RTC Conference Primers: #13 – Horizon League

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 24th, 2011

Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League. You can find his daily ramblings @PantherU or @JimmyLeMKE on Twitter.

Reader’s Take I

Last season, the Horizon League put four teams in the postseason — can it do it again?


Top Storylines

  • Eli Holman’s Leave of Absence: The Detroit big man is easily the best returning post player in the H-League, but whether or not he will return is a big question. Holman was placed on “indefinite leave” from the team at the end of September to handle some legal issues drawn from an incident at a fraternity house earlier in the month. Big Ten fans will remember Holman as the player who left Indiana after getting into a confrontation with then new coach Tom Crean.  Without Holman, the Titans have a big hole in the post and would have to rely more heavily on Nick Minnerath and LeMarcus Lowe to pick up the pieces of a broken inside game.  They still have some of the best talent in the league, but without that dominant force, who knows what they’ll get.
  • Kaylon Williams In Trouble:  Milwaukee got some bad news as well, with starting point guard Kaylon Williams getting pulled over in Iowa and blowing a .228 BAC.  What makes matters worse for Williams is that he fled the scene on foot, although he was picked up shortly afterward.  No official word has come down from the university on punishment besides a short statement from head coach Rob Jeter. “We are aware of the situation involving Kaylon Williams.  We are disappointed and will take appropriate action as we gather more information and the legal process runs its course.”  This is Williams’ first offense and it is unclear how much, if any, time he will miss.  Last season, Milwaukee had difficulty with Williams off the floor, but prepared for further uncertainty by recruiting junior college player Paris Gulley and high school point guard Shaquille Boga.

It Says Here That Matt Howard Was the Difference Maker at Butler

  • Butler’s Back Again: Obviously, the college basketball world is familiar with the recent NCAA Tournament dominance of Butler.  “Familiar” might not be the word; “obsessed” may be closer.  In any case, Butler came a 50-footer from the title in 2010 when no one thought they would make it. They suffered a poor shooting night in 2011 to keep the Bulldogs from that elusive title when no one thought they’d be back.  Is it so crazy to say that they could make another run to the Final Four?  The answer is yes.  While losing Gordon Hayward and some key players from the previous year’s team didn’t spell the end for them in 2010-11, 2011-12 will be a different story.  Forget Shelvin Mack, Hayward, and even Brad Stevens.  To me, the one person that deserves the most credit for both of these runs is Matt Howard.  We all knew from day one that he was a special player, and what lack of NBA athleticism (he’s still athletic) he had was made up big time in his skill, determination, and intelligence. To me, he’s the best leader-by-example in basketball that I have ever seen, and his graduation means someone else at Butler will have to try and pick up that torch.  You can replace Shelvin Mack’s scoring and Zach Hahn’s knack for the timely three-pointer, but you can’t replace Matt Howard’s… Matt Howard.
  • Recruiting Kerfuffles: One of the strengths of Ray McCallum, Sr., is his ability to take transfers in from other schools, add them to his own recruits, and go forward with a talented Detroit roster. Well, Diamond Leung of ESPN.com brought to light that Western Michigan is peeved with Detroit’s landing of WMU transfer Juwan Howard, Jr., the second player the Titans got to transfer from the school recently (LaMarcus Lowe was the first).  It’s not the first time that the Titans have come under fire.  Indiana coach Tom Crean was suspicious of the circumstances that led to Eli Holman transferring to Detroit after his freshman year.  Detroit isn’t under any sort of investigation from the NCAA, but McCallum and his assistant coaches may want to lay low for awhile so as not to ruffle any more feathers.  Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins has said he will not be renewing the series with Detroit after the two teams clash this season at Calihan Hall.

All-Conference Picks (key stats from last season in parentheses)

First Team:

  • C Alec Brown, Green Bay (10.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.1 BPG) – With the departures of several Horizon League stalwarts like Anthony Hill, Matt Howard and potentially Eli Holman, the path is paved for Alec Brown to take that next step up and be a leader.  Unlike Aaron Pogue at Cleveland State or Andrew Smith at Butler, the Phoenix offense is likely to run through Brown and will likely lead to him posting higher numbers than the other two.
  • F Tony Meier, Milwaukee (12 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 50% FG, 44% 3FG, 80% FT) - Very quietly, Tony Meier was probably Milwaukee’s best player last season after Anthony Hill.  Meier dealt with some sickness that limited his action in several Horizon League games, but he was consistently great when healthy. His 28-point, eight-rebound performance at Cleveland State late last season was one of the best individual performances in the conference and cemented his status as an all-conference level performer.
  • F Damian Eargle, Youngstown State (11.3 PPG, 6 RPG, 3 BPG, 51.6% FG) - If there’s one thing that can be said about the junior from YSU, it’s energy.  The spindly forward jumps out the gym and uses his tremendous length to come up with rebounds he shouldn’t even have a chance at getting. Eargle never takes plays off and it shows; This season, without Vytas Sulskis to take away opportunities, Eargle could jump to numbers in the neighborhood of 18/10 nightly to go with four or so blocks. It’s possible.
  • G Trevon Harmon, Cleveland State (13.2 PPG, 4 RPG) – Behind Norris Cole, Harmon was a consistent scorer who was good enough to stop opponents from double-teaming the all-world Cole all the time.  As the leading returning scorer, Harmon might take the jump Cole took after Cedric Jackson graduated.
  • G Ray McCallum, Jr., Detroit (13.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.6 SPG) – Everyone in the country knows the best NBA prospect in the Horizon League this season is Ray McCallum, Jr.  Flanked by scorers on the outside (Chase Simon and Chris Blake) and inside (Nick Minnerath and Eli Holman, hopefully), Ray Jr. can rack up the assists and still have enough time to get his.  The young McCallum will have the ball in his hands to start every play, and it’s up to him who ends it.

