RTC Summer Updates: Horizon LeaguePosted by Brian Goodman on August 17th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our Horizon League correspondent, Jimmy Lemke.
- End of an Era – Homer Drew may have done his best work in the Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League), but that doesn’t bar the Horizon League community from recognizing the tremendous stature of the now-retired Valparaiso coach. He’s done it before – briefly retiring earlier in the decade to pave the way for son Scott Drew and promptly retaking the reins after Scott took the very difficult job at Baylor – but this time you could tell it was final. His ability to recruit overseas is second to none, and we will always remember the feel-good story of his1998 team. Speaking of that year, the coach to now replace him? None other than his other son, all-time Crusader great Bryce Drew.
- Dickie V. Rules In Motor City – The Detroit Titans made a big splash this summer by deciding to name their court for former Titans coach and renowned broadcaster, Dick Vitale. While he spent only four years as head of the Titans before taking over as coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, Dickie V’s exploits on behalf of college basketball are immeasurable. Dick Vitale IS college basketball, regardless of how you feel about him. As a longtime follower of the Milwaukee program, I see the court naming as a disappointment for Perry Watson, who coached the Titans for a considerably longer stretch and was very successful in that time, but there’s no doubting the decision from the future point of view. This season, St. John’s will play at Detroit on ESPN following a ceremony celebrating the honor, and I’d be willing to bet the Titans are banking on any Dick Vitale anniversaries falling on Detroit’s home schedule with a visit from ESPN.
- Big Names Depart – Brandon Wood took a highly-publicized transfer to Michigan State and will be able to play immediately because he finished his degree at Valparaiso where his graduate program isn’t offered. Shelvin Mack declared for the draft and stayed put, going early in the second round to the Washington Wizards. But the biggest move in the conference is from the graduating senior class. Nearly every big team lost multiple big time competitors. Butler, of course, lost Mack, but they also lost Zach Hahn, Shawn Vanzant and, most importantly, Matt Howard. Milwaukee loses Anthony Hill and streaky-but-dangerous shooter Tone Boyle. Wright State, already on the downturn, lost Cooper Land, Troy Tabler, Vaughn Duggins and N’Gai Evans. Cleveland State waved a heartfelt goodbye to perhaps the most talented of them all, Norris Cole, now with the Miami Heat. Put simply, eight of the ten 2010-11 all-Horizon League team members have exited the conference, with only two remaining: Ray McCallum, Jr. and Eli Holman, both of Detroit.
- Detroit – I racked my brain over this a lot more than some would think. Detroit lost nothing while everyone else lost major players. But the thing that makes me wary of the Titans is the fact that with all that talent – Eli Holman and Ray McCallum, Jr., have NBA chances – they still only finished fifth in the Horizon League, bowing out in the second round to Cleveland State. Why am I so apprehensive? Holman was second in the conference last season with a field goal percentage of 60.7%. However, Holman only took 239 shots, significantly less than McCallum’s 318 and not far from half of Chase Simon’s 378 attempts. If Detroit is going to be #1, they’re going to have to run the offense through Holman.
- Milwaukee – There’s no getting around it, Anthony Hill’s graduation is a big loss, but so was Ricky Franklin’s in 2010 and the Panthers ended up hosting the Horizon League Tournament as regular season conference champions in 2011. Rob Jeter’s teams have finished better every year, and the recruiting class is stacked. James Haarsma transferred in from Evansville, where he averaged 10.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a sophomore. Shaq Boga spurned Purdue, Minnesota, and practically the entire upper echelon of the MVC to come play with his brother, Lonnie Boga. The two juco products, Demetrius Harris and Paris Gulley, are available to fill the holes left by Anthony Hill and Tone Boyle. Gulley was a better sharpshooter in a tougher juco conference than Boyle, and Harris is a monster on the boards and in the paint. Count on the Panthers to be one of the Horizon’s best squads this season.
