Jason Calliste and LaMarcus Lowe make up one of the best incoming classes in the conference, and that’s even before Ray Jr. committed.  Lowe will be a defensive force, coming off a transfer redshirt after leading the MAC in blocked shots with 48 as a freshman.  Minnerath blew people away with a dominant juco career, averaging 21 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in his sophomore year. The concern is that after seven players, the depth becomes a major issue.  Deep teams like Cleveland State and Milwaukee may be able to run the Titans into the ground.
  • Milwaukee (CBI/CIT): From the conference and national standpoint, Milwaukee may seem to be a step or two behind the rest of the upper echelon teams of the conference.  They lose Ricky Franklin and James Eayrs, two players who befuddled opponents and led the team on the court the past couple years. Franklin especially seems to be the loss, as he often marked the opposing team’s best guard and led the team in scoring. Ja’Rob McCallum, who was last year’s Sporting News Freshman of the Year for the conference, and sophomore Lonnie Boga will lead the returning guard corp that tries to fill the big shoes vacated by Franklin. Tone Boyle, a preseason All-Horizon League second team pick in 2009-10, returns after using a medical redshirt last year for major back problems. In practice, however, Boyle shows no trace of continuing pain, excelling in even full contact drills and scrimmages. Unlike Detroit, Butler and Valpo, who have highly touted incoming recruits, the Panthers probably have the most unknown commodities in the conference. Kaylon Williams spent the last season at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, but before that he spent his freshman 2008-09 campaign at Evansville, where he led the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring. Kyle Kelm is a true freshman who had offers from Marquette and several other high-major institutions before breaking his foot in his junior season. He came back as a senior, committed to Milwaukee, and had a better year than the one before, leading Randolph to the Division 4 state championship.  Kelm had nine assists in the contest despite being a 6’9, 210 lb. forward. Evan Richard is an incoming guard that did not garner any D-I offers other than Milwaukee, but labored in relative obscurity in southwest Wisconsin for Cuba City.  He shot at a 63% clip during the team’s trip through Italy, averaging 11.8 points per game (tied for the team lead with Anthony Hill) during the four-game exhibition. That Anthony Hill will be leading the forwards as a senior. Hill garnered a reputation as being a big player in big games, averaging 18 points per game in three contests versus Butler. The Panthers may have a lot of unknowns, but they will surprise a lot of teams during the 2010-11 season.
  • Valparaiso (CBI/CIT): There was no team in 2009-10 that scored more than the Valparaiso Crusaders.  The problem for Valpo was that no team gave up as many points as the Crusaders, either. That could have been a byproduct of the fast-moving offense, but in any case the defense has given up more than it should if the Crusaders want to contend for a league title. Brandon McPherson is gone from the program after graduation, but he was hampered the last couple years by knee injuries and wasn’t quite the player he had been in previous years. Jay Harris is a touted incoming freshman point guard that can score a ton. He’ll likely start immediately for the Crusaders as they figure to improve on scoring with him in the lineup. His size and defense have never been strengths for him, so he may have a bit of time before he becomes accustomed to the guard play in the Horizon League. There is some concern that Harris could be too similar to Brandon Wood, who also excels when he has the ball in his hands from the outset.  If they can find a way to be complementary to each other, the Crusaders will have the opportunity to become even a bigger scoring threat than they have been in the past. Cory Johnson has all-conference talent and a great wing forward that can bang down low at times and step out to hit big shots.  All in all, the Crusaders have to find some defensive prowess if they’re going to make that next step to the NCAA or NIT tournament.

Top RPI Boosters

  • November 13th – Detroit at New Mexico 9:30 pm ET (TV TBA)
  • November 14th – Wright State at Indiana 7 pm ET ESPNU
  • November 16th – Butler at Louisville 8 pm ET ESPN
  • November 16th – Detroit at Syracuse 7 pm ET ESPN3.com
  • November 27th – Milwaukee vs. Marquette 9 pm ET TBA
  • December 1st – Wright State at Cincinnati 7 pm ET TBA
  • December 4th – Butler vs. Duke at IZOD Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey 3:30 pm ET ESPN
  • December 7th – Valparaiso vs. Purdue 8 pm ET TBA
  • December 12th – Milwaukee at Wisconsin 8:30 pm TBA
  • December 18th – Cleveland State at West Virginia TBA

Key Conference Games

  • January 1st – Milwaukee at Detroit 1 pm ET (Time TBA)
  • January 3rd – Butler at Milwaukee 8 pm ET ESPN3.com
  • January 7th – Cleveland State at Butler, 7 pm ET ESPNU
  • January 14th – Butler at Detroit 7 pm ET ESPNU
  • January 16th – Butler at Wright State TBA
  • January 20th – Detroit at Cleveland State 7:30 pm TBA
  • January 29th – Butler at Valparaiso 2 pm ET TBA

Digging Deeper

The Horizon League traditionally has been a conference that hasn’t done much damage in November and December, but they almost always perform well in March, and that was before the Bulldogs went on their rampant run in March, becoming the first conference team to reach the Final Four. However, despite dominating in the Big Dance (the conference has four tourney wins since 2005 that belong to schools other than Butler), the conference doesn’t get much respect in at-large consideration. Part of that might be Youngstown State, whose only top-200 RPI season (in 2006-07) was a whopping #176. The Penguins lose several starters to graduation and transfer, leaving them the likely bottom-feeders yet again and dragging down the conference RPI. UIC, who had seemed to hit rock bottom last season with Jimmy Collins at the helm, has a new beginning with Howard Moore leading the show and Minnesota transfer Paul Carter in the frontcourt.

NCAA Tournament History:

The Horizon League is 26-38 (.406) all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Almost half of those wins (most of which have come from Butler) have been notched over the last six years, which confirms the notion that the conference is highly capable of doing serious damage in March. The Bulldogs’ run to the final last season is obviously fresh in everyone’s minds, but not to be forgotten among other Horizon League triumphs are Cleveland State‘s 2009 upset of Wake Forest and Milwaukee‘s 2005 run to the Sweet 16 that made Bruce Pearl an attractive option to Tennessee.

Final Thoughts

If the conference really wants to put multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to have to take care of business in the early months of the season; the teams have played big schools close, such as Wright State losing by five at Washington and Cleveland State lost by two at home to West Virginia. But sooner or later, if the Horizon League is to become a mainstay among the top ten conferences, Butler is going to need to be joined on a consistent basis by other NCAA Tournament teams. The only way to do that is to improve the teams’ non-conference RPI, and that means scheduling tough teams and beating them too.  The conference has done well against teams it is supposed to beat, which led to five 20-win teams last season: Butler, Wright State, Green Bay, Milwaukee and Detroit.  This season, the teams at the top have schedules that provide plenty of opportunities to boost their at-large profiles. It’s definitely a conference that has a real opportunity to put four or five teams in the postseason.

Brian Goodman (966 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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2 responses to “RTC Conference Primers: #13 – Horizon League”

  1. Stl VU Fan says:

    Valpo didn’t play Washington last year. They did play them in the CBI in 2008 and actually beat them. Did you mean some other HL team?

  2. rtmsf says:

    We corrected that. It was Wright State who played UW.

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