Second Team:

  • C Eli Holman, Detroit (11.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.6 BPG) – I held Holman out of the first team because the odds of him making a return to the Detroit lineup do not look good.  Nonetheless, if he’s in there, he’s the best post player in the conference.  No player in the league has a nose for the ball like Holman on the glass, and the fact that he has the best NBA body among post players is almost unfair to opponents.
  • F Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso (10.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG) – With scorers such as Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson leaving the Crusaders, someone has to pick up the pieces.  All signs point to Broekhoff, who was a big-time player for the Valpo and figures to take a leadership role in 2011-12.  He can score in a number of ways, but his jump shot is prettiest – he shot 44.8% from three in 2010-11.
  • F Khyle Marshall, Butler (5.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG) - It may seem odd to have a Butler player so low on this list, and even weirder that he doesn’t have numbers to back it up.  I was made a believer by Marshall last spring in the NCAA Tournament, especially in games against Wisconsin, Florida and VCU.  He’s got a strong body, too strong sometimes for the players he’s matched up against. He’ll have leverage against almost any player he’s matched up against on the offensive end, and he could lead the league in offensive rebounding if Eli Holman doesn’t make it back to the court.
  • G D’Aundray Brown, Cleveland State (8.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG in 2009-10) – Last season, the Vikings were supposed to make a big run.  Norris Cole was leading the way, Aaron Pogue was holding court down low, and Trevon Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery were playing pivotal supporting roles.  They didn’t go as far as they could have because D’Aundray Brown missed the entire season with a hand injury. The lockdown defender they needed at the end of the season was obviously missing with outbursts in scoring by Shawn Vanzant and Tony Meier, two players who would have drawn Brown as a defender once they got hot.  With Brown back in the lineup, the Vikings look formidable again.
  • G Kaylon Williams, Milwaukee (8.3 PPG, 5.4 APG, 5.6 RPG) - Williams is not on the first team for the same reason as Holman; as of now, his status is unclear.  As a pure point guard, Williams is second to none in the Horizon League.  He’s led two conferences in assists (Missouri Valley as a freshman, Horizon last season) and he has a murderer’s row of scorers to push his numbers even further.  If he learns better ball control, watch out.

Sixth ManG Ryan Allen, Milwaukee – The tough-defending younger brother of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Tony Allen, Ryan was the first man off the bench for Milwaukee towards the end of their championship season.  His omission from the All-Horizon League Defensive Team has become a major chip on Allen’s shoulder, and he has big potential to nab the honor as a senior.

Impact Newcomer – F Anton Grady, Cleveland State – This was as hard as it has ever been.  Milwaukee has three legitimate candidates in Paris Gulley, Demetrius Harris and James Haarsma.  Butler’s young guns such as Andy Smeathers and Roosevelt Jones could get the honor.  Dino Jakolis of Valpo and Julius Mays of Wright State could also be the winners here.  But my nod goes to Grady, the freshman forward from Cleveland who could be the next NBA player out of Gary Waters’ program.  Grady won’t have the team on is shoulders, as they have veteran guards and a tough senior center in Aaron Pogue to support Grady.  But don’t be surprised if Anton Grady becomes the focal point of the team by the end of the season.

Brad Stevens' Bulldogs Bounced Back Last Season After Losing Gordon Hayward, But What About Life After Matt Howard?

