Top of the O26 Class: Horizon League, MAC, MVC, Summit

Posted by Adam Stillman on October 24th, 2014

Leading up to the season, this microsite will preview the best of the Other 26 conferences, region by region. In this installment, we examine the leagues that have a traditional footprint in the Midwestern region of the U.S: the Horizon, MAC, MVC, and Summit. Previous installments include the Northeast region leagues


Horizon League

  • Green Bay – 2013-14 record: 24-7 (14-2) – Green Bay had Cinderella written all over it last season. There was only one problem — the Phoenix were upset in the Horizon League Tournament and were instead relegated to the NIT. The good news? Reigning Horizon Player of the Year Keifer Sykes is back, as are four of the team’s top five scorers. The loss of 7-footer Alec Brown certainly hurts, but Green Bay could find itself in the Big Dance comes season’s end and make up for last year’s abrupt (and disappointing) end.
Keifer Sykes and the Green Bay Phoenix are poised to have a big 2014-15 season. (USAT)

Keifer Sykes and the Green Bay Phoenix are poised to have a big 2014-15 season. (USAT)

  • Cleveland State – 2013-14 record: 21-12 (12-4) – If anybody will challenge Green Bay for Horizon League supremacy, it will be Cleveland State. Losing leading scorer Bryn Forbes is a big blow, as he’s moved on to play at Michigan State for the remainder of his career. However, first team preseason selection Trey Lewis (13.1 PPG) is back, as is Anton Grady (10.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG). Watch out for Creighton transfer Andre Yates, who could end up as the best guard on the team.


  • Toledo2013-14 record: 27-7 (14-4) – Toledo reeled off 12 straight wins to start 2013 and won a school-record 27 games in all last season. The Rockets faded down the stretch, settling for a NIT berth, but it looks like 2014-15 will be Toledo’s time to shine. With six of their top seven scorers back, led by all-conference guard Julius “Juice” Brown, the Rockets look to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1980.
  • Western Michigan – 2013-14 record: 23-10 (14-4) – The Broncos were a nice story last season, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. Let’s forget that they were promptly blown out by Syracuse in the first round. WMU will miss the contributions of do-everything big man Shayne Whittington (16.3 PPG, 9.1 RPG), but star guard David Brown headlines five of the top six returning scorers.


  • Wichita State2013-14 record: 35-1 (18-0) No surprise here. Wichita State was the toast of the college basketball world last season, winning its first 35 games while finishing the regular season unbeaten. The Shockers eventually ran into a Kentucky team that finally played up to its potential, losing a thriller in the Round of 32. While nobody can reasonably expect the Shockers to replicate last season’s success, they certainly have the pieces in place to put together another successful season complete with a deep March run. Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker should by now be easily recognizable by even the most casual college hoops fan, and with those two potential All-Americans on the roster, the Shockers project as a top 10 team in 2014-15.
Fred Van Vleet (23) and the Wichita State Shockers are a top-10 team in 2014-15.

Fred Van Vleet (23) and the Wichita State Shockers are a top 10 team in 2014-15.

  • Northern Iowa2013-14 record: 16-15 (10-8) There’s no sugarcoating it here. The Panthers were a massive disappointment last season. Expected to challenge for the MVC title (or at least for second place behind Wichita State) and an NCAA Tournament berth, Northern Iowa was shut out of the postseason all together. Seth Tuttle is the name to know, and the Panthers return their top six scorers. Let’s see if Northern Iowa can reach their potential this season.


  • IPFW2013-14 record: 25-11 (10-4) North Dakota State represented the Summit League in the NCAA Tournament last season, and did a fine job at that with a nice 12-over-5 upset of Oklahoma. Decimated by graduation, the mantle of this league is now up for grabs. Fort Wayne was the favorite in the preseason poll by a hair over Denver, so they get the nod here as the team to watch in a weaker league whose NCAA Tourney representative probably won’t make much noise. Big man Steve Forbes is the player to watch after putting up 12.1 PPG and 5.3 RPG last season. Plus, they have a cool nickname (Mastadons), so that’s something.


