Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the Horizon League Correspondent for RTC. With the conference tournament set to tip tonight, get a leg up on all things Horizon in this week’s recap and postseason preview.
To be perfectly honest, the Horizon League Tournament is stacked to allow the top two seeds the ability to get into the tournament, and it’s hard to argue with the success – each of the co-champions has won in the NCAA Tournament since the current format began. The funny thing is, hot teams really should be able to win the thing, and this year is no different. Except the hottest teams, Milwaukee (nine conference wins in a row) and Butler (seven) are the two best programs running into the Horizon League Tournament. The way those teams played, against the top teams all the way down to the bottom of the conference, was good enough to warrant the double-bye.
Butler’s side of the bracket features some really tough teams. Cleveland State is a co-champion, the first such team to have to go four games to win it. Wright State split with Butler, and both Green Bay and UIC played Butler tough during the conference season.
The Milwaukee side of the invitational features Youngstown State, who very nearly beat everyone ahead of them at the Beeghly Center; Loyola, who actually won in the U.S. Cellular Arena against the hosts; Valparaiso, who had the #1 seed until eight days ago; and Detroit, who has all the talent in the world and fought their way into the #5 seed on the last day of the regular season.
Butler will have to play Cleveland State or someone else on their side of the bracket just to get to the conference championship, but make no mistake, they’ve got someone that they’re looking forward to playing. Fast forward to the 4:35 mark.
If you are a true fan of Mid-Major basketball, then this is the weekend for you. Many fans who find a whole lot of joy in watching teams from the smaller conferences compete, share the common gripe that there is not nearly enough coverage of these teams. Well, at no other point during the season will you see ESPN dedicate an entire Saturday of basketball almost exclusively to the best Mid-Major teams around the nation.
Playing against the same faces within a team’s conference can become monotonous, but the BracketBuster weekend enables 114 teams around the country a brief recess before the final stretch of the regular season and tournament time to play an opponent they would otherwise never play. Although many of these games will have little meaning in the grand scheme of things, there are a select few that have serious implications as several Mid-Major teams partaking in the BracketBuster weekend sit squarely on the bubble.
Brace yourself for a great day of college hoops on Saturday. With so many of the top Mid-Major teams in the country playing—George Mason, Utah State, St. Mary’s, Cleveland State, Old Dominion, Missouri State, and Wichita State—you can bet that at least one of these teams, if not more, will be wearing Cinderella’s slipper come March.
Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League.
A Look Back
Fans are still getting used to Butler being out of the top spot, but the past couple weeks have led the Bulldogs to losses at WrightState and (most recently) Valparaiso, and the biggest shot to the stomach may have been an overtime loss at Hinkle against Milwaukee that completed a very impressive sweep by the Panthers. The Crusaders and Cleveland State Vikings kept on trucking, putting distance between themselves and the rest of the Horizon League by going undefeated in the last week. CSU had an easy week, going on the road in Chicago and getting two victories. Valparaiso, on the other hand, got everything Butler could give them and won in front of a packed house at the ARC before they were taken down by the Vikings Thursday night.
1. Cleveland State (21-3, 10-2) – Since their difficult trip in Indiana, the Vikings have gone 6-0 and have been generally strong in doing so, even though their three road wins came at the dregs of the Horizon League. A victory at home against Valparaiso put them in the driver’s seat for the time being. Any H-League fans fancy spending early March in Cleveland?
2. Valparaiso (16-7, 8-3) – The Crusaders have definitely had a more difficult schedule than the Vikings since their victory on January 9, but a hiccup at home against Green Bay separates them for now. Thursday’s game was a huge letdown, and now the Crusaders are looking up; luckily they still have the inside track on the two seed and its double-bye.
3. Wright State (15-9, 8-4) – The Raiders only had losses to the top two teams before dropping a decision at Milwaukee, adding on to the impressive streak of losing at the Panthers (the last time Wright State won at Milwaukee was in 1997). The Raiders have, along with Detroit, the most difficult schedule remaining. A victory at the ARC next Saturday is essential for the Raiders to have a decent shot at overtaking Valpo.
4. Milwaukee (12-11, 7-5) – The Jekyll-and-Hyde season for the Panthers finally subsided with Milwaukee taking games at Butler and at home against Detroit and Wright State. The last (and only) time the Panthers won or lost three games in a row was between November 14th through the 20th. Beat Green Bay on Saturday, and they keep the pace with the top. Lose, and it’s back to the pack.