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Milwaukee (14-4)
  2. Butler (13-5)
  3. Cleveland State (12-6)
  4. Detroit (10-8)
  5. Valparaiso (9-9)
  6. Green Bay (9-9)
  7. Youngstown State (8-10)
  8. Wright State (6-12)
  9. Loyola (6-12)
  10. Illinois-Chicago (3-15)

Predicted Champion

Milwaukee Panthers (NCAA Seed: #11): The Panthers look to repeat as conference champions because their losses are reloaded with strong jucos (Paris Gulley for Tone Boyle, Demetrius Harris for Anthony Hill) and their recruiting class looks as strong as anyone.  If Kaylon Williams misses a lot of time, they could fall from this spot, but I don’t see that happening.  Unlike just about any other team, the Panthers could weather the loss of major players to injury.  Wherever there’s a big time player on the team, there’s a quality replacement in place if things go wrong.  They return a lot of scoring from a championship team and likely won’t be blinded by the bright lights should they meet Butler in the conference championship game again.

Other Postseason Participants

  • Butler Bulldogs (NIT)The Bulldogs are a difficult team to predict, as they have a lot of solid newcomers and we don’t know how they’ll mesh with the returning players.  They could be conference champs and a #8 or #9 NCAA seed, or they could fall off and finish fourth in the conference.  Either outcome is plausible.  I see the Bulldogs as at least an NIT team because they have a lot of talent, great coaching and a schedule with enough opportunities to wow the selection committee. However, I’m cautious to anoint them as returnees to the NCAA Tournament because they lack the experience.  While CSU, Detroit, and Milwaukee may not have the pedigree of the Butler Way, the fact is that there are only four returnees (Ronald Nored, Andrew Smith, Chase Stigall and Khyle Marshall) that played any time of real consequence on their trip to a second straight Final Four.  It is a new Butler team, one with a lot of promise in their recruiting class but a lot of uncertainty. Under Stevens, Butler has been in the NCAA Tournament every season.  I don’t know if they’ll be that good this year – no one really knows for sure – so that is why I picked them for the NIT, a middle ground between the NCAA Tournament and no postseason.
  • Cleveland State Vikings (NIT) - The feeling here is that the front end of the rotation in Cleveland is good enough to win the conference and go to the NCAA Tournament.  The problems here are that CSU has only one potential “great” non-conference game in a road game at Vanderbilt and otherwise don’t have the kind of games that will impress the selection committee.  They could win 22 or 23 games, but are likely headed to the NIT unless they impress with a victory at Vanderbilt and in a home BracketBuster game.  They have real issues with depth; after Grady, Pogue, Kamczyc, Harmon, Brown and Montgomery, there’s not a whole lot to get excited about on paper.
  • Detroit Titans (CBI/CIT) – The talent on the Titans’ squad is unbelievable.  They had a very talented roster last year and if Eli Holman returns, they will have lost no one from that team.  The problem is that the team from last year wasn’t very good.  Like many teams, they’ve got a lot of individual talent that hasn’t translated into team success. Their offense is disjointed, almost a pick-up game of run-up-and-shoot.  If Holman is there and the offense runs through him, the sky is the limit.  If he’s gone or the offense runs through Ray Jr. or both, they’re not going to be too much higher than before.  It’s funny to say that, as Ray McCallum, Jr., is a player of the year candidate, but it’s the truth; they’re just a much better team when Eli Holman is the focal point of the offense.

Power Rankings

1. Milwaukee - The Panthers won last year’s conference championship in the regular season along with Butler and Cleveland State.  Milwaukee hosted the conference tournament through its 3-1 record against fellow champions (2-0 vs. Butler, 1-1 vs. CSU).  Gone are Anthony Hill, the First Team All-Conference center, and Tone Boyle, the high-volume streaky three-point shooter.  Hill’s dominance in the low blocks was a big reason the Panthers went 9-0 on the back side of the Horizon League schedule.  Boyle was a streaky shooter at times and lost the Panthers as many games as he won.  While the other champions also lost their best players from a year ago, Milwaukee replaced it and brought in more.  The Panthers are third in the conference in returning scoring (57.8%) and have legitimate first team all-conference hopefuls in Tony Meier, a four-year starter, and James Haarsma, a transfer junior from Evansville who could legitimately push for a double-double every night.  The Panthers addressed Boyle’s loss by adding Paris Gulley, a junior college transfer who shot 45.4% from three over his two years at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa.  Gulley was a point guard in high school and is a solid ball-handler, something that proved problematic for Milwaukee at times last season.  Joining him in the class is fellow juco transfer Demetrius Harris, a 6’7’’ extremely strong forward who along with Gulley appeared on a top 50 juco list this off-season.  Add in Shaquille Boga, a point guard from St. Louis, who drew offers from a myriad of Big Ten and Missouri Valley teams, and J.J. Panoske, a 6’10’’ forward with a superb outside stroke and shot-blocking ability, and the Panthers clearly reloaded their defending regular-season championship roster.