  • Fred Van Vleet – The best Other 26 player in the country. It’s hard to believe we could still see the diminutive Wichita State point guard for two more seasons (please, please, please). Van Vleet is the guy who makes the Shockers tick. He creates for others, takes care of the ball, and can hit the three-point shot when called upon. As a sophomore, Van Vleet averaged 11.6 points and 5.4 assists per game while knocking down 42 percent of his treys. A potential first-team All-American, Van Vleet has the potential to lead the Shockers to the Final Four.
  • Ron Baker – The Robin to Van Vleet’s Batman, even if Baker might be the better NBA prospect. He too certainly has a shot at cracking an All-America team in some capacity. If Wichita State is to make a deep March run this season, Baker will be a big reason why. Only a junior, Baker is a complete player. Last season, he averaged 13.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, but a lot of his value doesn’t show up in the box score. Gritty, tough and a defensive menace, Baker is a coach’s dream.
Juice Brown hopes to lead Toledo to the NCAA Tournament (Toledo Free Press).

Juice Brown hopes to lead Toledo to the NCAA Tournament. (Toledo Free Press)

  • Juice Brown – Julius “Juice” Brown has been a star ever since he stepped on to a court for the Toledo Rockets. He has averaged double figure scoring in each of his first three seasons, with last season’s 14.9 PPG the highest of his career. With 98 games now under his belt, the senior guard is looking for his first trip to the NCAA Tournament. Not only a scorer, Brown also dished out six assists a game during the 2013-14 campaign. Look for the all-league selection to have a monster final collegiate season.
  • David Brown – Another star in the MAC just happens to be a high-scoring guard named Brown. This one, a senior at Western Michigan, knows how to light up the scoreboard. Brown poured in 19.1 PPG last season, even if he only shot 41 percent from the field. After taking 30.7 percent of the Broncos’ shots last year, those numbers should only increase in 2014-15 without the services of big man Shayne Whittington inside. The two Browns could certainly battle for MAC Player of the Year honors.
  • Keifer Sykes – The reigning Horizon League Player of the Year looks for an encore performance in his senior season. Sykes is one of the nation’s most entertaining players. It’s really a shame he’s not on national TV more often. The point guard averaged 20.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game a season ago. He might have to better those numbers this go-round. Without floor-stretching 7-footer Alec Brown (43.3% from deep) on the roster, the pressure is on Sykes to do even more. Let’s see how he handles the pressure. My guess? He thrives, winning Horizon League POY and leading the Phoenix to the NCAA Tournament.


  • Keifer Sykes – Heard enough about this guy yet? Don’t overlook the diminutive Green Bay guard when it comes to throwing down. Generously listed at six feet tall, Sykes can still get up there with the best of them. Don’t believe me? Watch the clip below against UIC. There’s sure to be more of these to come.

  • Tekele Cotton – Not only does Wichita State possess two potential All-Americans in Van Vleet and Baker, the Shockers also boast one of the top dunkers in the O26 conferences. This posterization against Illinois State is one I can watch over and over again.

Coach on the Rise

  • Saul Phillips, OhioIf Phillips can follow in the same footsteps as his mentor, this superlative will be a bit of an understatement. A Bo Ryan protégé, he has learned from one of the best while playing his college ball at Division III Wisconsin-Platteville. Phillips is entering his first season at Ohio following an extremely successful stint at North Dakota State from 2007-14. Some highlights from his time there? Leading the Bison to the NCAA Tournament in their first year of eligibility in 2009, and of course the nice 12-over-5 upset of Oklahoma in last season’s Big Dance. While Ohio is certainly rebuilding a bit this season, Phillips should have Ohio doing big things in no time.
Adam Stillman (48 Posts)

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