5. Butler (14-9, 6-5) – Since blowing out Cleveland State, the Dawgs and Vikings have gone two separate directions. Butler has gone 3-4 since then, dropping a game at home against Milwaukee to complete the sweep and road games at Wright State, Valpo and Youngstown State (seriously). With five conference losses, they have a very outside shot at the all-important two seed, but it is essential that they defeat Cleveland State and Wright State to keep their hopes alive.
6. Green Bay (12-11, 6-5) – The Phoenix answered a loss at Detroit with an emphatic victory at Green Bay on Sunday. Guard Rahmon Fletcher has scored in double figures in eight straight games, including a 24-point performance against the Titans. Saturday’s game at Milwaukee is the only game of the week for the Phoenix, and is a huge rivalry for two teams knotted at five losses in the conference.
7. Detroit (12-12, 6-6) – Ray McCallum Sr.’s Titans have been on a downward spiral, going 2-5 over their last seven with victories over UIC and Youngstown State. The depth of the Titans has been an issue this season, and an extremely talented starting five has had to play a ton. When they get in foul trouble, McCallum is forced to play guys like Evan Bruinsma in important situations, as he did down the stretch Friday against Milwaukee.
8. Loyola (13-10, 4-8) – Luckily for the Ramblers, they have separated themselves from the Flames and Penguins. Unfortunately, that still leaves them at 4-8m looking up at the pack in terms of a home game in the conference tournament. With three more losses than the sixth-place team, the Ramblers have all but lost an opportunity to host a Horizon League tournament game. They can be dangerous in the tourney with GeoffMcCammon, so look for him to get some rest once their seed is pretty much set.
9. Youngstown State (8-14, 2-10) – Wow, what a victory for Youngstown State over Butler on Thursday night. This game will go down as one of the 2-3 best victories in program history, or at least for the decade it has been in the Horizon League. But you see, that’s the problem. The victory over the Bulldogs is no easy feat, but when the team tied for fifth place in the conference is one of your best victories of the decade, you’ve had a pretty awful decade. The time is ripe for the Penguins to move on from Jerry Slocum and truly invest in their program. Don’t be surprised if the Horizon League has meetings to consider contraction of Youngstown State if Slocum is still the coach in April, or the replacement is not paid at a comparable level of other conference schools.
10. UIC (6-17, 1-10) – This was a lost season once April 2010 passed and Jimmy Collins was still the head coach. The fact that it took until August to install a replacement for Collins, who retired over the summer, made the 2010-11 season pointless from a competitive standpoint. Poor Paul Carter shouldn’t have applied to play immediately and instead should have sat out the season as a regular transfer. Now, the team looks to be out of luck in the future as well, with Carter, Robo Kreps, DipanjotSingh, Brad Birton, and potentially Zavion Neely (due to academic issues) on their way out. Of course, a blank slate to go along with a full season of recruiting may be just what Howard Moore needs.
A Look Ahead
The two teams off on Thursday, Milwaukee and Green Bay, square off in a huge rivalry game at the U.S. Cellular Arena on Saturday afternoon. The winner is still in the mix for a potential bye (albeit barely), but the loser will be fending off Detroit to hold onto the #6 spot and a conference home game. Following the loss at YSU, Butler is gasping for air. The worst time for this to happen is now, as they are headed into Valhalla to take on the Vikings of Cleveland State. CSU is fresh off a decisive victory at Valparaiso and split the season series. It would be a huge step for the Vikings if they could bury Butler with a sixth loss in conference. Not exactly the 1-2 matchup that ESPN was hoping for, but Butler can still make the conference race very interesting by sweeping the league leaders.
2.5.2011 – Green Bay at Milwaukee, 3 p.m. ESPNU
2.5.2011 – Butler at Cleveland State, noon ESPN or ESPN2
2.5.2011 – Loyola at Detroit, 2 p.m. HLN
2.7.2011 – Cleveland State at Detroit, 7 p.m. HLN
Expanding on Contraction
In the power rankings, I hinted that the Horizon League may want to consider contraction should Youngstown State move forward with Jerry Slocum as their head coach or replace him with a similarly shortchanged coaching staff. Besides Valparaiso, the Penguins are the only program that has been added since the 1994-95 season, and unlike Valpo, Youngstown has never been truly competitive in the conference. In their tenth season in the conference, YSU has never been better than fifth place, and that was in 2006-07. They are 2-9 in the Horizon League Tournament, with their best victory a four-pointer over #6 Green Bay in the 2002-03 tourney. Their coaching salaries are remarkably poor, only matched by the Phoenix.
