Checking in on … the Horizon LeaguePosted by Deepak Jayanti on January 25th, 2012
Deepak Jayanti is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League. Follow him on Twitter (@10thYearSeniors) for his thoughts on college basketball.
- Don’t Bet On It: Parity has been a common term used to describe certain conference races such as the Big Ten, CAA or Pac-12 so far this season. Add the Horizon League to that list after the games this past weekend. Cleveland State and a surprising Valparaiso team sit on top of the standings at the halfway point of conference play. Fans of this league with a gambling itch might want to stay away because there are three teams (Butler, Milwaukee and Youngstown State) right up there, only a game behind the leaders in the standings. Milwaukee and Cleveland State were expected to be the front-runners but few expected Valpo and Youngstown to challenge them for the title. There is only one aspect of this conference that is certain at the halfway point – unpredictability.
- International Love: No, this is not a reference to the Pitbull/Chris Brown song that is overplayed on the radio nowadays. But Bryce Drew has two great foreign-born players that form an efficient inside-outside tandem. One of the lingering questions about the Crusaders before the season started was around a reliable second scoring option outside of Ryan Broekhoff (Australia). Kevin Van Wijk (Netherlands) is averaging 16.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as he compliments Broekhoff’s outside game by patrolling the paint without attempting a single three-point shot all season. Drew must be paying close attention to the shooting form of his players because the Crusaders are shooting a league best 58% inside the arc. They aren’t stacked with three-point gunners but their offensive sets are designed to maximize the player’s strengths, hence less reliant on the long-range shot.
- Senior Backcourt Leads the Way: Cleveland State is fortunate to have three seniors controlling the game during key stretches. The three Vikings – Trevon Harmon (12.1 PPG), D’Aundray Brown (11.6 PPG) and Jeremy Montgomery (10.7 PPG) provide a great foundation along with a balanced scoring attack. Gary Waters’ guards have already proved that they can win at tough venues on the road – Vanderbilt, Kent State and Butler. Their experience and composure might just be enough to win pivotal games such as the one this past weekend when they steamrolled through Milwaukee at home, 83-57. They do more than just score – the Three Amigos also limited each of Milwaukee’s guards to single digit scoring on Sunday.
- D in Detroit doesn’t stand for Defense: All of the offensive talent means nothing if you can’t (or won’t) defend. Sure, everybody around the league is well aware of the potential NBA players on the Titans’ squad – Ray McCallum Jr. (15.2 PPG, 4.7 APG) and Eli Holman (11 PPG, 6.6 RPG). Without a consistent defensive effort, though, they have no chance at contending for the conference title. Detroit ranks last in defensive field goal percentage across the Horizon and are giving up about one point per possession* to their opponents during conference action. They will continue to lose key games against the top squads with their lackadaisical defense – for example, they gave up 84 points to Milwaukee, which is a team that only averages about 63.6 points per game. (*All tempo free statistics are courtesy of kenpom.com)
- Disney on ice: Huh? That’s not a typo. This event could impact where the conference tournament is held. If the teams continue to beat up on each other, the overall record of the top teams won’t be enticing enough for the NCAA committee to consider selecting two teams for the Big Dance. So despite the regular season outcome, the conference tournament’s result might easily drive the decision on Selection Sunday. If Milwaukee ends up winning the regular season (only one game behind first place), they will not be able to host the first two rounds of the conference tournament because Disney On Ice has already booked the U.S. Cellular arena from March 1-4. Now, this will only impact Milwaukee negatively IF they win the regular season title because in such a case, the tournament will be held on the home court of the second place team from the regular season. Based on the parity of the league so far, a home court advantage might be extremely crucial during the conference tourney so the Panthers fans won’t be too happy come early March if they are forced to play on the road.
- Cleveland State (7-2, 17-4) – In addition to an experienced backcourt, the Vikings can pull their weight in the paint. They lead the league in grabbing offensive rebounds. They clean the offensive glass at a league best 36.6%. Most of this is due to the upcoming freshman Anton Grady who grabs about 5.4 rebounds per game. Another senior forward, Aaron Pogue adds to the mix as he averages 4.1 boards per game. A balanced scoring attack combined with experience means that the Vikings are well positioned to take the conference title.
- Valparaiso (7-2, 14-7) – Well-coached players know their strengths. The Crusaders’ shot selection during their recent stretch exemplifies Drew’s coaching abilities. This team won’t shoot lights out like their former coach but have been running most of the plays through the paint. Capitalizing on Van Wijk’s post game is the best strategy because it opens up the outside shot for Broekhoff towards the end of the games. Van Wijk is very savvy with his moves in the paint and has a fairly high free throw rate of 83.6 this season.