2. Butler - The recruiting class at Butler is just as significant as Milwaukee’s.  Roosevelt Jones is a 6’4’’ wing who is ready to play immediately at the next level.  Jones can score like Mack, but he’s extremely athletic and is strong in driving the lane.  Andy Smeathers is the deep bomb sharpshooter the Bulldogs needed after the team finished fifth in shooting in the conference in 2010-11.  He may not be a complete player for a couple years, but his shooting ability will translate immediately.  Kameron Woods has a bevy of moves and can score consistently with all of them.  The freshman is very good with his baseline spin and combines that with an improving baby hook to confuse and frustrate defenders.  It may be a year before he is strong enough to become a real force down low, but he’s got the athleticism to make up for that in the meantime.  The real gem of the recruiting class could be Australian point guard Jackson Aldridge, who is drawing obvious comparisons to Patty Mills with his ability to bring the ball up and score at will.  The incoming class is the highest-rated since the Bulldogs’ vaunted 2008 class featuring Mack and Hayward.  They join a national runner-up team led by sophomore Khyle Marshall, a strong small forward who really turned up his game in tournament time last season.  The reason I have them a step behind Milwaukee is that their losses are far more significant: Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Zach Hahn and Shawn Vanzant will go down as the best Bulldog class to leave together, based on the impact they had.  Milwaukee loses Hill and Boyle, but not much else and their replacements are obvious – I don’t see a player in the recruiting class or on the team that can be what Matt Howard was for the Bulldogs.  Brad Stevens is obviously the best young coach in the nation, and he may have this team ready for another deep tourney run going into the season.  But I don’t think they’re quite ready to win a conference championship as the teams stand today.

3. Cleveland State - No player, not even Matt Howard, meant as much to his team as Norris Cole did to the Cleveland State Vikings.  For those of you who didn’t pay close attention to the Horizon League last season, you’ll understand this if Cole turns out to be the missing piece the Miami Heat needed to win their NBA title last year.  In Cole, the Vikings lose 31% of their scoring, 45% of their assists, and 30% of their steals.  He was absolutely worth a first-round pick in the NBA draft and over four years became an absolutely dominant point guard.  They won’t fall off much for a couple reasons.  First, they return just about everyone of importance from last year’s team – the next best players lost are Josh McCoy and Charlie Woods, who transferred.  Despite both being members of the rotation, their contributions were insignificant.  Clearly this was a team Gary Waters built for last season, when D’Aundray Brown was also supposed to be a senior.  The loss of him to a preseason hand injury turned out good for this season, as he rejoins the starting lineup that is intact outside of Cole.  Aaron Pogue had some troubling games as a junior, but his main nemeses are all gone: Anthony Hill, Matt Howard, and possibly Eli Holman. Trevon Harmon cannot score like Cole, but that doesn’t mean he’s bad either.  Jeremy Montgomery is always solid, and Tim Kamczyc will reprise his role as the quiet forward who never kills you but always annoys you.  They are joined by Anton Grady, who very well could be Horizon League Newcomer of the Year once he gets his feet wet.  Grady’s presence means a lot for the front line, but means more in recruiting, as he was obviously the best Cleveland product of the 2011 recruiting class and their ability to keep him in town is a huge get for Waters’ program.

4. Detroit - Things were looking a lot better before Eli Holman was put on a “leave of absence” from the basketball program at the end of September.  Holman’s absence was uncovered when the student paper learned that he’s the subject of an investigation into a frat house incident where Holman allegedly broke a student’s nose and hurt two others.  Seeing as this isn’t his first offense (Holman was suspended a game last season after punching a UIC player in the groin), my expectation is that Holman’s time as a Titan is all but over.  If he does return, he’s going to have a big target on his back and opposing teams will try and bait him into losing his cool.  In either case, I expect his contributions to be much less in 2011-12 as they were last season.  The good news for Detroit is they lose no one significant – James Still never got to play a game before flaming out.  The Titans return everyone – burgeoning forward Nick Minnerath, scoring guards Chase Simon and Jason Calliste, wing guard Chris Blake, and the conference POTY candidate Ray McCallum Jr. – so they won’t fall too far down my list.  But the fact remains that this exact team finished in fifth last year, and they could be losing their ultimate post player.  The 2010-11 Titans beat who they were supposed to beat, but they also lost who they were supposed to lose to.  A three-point victory at home against Cleveland State was their only victory over the top four teams in the Horizon League, which included being swept by Milwaukee and Butler as well as a full three-game sweep at the hands of Valparaiso.  They could be ready for the big time this year, but it’s not as if Ray Jr. didn’t have his hands at the controls before – the reins were handed to him by his father, Ray McCallum Sr., immediately.  A year of seasoning isn’t going to hurt Minnerath or McCallum, but I don’t see them moving up without Holman down low.

