Checking In On… the Horizon LeaguePosted by Brian Goodman on December 15th, 2011
Bill Hupp is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, Russian nesting dolls and life.
The Week That Was
- Cream of the Crop Rises: It’s only mid-December, but don’t let the overall records fool you: The conference cream of the crop has already risen to the top. There is a clear division between the upper and lower halves of the Horizon League in 2011-12. Some teams (Milwaukee, Detroit, Butler, and Valparaiso) chose to test themselves before conference play begins. With Butler having a down season, a conference crown is there for the taking and each of these schools is hoping that their tough-minded scheduling philosophy pays off late in the season.
- UW-Milwaukee Pushes Wisconsin: Playing in front of the largest regular season home crowd in school history at the U.S. Cellular Arena in Milwaukee, the Panthers went on a 16-1 run in the second half to cut 17-point deficit to two. But Wisconsin hit a few big shots down the stretch to hold on for a 60-54 win. UWM – who were without injured starters Kyle Kelm and Ja’Rob McCallum – dug themselves a hole in the first half after they shot just 30% from the field and made seven of 17 free throws for the game. Tony Meijer scored all of his team-high 15 points in a seven-minute stretch in the middle of the second half.
- Return of the Titan: 6’10’’ center Eli Holman returned from an indefinite suspension and played in his first two games this past week. Though he didn’t start either game, Holman dunked his way to 21 points and snagged seven rebounds in his season-opener against Western Michigan and then went for nine and nine (points and boards) in the Titans’ loss to Alabama. Coach Ray McCallum Sr. seems to be making Holman earn his way back into the starting lineup, which is probably smart for the sake of team chemistry. Detroit survived a tough non-conference schedule without him including a nice win over St. John’s, but a low-post force like Holman is a rarity in the Horizon League. With him, the Titans should challenge Milwaukee and Cleveland State for conference supremacy.
- Cleveland State(10-1, 2-0) –The two best non-conference wins of the season thus far belong to the Vikings (road wins over Vanderbilt and Mid-American Conference favorite Kent State). Senior D’Aundray Brown has bounced back nicely from an injured hand to lead the team in scoring (12.7 PPG) and is second in rebounding (4.5 RPG). Guard Trevon Harmon was named conference Player of the Week after averaging 20 points in victories over Robert Morris and at Akron. The key to CSU’s early-season success, however, has been tough defense. With former star Norris Cole now in the NBA, the Vikings have used a quick, smaller lineup and their trademark pressure defense to hold opponents to just 57.5 points per game while swiping ten steals per game, both conference-bests.
- Milwaukee(8-3, 2-0) – UWM was a team that challenged itself in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Sure, they lost their three most difficult games to Michigan State, Northern Iowa, and Wisconsin, but those are three likely NCAA Tournament teams. Of course, the Panthers can also play down to their competition. There’s no other way to explain escaping with two-point wins over bad teams like UIC and Northern Illinois. The Panthers are balanced and deep offensively with six players averaging between 9.1 and 12.2 points per game. They feed whoever has the hot hand, which is why they’ve had a different leading scorer in six of their first 11 games.
- Valparaiso (7-3, 1-0) – The Crusaders are playing hard and playing well for new coach Bryce Drew. Two of Valpo’s three losses have come on the road to Arizona and Ohio State. The feather is his cap thus far surely is the overtime victory over Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the first since 1988. Offensively, Valpo seems to be playing quicker under Bryce and they are firing on all cylinders, leading the conference in scoring offense (74.9 PPG), field goal percentage (48.5%), and assists (14.4 APG). Two of the top six scorers in the conference are foreign-born juniors Ryan Broekhoff (15.3 PPG) and Kevin Van Wijk (14.4 PPG).
- Detroit (5-7, 0-2) – It might take a few games, but the return of Eli Holman as the man in the middle for Detroit gives the Titans an imposing low-post presence to compliment high-scoring, athletic guards Chase Simon (Horizon League-best 16.3 PPG) and Ray McCallum Jr. (14.6 PPG). The Titans have proven inconsistent on offense, dropping 95 point one game and just 61 the next. As always with the Detroit, the question is not talent, but chemistry.