- Milwaukee (6-3, 13-8) – Ok, the Panthers just had a rough weekend. But they still play the best on-ball defense in the league. They limit their opponents to just 25.7% from the three-point land. Their loss at Youngstown State was an anomaly because the Penguins caught on fire during the first half. Rob Jeter will continue to preach defense and Kaylon Williams is an extension of the head coach on the floor. Williams single handedly brought them back from a deficit against Y-State and will continue to keep the Panthers in contention until the very last game of the season.
- Youngstown State (6-3, 11-8) – Beware of the home court advantage! The Penguins only have one loss at home, which came during their non-conference campaign. They are undefeated during conference season and it showed this past weekend as they shot their way to a victory against Milwaukee. Blake Allen was voted conference player of this past week because he shot 6-6 from beyond the arc in the first half and Slocum’s guards are hitting about 40% of their three-point attempts so far. The Penguins get the top tier teams at home during their second half of the season – Butler, Valpo and Cleveland State. So they have a shot to stay alive especially if they continue their hot shooting.
- Butler (6-3, 12-9)– Ronald Nored won’t go down without a fight. He has seen too much during his time at Butler just to pass off his senior season as part of a rebuilding project. Nored is the clear leader of this team and is doing everything he can to get the younger kids fired up. His statistics show his overall impact on the game this season – 8.1 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game, 4.9 assists per game, 2.0 steals per game. His on-ball defense against the best guards in the league will keep Butler competitive during most games. But the Bulldogs’ offense needs to go through the paint this year because they are shooting a dismal 28.7% from three-point land in conference.
- Detroit (4-5, 10-11) – Talking about teams that have been shooting too much this season; the Titans are in the same boat as Butler in that respect. Chase Simon (30% 3-pt FG) and Ray McCallum Jr. (27% 3-pt FG) ought to recognize the big man down low and take advantage of scoring in the paint more. McCallum Jr. has enough talent to weave his way into the paint during most possessions rather than settling for jumpers. Eli Holman is not being utilized to his fullest potential by the guards. Ray McCallum Sr. needs to make these adjustments soon because the clock is ticking on the Titans.
- Wright State (4-5, 9-12) – Julius Mays (13.4 PPG) needs a running mate. He needs a Goose to go with his Maverick in order for the Raiders to produce consistent offense in this league. Billy Donion’s team is at the bottom of the league in terms of total points scored – a meager 0.94 points per possession.
- Green Bay (3-6, 7-12) – The Phoenix have three losses (Butler, Valpo, Milwaukee) by a combined total of eight points. Youth is one of the reasons for these close losses. Keifer Sykes (8.9 PPG) will make the first-team all conference before he graduates because he has shown great intensity especially when he goes up against the top guards of the league.
- UIC (2-7, 6-13) – The Flames could afford to push the tempo a little bit more during the second half of the season. They average about 62 possessions per game now which ranks ninth in the league but their half court sets don’t always result in a good shot as shown by a low two-point field goal percentage of only 40.
- Loyola (0-9, 5-14) – No wins yet. But they have a new logo and a renovated arena. That might not mean much right now but it certainly implies that their athletic department is committed to building a solid program around new coach Porter Moser.
- Thursday, 1/26: Butler @ Milwaukee – Two senior guards going against each other. The defensive intensity of Ronald Nored and Kaylon Williams is bound to make this matchup into a bruiser. But Milwaukee needs to snap out of their slump soon to remain in the hunt for the title. Brad Stevens’ young freshmen on the other hand are maturing with every game. Roosevelt Jones, a freshman guard seems to be cut from the same wood as Nored with regards to perimeter defense.
- Saturday, 1/28: Valpo @ Milwaukee – Once again, the stage is set this week for the Panthers to not only snap out of their losing skid but also to make a statement that they are still one of the favorites to get to the postseason representing this league. The Crusaders lost by a bucket at home earlier this season so it will be interesting to see if this team has improved much over the last six games in this re-match. Valpo’s guards will need to step up in addition to their top two scorers in order to pull off the win on the road.
- Saturday, 1/28: Cleveland State @ Youngstown State – Can the Penguins continue draining threes? Can they do it consistently against opponents with good defensive guards? Another scoring option is needed during their cold streaks and Damian Eargle might be the answer for Youngstown. He scored 20 points during their first match up against the Vikings which resulted in a 73-67 win. Cleveland State’s guards need to defend the deep ball on Saturday and let the Penguins beat them in a different way.