T5. Valparaiso - Perhaps the team with the most to prove will be Valparaiso, who has a new coach in an old face, NCAA tournament darling Bryce Drew, taking charge from his father, Homer.  Drew inherits a team that needs to find scoring and quick; Brandon Wood and Cory Johnson accounted for 40% of the team’s scoring last season, and that number jumps to 60% when you include Howard Little and Michael Rogers, who also graduated.  Ryan Broekhoff was a feisty scorer a year ago, but the questions surrounding him are the same that followed Troy Cotton two years ago – can he do it without his departed teammates?  Valpo had a long and grueling season. Their conference lead ended with losses in games they should have won at Milwaukee and Green Bay, then they tanked a 20-point loss to Loyola that would have gotten them a share of the conference title.  After the season, Wood tried out for the NBA and found he’d need more seasoning and better exposure to make it, so he opted out of Valpo and landed at Michigan State, where he’ll likely take over as starting shooting guard.  The departing senior class makes way for others to rise.  In my estimation, part of the reason Jay Harris didn’t light the world on fire as a freshman is that his skill set was matched too closely with Wood’s; if he can survive, he could turn out to be an adequate replacement.  Cory Johnson’s obvious successor is Ryan Broekhoff, who doesn’t have the all-around game but can score like Johnson did.  All that’s left is to find the next Broekhoff and the rest of the supporting cast.  Is it Matt Kenney? Defensive specialist Erik Buggs? It could be incoming freshman Dino Jakolis, the latest in a long line of foreign players to come into Valparaiso.  Jakolis spent last season at LaLumiere School in nearby LaPorte, Indiana, and is in the mold of other foreign players – tall, decent handler, and a deft shooter.  Ben Boggs, a transfer from Virginia Tech, will be able to play at the end of the fall semester, but his playing time diminished considerably at VA Tech from his freshman to sophomore year and I’m not certain he’ll be a solid contributor right away as some in Northwest Indiana are predicting.  All in all, the Crusaders have to replace two of the conference’s best scorers while doing so under a coach with exactly 34 less years of head coaching experience.

T5. Green Bay (9-9) – Like the Crusaders, the Green Bay Phoenix have to replace dynamic scorers in Rahmon Fletcher and Bryquis Perine.  Unlike the Crusaders, the Phoenix have a proven post player in the middle in sophomore Alec Brown.  As a freshman, the 7’1’’ Brown had 10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game last season.  Word coming out of Packer country is that Brown has beefed up considerably and he will be more of a dominant force in the block.  I’d say without Hill or Holman around, that could be right.  My wonder is whether or not the Phoenix will have enough support around him to keep teams from doubling him up.  Fletcher and Perine gave the Phoenix a good inside-outside combination, but with them gone Brian Wardle needs to find some guards.  Wardle, a Marquette grad from Chicago, has already left his mark on the program, filling those holes with Chicago players – Keifer Sykes, Josh Humphrey, and Aaron Armstead all come in as guards from Chicago.  Sophomore Kameron Cerroni is another year away from his ACL tear and should be able to put in a full year.  The forward spots to go along with Brown will be filled by Daniel Turner and Jarvis Williams.  Williams in particular could be the dynamic scorer the Phoenix need to replace Fletcher, but Williams’ ability to score is a lot more diverse than Fletcher’s shooting and driving.  Williams has a lot of close-range moves to go with mid-range moves, and he’ll be called upon more with a full healthy season.  The problem for the Phoenix is that the players they are replacing only got them to seventh place to begin with; the Phoenix have been on a downward arc since consecutive CBI postseason appearances under Tod Kowalczyk.  Now that he has a year under his belt, perhaps the team will improve under Brian Wardle.  My guess is that they will be better in the block, but their inexperience on the perimeter will give them enough problems to deny them any real shot at the Horizon League championship.

7. Youngstown State - If the Penguins are primed to make a jump in the standings, this is the year.  Their loss of Dan Boudler is minimal, but the graduation of Vytas Sulskis is not.  Even so, I see the Penguins getting better under Jerry Slocum.  The prime reason for that is Damian Eargle, the most exciting player to play for Penguins under Slocum since Quin Humphrey was dishing out assists and scoring buckets at will.  The Guins also return Kendrick Perry, Blake Allen and Ashen Ward, three guards who all averaged between seven and nine points per game last season.  The Penguins finished 2-16 in the Horizon League, but were a very tough out and were 2-5 in conference games decided by seven or less.  They lost to UIC and were swept by Wright State and Loyola, but the ‘Guins took down Butler in a two-point emotionally-charged victory and stayed with Valpo until the final minutes on two occasions.  Their loss on the final day of the season against Milwaukee came when the Penguins failed to score with possession at the end of regulation and lost by seven in overtime, giving Milwaukee the Championship and the #1 seed.  Besides Sulskis and Boudler, Devonte Maymon left the team after scoring 9.2 points per game, good for third on YSU.  Despite losing two of their top three scorers, there’s cause for excitement in Youngstown as 6’4’’ wing guard Shawn Amiker Jr. plays after redshirting his freshman year.  They might have found a replacement for Boudler in 6’9” freshman Cale Zuiker from Wisconsin.  The truth about the Penguins is that they’re going to be a tough out for anybody, but in past years they’ve always gotten out most of the time.  They’ve been somewhat struck by their move to the Horizon League; Unlike Valpo, who has found success since joining the conference in 2007, the Penguins remain unable to finish in the upper half of the conference after joining in the fall of 2001.  The perils of being a football school in a basketball conference have left the Penguins with difficulty in keeping up the budget with the rest of the conference.  This could be the year that Jerry Slocum finally pushes his team to the top half of the conference.  If he does, it’ll be on the back of Damian Eargle with some quality shooting from their deep guard roster.  An injury to Eargle would be catastrophic, so I’m putting them here instead of higher because their success hinges so much on one man.  They could win some of those close games this time around, so don’t be surprised if Cleveland State or Milwaukee finds themselves losers to the Penguins in a game this season.