- Butler – It seems odd putting the two-time defending national runner-ups in the third place of a mid-major conference, but let’s not forget they were one regular season loss away from being third place at the end of last season. The Bulldogs may get back without Shelvin Mack, but Matt Howard – and I’ll never understate this – is irreplaceable. Butler’s athletic department has said that they don’t retire numbers as it’s not part of the Butler Way, but I just can’t see #54 on any other player there. Khyle Marshall will probably be the next big player for the Dawgs, and Ronald Nored is always solid, but I don’t expect them to have another 2008 recruiting class. Brad Stevens picked up a prominent transfer in Arkansas guard Rotnei Clarke, but Clarke’s presence won’t be felt in game environments until the 2012-13 season.
- Cleveland State – No one lost more in one player than CSU did in Norris Cole. LeBron James knows it – that’s why Cole is in the Heat’s plans at the point guard position – one of the few spots where they could use an upgrade. Back to the college game and current CSU personnel, though, it looks as if the Vikings may be getting the best recruit in the conference in Anton Grady, but Cole controlled the pace, scored the buckets, even got the rebounds to go win the game. Without him, they’re not going to repeat as co-champs, but they will be good. We’ll see how good they are when defenses aren’t keyed on one man.
- Green Bay – I firmly believe that after the top four, the Horizon League is filled with teams that are nowhere near complete and need big help to break into the upper echelon. Green Bay finds itself at number five because they have the best parts from the Island of Misfit Toys. Alec Brown needs to bulk up, but he’s shown that he can be dominant in the low block if he can just show the strength to not be pushed around. Jarvis Williams has a lot of talent, but who is going to get them the ball? With Rahmon Fletcher and Bryquis Perine no longer in the mix, Green Bay is going from an all-backcourt/no-frontcourt team two years ago to an all-frontcourt/no-backcourt team in 2011-12.
- Valparaiso – Ryan Broekhoff can shoot, this much we know. Jay Harris can score, but his performance is at least partially due to the threats Cory Johnson and Brandon Wood posed to opposing defenses. Where are the other players? Erik Buggs is a good defensive player, but Wood always guarded the opponent’s best guard, so there are some big shoes to fill. Matt Kenney could develop into something, but after averaging six points in 23 minutes per game, he’s going to have to make a leap. For a team without much of a frontcourt, the Crusaders didn’t upgrade when they may have had an opportunity. Hroje Vucic and Kevin Van Wijk could help, but Vucic never got off the bench and Van Wijk has major back issues. As beloved as Bryce Drew may be, he’s inexperienced when it comes to calling the shots, so it could be looking at a difficult transition period.
- Youngstown State – There’s no point in masking it. I have a basketball crush on Damian Eargle. Going into his junior season, he’s already been all-newcomer and jumps out of the gym. He is a stat-stuffer, scoring 11.6 points per game while posting six boards per game as a freshman. By the way, he also had 91 blocks, just over three per game. They have some other pieces, but YSU has always had good players and still sunk to the bottom of the conference. I think that when it’s all said and done, Eargle will be an all-timer for the Penguins, but they just don’t have the team around him to make a run at the title.
- Loyola – Ben Averkamp is going to have a lot of attention this season. The junior forward is the Ramblers leading returning scorer, and he’ll have a whole lot more shot attempts this season, as Geoff McCammon and Terrance Hill graduated. Add in the losses of Courtney Stanley in the backcourt and Andy Polka up front, and the Ramblers will be hard-pressed to improve on a disappointing season last year. They get the occasional big win, and always play Butler tough, but over an 18-game conference schedule, I just don’t see them doing much better than eighth.
- Wright State – The free-fall of Wright State is likely to continue. One year after losing Todd Brown, Ronnie Thomas and Cory Cooperwood, the Raiders lost Vaughn Duggins, Troy Tabler, Cooper Land and N’Gai Evans. Their leading returning scorer is Cole Darling, who averaged a paltry 4.3 points per game in 2010-11. Julius Mays will be a big help when he can begin play after Christmas, but don’t expect big things out of Billy Donlon’s team.
