Horizon League Wrap & Tourney PreviewPosted by Brian Goodman on March 1st, 2011
Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the Horizon League Correspondent for RTC. With the conference tournament set to tip tonight, get a leg up on all things Horizon in this week’s recap and postseason preview.
To be perfectly honest, the Horizon League Tournament is stacked to allow the top two seeds the ability to get into the tournament, and it’s hard to argue with the success – each of the co-champions has won in the NCAA Tournament since the current format began. The funny thing is, hot teams really should be able to win the thing, and this year is no different. Except the hottest teams, Milwaukee (nine conference wins in a row) and Butler (seven) are the two best programs running into the Horizon League Tournament. The way those teams played, against the top teams all the way down to the bottom of the conference, was good enough to warrant the double-bye.
Butler’s side of the bracket features some really tough teams. Cleveland State is a co-champion, the first such team to have to go four games to win it. Wright State split with Butler, and both Green Bay and UIC played Butler tough during the conference season.
The Milwaukee side of the invitational features Youngstown State, who very nearly beat everyone ahead of them at the Beeghly Center; Loyola, who actually won in the U.S. Cellular Arena against the hosts; Valparaiso, who had the #1 seed until eight days ago; and Detroit, who has all the talent in the world and fought their way into the #5 seed on the last day of the regular season.
Butler will have to play Cleveland State or someone else on their side of the bracket just to get to the conference championship, but make no mistake, they’ve got someone that they’re looking forward to playing. Fast forward to the 4:35 mark.
A Look Back
What a crazy end to this conference season, am I right? Valparaiso, needing four wins to secure a title outright or three to share, gets one and drops from sitting alone in first to sitting alone in fourth. Their losses at Milwaukee and Green Bay, plus a deflating blowout home loss to Loyola, were sandwiched around the most impressive victory for a Horizon League team in the Bracketbuster, a dominant one over Missouri State. Valpo’s loss on Monday opened the door for Cleveland State, who only needed one win to ensure a share of the title or two to win it outright. The Vikings fought back at home, but eventually fell to Milwaukee. Those Panthers, riding an eight-game conference winning streak and needing only to beat Youngstown State to win the conference championship and host the tournament, nearly gave it up in regulation before dominating overtime and locking up their first Horizon League Championship since 2005-06.
For the first time in league history, three teams shared the conference crown. By going 9-0 on the back nine, Milwaukee went from 4-5 to 13-5 and grabbed the title. Butler lost at home to Milwaukee in overtime, on the road at Valpo and YSU, then never lost again, winning their last seven games to claim a share of the title. Cleveland State recovered from the Thursday night loss to Milwaukee by dispatching Green Bay and claiming the third share of the Horizon League regular season championship.
Due to head-to-head tiebreakers between the three teams, Milwaukee gets the #1 seed based on their 3-1 record (2-0 v. Butler and 1-1 v. CSU) against the other two. Butler’s sweep of Cleveland State gives them the #2 seed in the conference tournament, and CSU will be the #3 seed. These tiebreakers are extremely important. For one, the #1 seed hosts the quarterfinals and semifinals, and should they win, the finals. Milwaukee is a very difficult team to beat at the U.S. Cellular Arena, and needed this advantage.
The real prize, though, is the vaunted double-bye. Many conference members despise the Horizon League Tournament setup, as it rewards the top two seeds by allowing them a bye all the way to the semifinals, effectively stacking the deck against the lower seeds. Conference co-champion Cleveland State, who was 1-3 against their co-champions, did not qualify for the double-bye. To win the conference tournament, CSU or any other team not named Milwaukee or Butler will need to take four games, while the Panthers and Bulldogs need only two.
Seeds three through ten play against each other on Tuesday, with the winners facing off in the quarterfinals; the two teams left face Butler and Milwaukee for the right to make it to the conference championship game. Should Milwaukee lose on Saturday, the championship game diverts to the highest remaining seed.
All-Horizon League Team:
- G Norris Cole, Cleveland State – 21.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 2.2 spg
- G Vaughn Duggins, Wright State – 18 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.5 spg
- G Brandon Wood, Valparaiso – 16.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.7 spg
- F Anthony Hill, Milwaukee – 15.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 53% FG
- F Matt Howard, Butler – 16.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 180 FT attempts
Player of the Year – Norris Cole, Cleveland State. Cole was dominant in every statistical category and pulled the Vikings on his back. Their inability to beat the top teams at the end of the season cost them the chance to put on the conference tournament in Cleveland, but it wasn’t because of Cole. His 40-20 game against Youngstown State will be talked about for years. By any measurement, he is Player of the Year.
Coach of the Year - Rob Jeter, Milwaukee. The conference Coach of the Year award goes to Rob Jeter and his staff, who convinced the Panthers that you can still make waves after starting a conference season 4-5. They never looked back, and neither do we – Rob Jeter is Coach of the Year following that unprecedented turnaround.
Sixth Man of the Year – Geoff McCammon, Loyola – It was curious that McCammon only started 14 games during his senior season after being a full-time starter as a junior, but it worked out in the box scores – he led the Ramblers with 14.5 PPG and was a thorn in many teams’ backsides during the regular season.