T8. Wright State (6-12)Billy Donlon heads into his second season as head coach of the Wright State Raiders with one surefire difference from his first; the roster is filled with his players.  Gone are stalwarts Vaughn Duggins, N’Gai Evans, Troy Tabler and Cooper Land, as are Todd Brown and Cory Cooperwood from the season before.  Donlon’s crew this season will be a team that he himself put together, and we’ll get to see what they’re made of.  The Dayton Daily News’ Kyle Nagel, the local beat writer for WSU hoops, put together a list of HorizonLeagueteamsandtheirreturningscoring. The Raiders rank ninth on that list, only returning 28.1% of their team’s scoring from 2010-11.  WSU’s sixth-place finish coupled with the empty cabinet left to Donlon means he had to scramble to find players just to stay above water.  He seems to have found some scoring in Julius Mays, a transfer from NC State who will be eligible immediately. The junior averaged 4.6 ppg as a sophomore for the Wolfpack before deciding to leave Tobacco Road.  Mays is joined by juco guard John Balgiwaire, a big time scorer who dropped in 18.5 points per game last season and should be a decent stopgap for the Raiders as Donlon builds his program his way.  Among the returnees, Cole Darling, A.J. Pacher and Matt Vest look to be the most talented, a group of smart players who were thrown into the mix early in their careers.  Each of them brings value to Donlon’s team.  With so much to replace, it would be easy for some people to consider the Raiders for ninth or even tenth in the conference.  I think they’ll definitely fall off – you don’t replace players like Duggins and Evans immediately, as they found out last year without Todd Brown – but there’s enough solid talent to make me think things won’t be too much worse.

T8. Loyola – Like almost any team in transition, the Loyola Ramblers were looking at a difficult season ahead.  The Ramblers lost Andy Polka, Geoff McCammon, and Terrance Hill to graduation, a big blow for a team that finished 7-11 in conference play a year ago.  Then news came that Courtney Stanley had torn his ACL, and things looked even more bleak.  New head coach Porter Moser pulled the ol’ “let’s trade jobs” move with Jim Whitesell, who was fired and replaced Moser on Rick Majerus’ staff at Saint Louis.  Moser’s program will kick off with some new faces; Joe Crisman leads the incoming class of freshmen as a tall shooting guard who was First Team All-State in Indiana as a senior in high school.  Swingman Christian Thomas could be the replacement Moser needs for McCammon, as Thomas fits the build and is also a high-volume scorer that the Ramblers will need.  Loyola’s incoming class will join Ben Averkamp and Walt Gibler on the front line and Jordan Hicks on the wing to create a decent rotation.  The problems surrounding the Ramblers have been Gibler and Hicks, who have battled injuries that have kept them out of competition for significant time.  If they can remain healthy, the Ramblers can challenge for the sixth seed and its home game in the conference tournament.  Moser’s game management couldn’t possibly be worse than Whitesell’s, who often ran out of timeouts in close games and kept his best players on the bench to start the game.  One thing’s for sure; don’t expect Porter Moser to keep his best player out of the starting lineup.  It was Jim Whitesell’s selling point to the administration that he had the sixth-man of the year two years running in Gibler and McCammon, and that worked so well that he’s gone.  Moser has been doing the right things to build a program, picking up transfers Cully Payne from Iowa and Devin Hill from DePaul.  The administration is doing their part, building the all-new Norville Center and renovating the game facility Gentile Center.  The future is looking bright, but that’s where it is – the future.  Expect the Ramblers to bide their time in the lower half of the conference before making the jump down the road.

10. UIC – Perhaps the worst part of Howard Moore’s beginnings at UIC is that unlike most new coaches, he barely had an offseason.  Hired just over a year ago to replace Jimmy Collins, Moore spent last season taking lickings from Horizon League teams and dishing them out to non-conference opponents.  The Flames jumped all over Illinois and Rhode Island, pulling out two of the conference’s best victories in the non-conference season.  The long Horizon League season took its toll, however, and Robo Kreps and Paul Carter couldn’t do much to change the fact that they were two good players on a poor team in a really good conference.  The Flames will look to Paris Carter and Darrin Williams to shoulder the load for this season.  Neither of these players had big impacts, as both scored around five points per game, but they did have other players ahead of them on the depth chart for much of the 2010-11 season.  Moore’s rebuilding project in Chicago will take another few years before it gets back on track.