- UIC – Howard Moore’s second season will hopefully be better, but I’m not sure it will be much better. Robo Kreps is gone, as are Paul Carter and Zavion Neely. The good news for Flames fans is that they will get a clean slate. Jimmy Collins’ presence in the roster is nearly gone, and Moore will be able to build his program the way he wants. For additional catch-up material, check out UICFlames.com, which has some good stuff on the team over the summer.
I really see the conference separating between the fourth and fifth-place teams. Every team has questions to answer, but the questions among the top four teams are far fewer than those at fifth or below. Cleveland State is looking to replace Norris Cole and Aaron Pogue, but they come back with D’Aundray Brown and add a dynamite recruiting class centered around Anton Grady, the top forward in the Cleveland area. Butler’s losses this year would dismantle many teams, but their nice recruiting class of 2010, coupled with this season’s and a few holdovers leave them in a pretty good spot to win the championship again. Milwaukee loses Tone Boyle and Anthony Hill. Hill is no small loss by any means because of his dominance in the post, but Boyle was streaky at times – he won some games, but also disappeared in games they needed him to be spot on. The conference race should be just as exciting as it was last year, but teams outside of Butler will have to solidify their non-conference resumes if the Horizon League is to be a multi-bid league annually. Milwaukee has opportunities with Marquette across the street and Wisconsin at home, Detroit hosts St. John’s in a nationally televised game, and Cleveland State has several quality games on its schedule as well.
Much of the focus in Indianapolis will be on Khyle Marshall and whether or not he can become the star of the team, but keep a close look at Australian freshman Jackson Aldridge. With the departure of Shelvin Mack, the Bulldogs could look to Aldridge as a primary ball-handler and general of the team’s offense. If he can contribute right away, Brad Stevens will have answered one of the Dawgs’ most important questions following their second straight national title game appearance.
Mark Your Calendar
Last season, UIC toppled top in-state Big Ten opponent Illinois in a game at the United Center, but finished at the bottom of the conference in the standings. A number of power conference tests await the Horizon this season:
- Nov. 11 – Wright State at Ohio State – This season, Wright State is projected to drop off, but an early measuring stick comes in the form of a date with the Buckeyes.
- Dec. 5 – St. John’s at Detroit (Dick Vitale Court Dedication, ESPN2) – On a particularly meaningful evening, the Titans go toe-to-toe with Steve Lavin’s army of freshmen.
- TBA – Wisconsin at Milwaukee – Historically, this is a lopsided intrastate series, but don’t be surprised to see the Panthers give Bo Ryan’s team all it can handle with a reasonable shot to pull the upset.
- TBA – Louisville at Butler – There’s too much coaching talent in this matchup to ignore, and the players aren’t bad, either. Let’s see what a reshuffled Bulldogs lineup does against a Big East contender.
- Dec. 11 – Butler vs. Purdue (Crossroads Classic at Conseco Fieldhouse) – This may be a case of the undercard showing up the main event, which pits Indiana against Notre Dame.
This was hinted at in the poll question, but there are concerns regarding Detroit’s ability to live up to its potential. The Titans are stacked any way you look at it – Holman, McCallum, Simon, Nick Minnerath, Chris Blake, Jason Calliste, even bit players like LaMarcus Lowe have big contributions to their name – but that squad finished fifth in a conference that probably will not drop off as much as people think. Other teams have brought in dynamite recruiting classes, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Ray McCallum Sr.’s loosely-structured style. The Titans’ offense runs through the younger McCallum, when it really should run through Holman. Both Simon and McCallum shot the ball significantly more than Holman, who is an absolute beast in the block. With Anthony Hill, Matt Howard and Aaron Pogue gone, there is no player in the conference who has proven that he can defend Holman with any consistency, and I’m not sure there is an incoming player who can. If the Detroit Titans are to win this season, they’ll have to do so by feeding Eli Holman as if he were Joey Chestnut at Coney Island.