Newcomer of the Year – Kaylon Williams, Milwaukee – The national pundits may scratch their heads because of Ray McCallum, Jr.’s superior numbers in everything but assists, but know this – once the Milwaukee players bought into Williams as their leader, they never lost a conference game again. Williams led the Horizon League in assists (5.5 APG) but lifting the good team to greatness remains his biggest feat.
Freshman of the Year – Ray McCallum, Jr., Detroit – I wasn’t going to leave the wunderkind off my list entirely. Ray Jr. scored 13.5 PPG and dished out 4.9 APG to go with 4.6 RPG, so the numbers are there. The wild expectations – many believed Detroit would be second or even first – gave McCallum large shoes to step into, but the Titans fell flat, only moving up to fifth in the final game. McCallum succeeds his cousin, Ja’Rob McCallum of Milwaukee, who was Freshman of the Year in 2009-10.
1. Milwaukee (18-12, 13-5) – The Panthers completed the back nine sweep in agonizing fashion on Saturday, beating the pesky YSU Penguins in overtime. They host the conference tournament with two games separating them from the NCAA Tournament. Milwaukee has won three of the four tournaments it has hosted, all coming since 2003. Should the Panthers win, expect them to occupy a 12 or 13 seed; current projections of Milwaukee as a 15 won’t be accurate if they have 20 victories, including one over either Butler or CSU in the championship game. Projected seed: 13
2. Butler (21-9, 13-5) – Butler’s at-large prospects are still fairly decent – they’ve got a top 50 RPI and are 3-3 agains the Top 50 – but to ensure themselves a tournament berth, they have to win the conference tournament or at least make the final. It won’t be easy; their last trip to Milwaukee left them seeing stars with a 24-point loss. After rattling off seven straight victories, however, don’t expect the Bulldogs to give up their title easily. Win the conference tournament, and Butler should be a 10 or 11 seed. Lose, and they may be a 12 or out completely. Projected seed: 10
3. Cleveland State (24-7, 13-5) – You have the best overall record and you are conference co-champion. Congratulations, you get the three seed and have to win four games to go dancing. It may seem unfair to Gary Waters and CSU, but they controlled their own destiny as late as Thursday, and they haven’t been able to beat the best teams (last victory over a co-champion was December 4th in Milwaukee). Winning the conference tournament seems to be the only way in for the Vikings, whose resume lacks a top 50 win. If they do win the conference tournament, expect them to be an 11 or 12. They host UIC in round one. Projected seed: 12
4. Valparaiso (21-10, 12-6) – Talk about going off the rails. Following the painful loss two weeks ago at Milwaukee, the Crusaders still controlled their own destiny – and they were destined to be fourth after losses to Green Bay and Loyola. Now they have to win four games to get to the NCAA Tournament, and any shot at a conference tournament championship goes back to the scene of the original crime in Milwaukee. Valpo still has a shot at the NIT, but likely would need to reach the championship game to do so. They host Youngstown State in the opening round. Projection: CIT
5. Detroit (16-15, 10-8) – After dispatching Wright State in the final game of the regular season, the Titans snuck back into the top half of the conference. Their inability to beat the top teams (1-5 vs. Champions) will probably do them in the end, based on lack of bench depth and questionable coaching decisions. They are, however, a team no one wants to face – the Titans are better than their record indicates, and can beat anyone on a given night. The Titans host Loyola in the first round. Projection: Out
6. Wright State (18-13, 10-8) – Last season’s beat down in the conference championship game left the Raiders on the outside looking in for an NIT berth. This season, dropping from second to sixth while having no real post presence has all but buried their season. A decent showing in the conference tournament could put the Raiders back in the mix for a CIT or CBI berth, but head coach Billy Donlon has already come out and said the team will not participate in either of those tournaments. Based on their resume, I’m not sure they’d be invited anyways. The Raiders host Green Bay in the first round. Projection: Out
7. Green Bay (14-17, 8-10) – The Phoenix may not have been in the top four of the conference this season, but they played a major role in paving the way for their archrival Milwaukee Panthers to win a championship by sweeping Valparaiso. The Phoenix can be dangerous in the tournament, and they nearly beat Wright State in Dayton this year. Projection: Out
8. Loyola (16-14, 7-11) – A soft non-conference schedule led to a bloated record again for the Ramblers. Loyola has some momentum heading into the tournament following a decent showing in Indiana to close the regular season. They have a history with fellow Jesuit school and first round opponent Detroit, so expect a good, Catholic game.
9. Youngstown State (9-20, 2-16) – If only they had beaten Milwaukee. If only Damian Eargle’s shot went through! Alas, the Penguins lost, and while overtime losses to Milwaukee and Valpo along with a victory over Butler are the highlight of their season, the fact is another well-below-par season is coming to an end in Youngstown. They visit Valparaiso in the first round.
10. UIC (7-23, 2-16) – Robo Kreps will be remembered for his shot to sink Green Bay last month at the UIC Pavilion, but for the most part his senior year was a waste. The Flames are rebuilding with new coach Howard Moore, and the future of college basketball in Illinois seems to be bright.