Reader’s Take #2

 

After Multiple Off-Court Incidents, Detroit's Eli Holman Is On The Shortest of Leashes. (Tim Busch)

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

  • Eli Holman, Detroit – Technically, he’s already gone, but if Eli Holman is back on the court this season, he’ll be in the NBA next year.  He’s too talented on the boards, his body is NBA-ready, and the guy is mean on the court – all things NBA scouts are looking for.  Holman may have screwed up his chances with the alleged frat house incident, but there’s no doubting his talent.
  • Ray McCallum, Jr., Detroit – He’s not quite ready for prime time from a body standpoint, but otherwise Ray Jr. is the Horizon’s best NBA’s best prospect right now.  He can score, he can dish out assists, he is getting better at defense and he is a court general. His quickness is NBA caliber and he’d be at an elite program if his father wasn’t at Detroit.
  • Ray McCallum, Sr., Detroit – Take this scenario: Eli Holman and Ray Jr. depart for the NBA after great seasons.  Chase Simon, LaMarcus Lowe, Nick Minnerath, and Chris Blake graduate.  Does Ray McCallum, Sr., stick around for Juwan Howard, Jr., Jason Calliste and a collection of back-ups?  He could be on his way out of town after this season.
  • Rob Jeter, Milwaukee – Despite losing in the first round of the NIT after falling to Butler in the conference championship, Rob Jeter’s Panthers were good enough to earn him interest from Bradley, Miami (FL) and Dayton in the offseason for their open head coaching gigs.  If my projections for a Milwaukee championship come to fruition, Jeter could be out of town to a high-major school.  Look for assistant Chad Boudreau to be the potential successor in Brew City.

Spotlight On…The Coaching Carousel

With the addition of Porter Moser and Bryce Drew to the coaching ranks in 2011, the Horizon League is suddenly looking much different than it did in 2005 when Milwaukee went to the Sweet Sixteen.  Gone are stalwarts like Perry Watson and Jimmy Collins.  Failed opportunities at Loyola and Green Bay have led to new faces there.  Coaches at Wright State, Butler and Milwaukee have moved on to “greener pastures.”  All of a sudden, Rob Jeter and Jerry Slocum are the deans of the Horizon League coaching fraternity, and they could be on their way out if the 2011-12 season goes well for Milwaukee or bad for Youngstown State.

Like the universities themselves, the coaches have become the bright, young faces and the future of college basketball.  Brian Wardle, Brad Stevens, Billy Donlon, Bryce Drew and Howard Moore are the kinds of coaches that could be leading the nation’s best programs down the road (Brad Stevens already does – suck it, BCS!).  It’s funny that in his seventh year at Milwaukee, Jeter has become the torch-holder.  It wasn’t all that long ago that grumbles about his inexperience as a coach led to a 9-22 season in his second year and a 14-16 campaign fraught with roster troubles the next.  Slocum, of course, never had that problem.  The Penguins coach is in his 37th season this year, and he needs just 62 victories to reach the #700 plateau.

In The Grand Scheme of Things

Recently, I dove in headfirst and wrote an expansive article at PantherU.com showing just how the realignment dominoes will reach the Horizon League.

The truth is, with TCU’s acceptance to the Big 12, the Big East is down to six football members, and at least one, Connecticut, is actively looking for a new home.  What this means is that the football playing members of the Big East need to find a home for their programs or else they’re going to be screwed.  It is possible that they get back to eight by adding Army and Navy as football-only members, but that’s an unlikely scenario given both schools’ wish to remain independents.  The Big East could add East Carolina, UCF, Southern Methodist and Marshall, but they’re going to have to take those schools in all sports and the Big East basketball schools will protest.  The sad truth is that the mega-conference that is the Big East is all but finished.  UConn, West Virginia, Rutgers and Notre Dame will likely find homes in other conferences like the SEC, ACC and Big Ten.  USF is in trouble but could find a home in the SEC if Florida is alright welcoming them.  This much we know is true: there is a schism coming between the football and basketball schools, and if Notre Dame and Villanova are out of the basketball school membership (both have talked with the ACC), then there are several basketball schools left out in the cold.  Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, St. John’s, Providence and Georgetown will likely end up together in what’s left of the Big East.