- Butler (4-6, 0-1) – It’s strange to see a Butler team shoot the ball so poorly, but the Bulldogs ranked ninth in the Horizon League in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. Fans had high hopes for newcomers Jackson Aldridge and Roosevelt Jones coming into the season, but both are taking some time to adjust to the college game (easier said than done with such a loaded non-conference schedule). Butler could really use a sweet-shooting guard like Shelvin Mack right about now.
- Green Bay (5-6, 2-0) – If only the Phoenix could play all their games at home. Unfortunately for UWGB, a 5-0 mark at the Resch Center is offset by a 0-6 road record. However, versatile 7’1’’ sophomore center Alec Brown has picked up where he left off after freshman year and ranks among the conference leaders in points (14.7 PPG), rebounds (7.9 RPG) and blocks (3.0 BPG). He’s a low-presence like Brown is a nice piece for young coach Brian Wardle to build around.
- Youngstown State (6-3, 1-1) – It’s hard to get a good gauge on the Penguins’ fast start because, well, they haven’t really played anybody yet. A three-point win at Detroit (without Eli Holman) was nice, but YSU needs Kendrick Perry (15.9 PPG) and Damian Eargle (3.0 BPG) to be impactful if they want to host a conference tournament game.
- UIC (3-6, 0-2) – Despite an ugly 95-53 loss to Oregon State on Tuesday that dropped UIC to 0-5 on the road, Howard Moore’s Flames actually hung tough in their first two conference games. The problem is their slow starts. Twice, the Flames have seen tremendous second-half comebacks fall just short (against Green Bay and Milwaukee in OT) because they shot poorly out of the gate and feel behind early. Like many young teams, the Flames have struggled to contain their opponents, ranking last or next-to-last in the Horizon League in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense.
- Wright State (4-7, 1-1) – The Raiders are playing pretty solid defense early on, they just can’t score the ball very well. Their 55.2 PPG ranks them ninth in the conference. N.C. State transfer Julius Mays has helped a little bit, averaging 10.2 PPG, but he’s shooting under 40% from the field. Wright State needs to find answers on offense or life in the Horizon could be pretty unpleasant.
- Loyola (2-7, 0-2) – The Ramblers at one point trailed by 33 points to DePaul, but battled back to within nine before eventually falling at the Gentile Center. The resiliency is admirable, but Loyola can’t afford to play catch-up with such poor offense (conference-worst 54.3 PPG). Now first-year head coach Porter Moser’s young team is dealing with injuries to leading scorer Walt Gibler (13.5 PPG) and promising freshman Joe Crisman (9.6 PPG). The future may be bright, but at the moment, they’re surely singing the blues up in Rogers Park.
- Saturday, 12/17: Butler vs. Purdue (@ Conseco Fieldhouse) – It’s no surprise that Butler, the darlings of college basketball the past two seasons, are by far the most nationally-featured Horizon League school, but they are not nearly the team they have been the past two seasons. The Bulldogs (4-6) are trying to snap a three-game losing skid for just the second time since 2004-05. Butler won the last meeting between these two back in 2006, but this isn’t nearly the same Bulldogs team.
- Saturday, 12/17: Oakland @ Valparaiso – Oakland, the two-time defending Summit League champions, should provide a nice final test for the Crusaders when they visit the ARC. Valpo, meanwhile, hopes to continue their hot shooting and maintain an undefeated home record.
- Monday, 12/19: Youngstown State @ Akron – Heading into this season, the Zips were considered one of the favorites to win the Mid-American Conference. They have had a slightly disappointing start, but it would be a nice confidence boost for the Penguins to beat their in-state rival on the road.
- Tuesday, 12/20: Butler @ Gonzaga – Fresh off what promises to be a physical game with Purdue, nothing like heading out on a long-flight to the West Coast to get you ready for conference play. This might be therapeutic for Butler should they lose badly to the Boilermakers, but it could also be too much for a young team to handle. Don’t be surprised if Butler hangs tough with Purdue then is spent and gets trounced by Gonzaga.
Caught on Film: Because we at RTC never tire of watching gorgeous half-court alley-oops finished by nasty slams, consider this entry from guard Ray McCallum to 6’8’’ forward Doug Anderson in transition. Mercy (at :29 seconds)!