But there are two things that separate Green Bay from Youngstown. For one, the Phoenix have been successful in the past ten years (and wildly successful during the nineties), scoring two #2 seeds in the past decade. The Penguins have never been anything more than marginal; how can the conference trump up a program who hangs its hat on a 14-7, 7-9 season as their best in a decade? The other thing that separates the similarly penny-pinching programs at Green Bay and Youngstown State? At UWGB, the Green Bay Phoenix are the show. Their nationally-ranked women’s basketball program is great, but men’s basketball, like it is at eight other schools in the conference, is the meal ticket. At YSU, football will always trump men’s basketball. Whenever money is being allocated at the Ohio school, it goes directly into the football program. Slocum is a good coach with over 600 victories, but never had a chance at Youngstown State because of the serious lack of resources, a very poor campus neighborhood and city at large.
At the very least, the conference members should consider setting certain restrictions to force Youngstown State to bring their program up with the rest of the League. However, they’ve had ten years and have played the anchor, dragging down everyone’s RPI in almost every season. What would the conference look like this year if YSU were in the Summit or NEC, two conferences that may be better fits for them? UIC would be the anchor, but even their RPI (#277 as of today) would be higher because they’d be lifted from the two games (and one loss) to the Penguins.
Were it my call, I would cut Youngstown State; is it heartless? Probably. Shouldn’t I give them time to pick themselves up? No, because they’ve had a decade to do so and haven’t shown any interest in becoming a better program. I don’t see any Slocum replacement changing that unless he and his staff are compensated more to the tune of other conference schools and their recruiting budget is picked up.
It’s not Youngstown State’s fault. They are married to football, as they should be – the program is the lifeblood of the city. But the lack of money for other sports points to the fact that the Penguins should be playing in a different conference; perhaps it’s a move to the Summit League, where they used to play, or maybe it’s the NEC. In either case, they’d be matching up with similar budgets and have a much better opportunity to win some games.
As for the Horizon League, I wouldn’t go forward with extending an invitation to anyone just yet, but Saint Louis and/or Oakland should, at the very least, be approached. SLU would likely turn the Horizon League down, as their situation in the A-10 isn’t bad enough travel-wise to make the move to the far better geographical fit of the H-League (or MVC for that matter). Oakland, on the other hand, would be a great fit, evening out the travel partner situation (dropping one Ohio school and adding one in Michigan makes it two from each state: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan).
In any case, I’m just spitballing, but the fact remains it’s plainly clear that the Horizon League and Youngstown State simply aren’t meant for each other.
Video of the Week: By now, you’ve probably seen Green Bay scrub Eric Valentin setting the Guinness record for half court shots in one minute. If you haven’t, indulge your eyes for a moment:
Game #52. RTC Live heads to Chicago for an early-season tilt between Horizon League foes. Unbelievably, conference play is already here.
Coming off a shocking loss to Evansville the Butler Bulldogs will open Horizon League play at the Gentile Center in Rogers Park, Chicago against the surprising Loyola (IL) Ramblers. You can catch the game on the Horizon League Network. Loyola is off to a 7-0 start after a narrow escape versus San Francisco on Saturday. Having returned their top seven scorers, the Ramblers have been able to get out of the gate quickly this season – and have played especially well at home. Butler has struggled a bit to replace Gordon Hayward and work some talented new freshman into the rotation and it showed on Saturday as the Bulldogs dropped a 71-68 overtime decision to the Purple Aces. Point guard Ronald Nored missed the game against Evansville due to a head injury he suffered against Siena, and it’s questionable whether he will be able to return for this game. Last season, this matchup went down to the wire with Butler pulling off 48-47 victory only after Loyola missed two shots in its final possession. The Ramblers are a team-oriented outfit with five players scoring in double-figures. Senior Geoff McCammon leads the way with 14.4 points per game. Join John Templon of Chicago College Basketball at 6:45 p.m. CT as we attempt to discover if Loyola has what it takes to be a force in the Horizon League this season, or if Butler will not relinquish the crown without a fight.