The future of the conference is as a basketball conference, whether or not that includes Notre Dame and Villanova.  Either way, there is opportunity for expansion.  The programs that could fall under the Big East basketball expansion bubble include Dayton, Xavier, St. Joseph’s, Charlotte, Richmond, Temple, Saint Louis, UMass, Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion, George Mason, and Butler.  That’s a big list of schools and obviously most of those teams would not be included in the new Big East.  Xavier and Dayton have never considered themselves mid-majors and are likely additions through old conference rivalries with Marquette and DePaul.  Temple and its basketball history fit the Big East very well.  But after those, I’d wager a guess that the best remaining candidate is Butler.

Let’s look at the facts.  Butler is the hot name in college basketball right now.  They are investing more in their program and as long as they can keep Brad Stevens, they’ll never be too far out of it.  They are updating Hinkle Fieldhouse and are adding a $10 million practice facility on the side.  The school commands the Indianapolis television market more than any available school (Purdue and Indiana aren’t leaving the Big Ten).  They are small and private, much like the rest of the Big East’s basketball-only members.  So, let’s see what would happen to the Horizon League should Butler depart for a basketball-only Big East.

The obvious first answer to being raided is to raid someone else.  The Horizon League has expanded twice in the past decade, to nine with Youngstown State in 2001 and to ten in 2007 with Valparaiso.  With Butler gone, the league would stand at nine conference members, four of which are private and five of which are public.  The characteristics of the conference are urban universities in Midwest cities with good to great academics. They have broken this mold with the addition of Valparaiso, which is located forty miles outside of Chicago.  So let’s assume that they’d be willing to move out of this classification again. Who do they go for?

  1. Saint Louis – The obvious choice, Saint Louis would bring back the balance of private-to-public universities and is a good fit basketball-wise in the conference.  However, the Billikens’ fan base has been outspoken in their wish to move to the Missouri Valley.  If the MVC doesn’t want them and the A-10 is lesser without Xavier and Dayton, SLU could be convinced.
  2. Oakland – The Summit League’s school is just a short drive outside of Detroit and has been blocked from entrance in the conference by Detroit before.  They’d need to upgrade the size of their home arena, but the Golden Grizzlies are a good choice to expand.
  3. IUPUI – The conference offices are in Indianapolis, and it just may make sense to keep the home city of the conference involved in membership.  IUPUI has been a big-time Summit League team for years and has a long-standing rivalry with Valpo.
  4. DePaul – Things are looking up for the Blue Demons, but it’s hard not to look up when you’re lying on your back.  If their time in the Big East has been any lesson, it’s that DePaul is a poor fit for the basketball conference that has members spending upwards of $10 million a year per school.  Moving down to the Horizon League might just be what the Blue Demons need – it would definitely bring back a lot of happy memories of games with Loyola and Detroit.
  5. Eliminate Youngstown State – At first glance, this doesn’t make sense.  But the truth is that YSU has been a football school in a basketball conference since the day they joined.  It would probably be better for the Penguins to go back to the Summit League, where they could remain competitive in Olympic sports and allow their football team to remain in the Missouri Valley.  The Horizon League’s last year of three NCAA Tournament competitors was when the conference only had eight members.  That was before the emergence of Milwaukee and Wright State and the re-emergence of Cleveland State, and an eight-member Horizon League might be the ticket forward should Butler decide to leave the conference.

Final Thoughts

This Horizon League, as it stands right now, is a lot more difficult than casual observers think.  While schools spend the non-conference season beating up on cupcakes and taking losses at high-majors (with the occasional victory), they rarely come away with that signature win that gets people looking at the conference.  Butler, of course, is the exception to the rule, but I scarcely believe they’d have been to two straight Final Fours if they had played their conference season in the Summit, OVC, or even the Missouri Valley or Atlantic 10.  Consider this: not only did they share the league title with Milwaukee and Cleveland State last year in a three-way tie at 13-5, but the Bulldogs had eight of their victories by eight points or less in conference play.  This team was battle-tested in conference dog fights, and not just against Milwaukee, Valpo, Detroit and Cleveland State – they had tough games against Loyola, Youngstown State, and UIC.  Those battles in conference were a big reason they were able to go on the runs they did the past two years.

The teams in the Horizon League play an exciting brand of basketball that wins ball games.  Outside of the Power Six conferences, no conference since 2005 has been as successful in the NCAA Tournament as the Horizon League.  That includes several victories outside of Butler, so realize this isn’t some one-trick pony.  The conference is filled with players who go on to play professionally and the chase for the regular season title is almost always down to the wire.

Brian Goodman (743 Posts)

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


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One Response to “RTC Conference Primers: #13 – Horizon League”

  1. Pantherman says:

    The Panthers completely did a 180 in the Jan 1st Detroit game last season.

    If they play like they did Jan 1st to the tournament championship game from the get-go this season they very well could end up atop the horizon.

    It’s mind-boggling DMU isn’t better with everything they have. But maybe this is their year. It should be a good race. I pick Milwaukee. But I am obv. biased.

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