A difference of opinion: Butler might be the 18th team in the nation (according to the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll) or they might be the 23rd team (according to the AP poll), but the Bulldogs have really confused people this season. Pomeroy thinks they’re only 28th. The rest of the Horizon League schedule isn’t going to provide us with any answers either.
Light Bracket Busters schedule: the Horizon League got some good matchups when the Bracket Buster lineup was announced. There is a made-for-TV game between Butler and Siena, but after that there are a bunch of winnable games. One tough one might be Loyola (IL) at Creighton.
Last chance?: Saturday might be UIC’s final chance to get a win during regular season Horizon League play. The Flames have four road games and two tough home games against the Wisconsin schools remaining on the schedule after they play Youngstown State at the Pavilion. If the Flames fall to the Penguins then a winless 2010 is a possibility.
Green Bay. The two Wisconsin schools had off on Thursday because they’re gearing up for a rematch of the 71-51 beatdown the Panthers handed the Phoenix on Saturday, January 9. Green Bay has slipped lately. The Phoenix lost two home games last weekend against Butler and Valparaiso. The game against the Crusaders was particularly painful as Valparaiso is climbing up the Horizon League standings. How Rahmon Fletcher goes determines how the Phoenix go in general. He scored just seven points on 2-10 shooting against Valparaiso. The junior guard still ranks third in the conference in scoring.
Milwaukee. The Panthers are also preparing for their local rival. Squeaking out a narrow victory over Valparaiso last weekend kept Milwaukee in the hunt for a middle of the standings spot. The Panthers are still a little behind at 5-6, but they still have a game versus Youngstown and a weekend in Chicago to make up ground. The big game will be February 18th against Cleveland State. Ricky Franklin is another lead guard excelling in conference play. The senior is sixth in the league in scoring and fourth in assists.
Butler. The Bulldogs are two-thirds of the way to an undefeated regular season in the Horizon League. But winning the regular season hasn’t been a problem for the Bulldogs in the past. It’s been taking care of business in the conference tournament, which is played on Butler’s home court. With a weakening bubble the Bulldogs probably could get in without the automatic bid, but to be sure they’ll have to take care of business in Indianapolis. The Bulldogs are led by Gordon Hayward, a sophomore who ranks fourth in points, third in rebounds and fifth in FG% in the conference. He is currently #30 in the 2011 Mock Draft on NBADraft.net but Chad Ford has him as a mid-to-late first rounder this season. Butler’s march through the Horizon League continues on Saturday when Wright State comes to town.
Valparaiso. At .500 in conference Valparaiso has been one of the surprises of the season in the Horizon League. They’ve steadily improved as the season has gone on. A loss on Thursday at home to Wright State put some damper on the party, but there’s still a lot of potential here. Their leading scorer, and the leading scorer in the Horizon League, is Brandon Wood. He is just a sophomore. He’s complemented by junior forward Cory Johnson who ranks fifth in points per game and second in field goal percentage in the conference. Valparaiso’s slow start hurt their Bracket Buster match-up as they were given a game at Bowling Green.
Youngstown State. The Penguins are a veteran team that just hasn’t figured things out this season. Part of the problem is the lack of a dominant talent. Seniors DeAndre Mays – 11th in points, 11th in assists, and Sirlester Martin – 11th in rebounding, are very good complementary parts, but there is no superstar to drive the engine. Vytas Sulskis comes off the bench to give the Penguins some more scoring power, but it hasn’t been enough. Youngstown had Loyola on the ropes on Thursday before falling in overtime. Their Bracket Buster game will take them all the way to Riverside, California, to take on the UC Riverside Highlanders.
UIC. UIC’s game against Youngstown on Saturday is going to be one of the more interesting game of the Horizon League season. These two teams are essentially playing for last place in the conference. The Flames have lost some heartbreakers lately, including a 3-point loss to Detroit and a 5-point loss to crosstown rival Loyola, but that’s not cutting it. The Flames haven’t won in 2010 and might finish the new year without a victory if something doesn’t change soon. Their Bracket Buster game in Evansville will be a tough but winnable game. A scary thought – UIC could be worse next season after Horizon League assist leader Spencer Stewart graduates.
Loyola (IL). The Ramblers used to be one of the deepest teams in the Horizon League, but injuries have destroyed that depth. Talented sophomore swingman Jordan Hicks is out for the season with a broken foot and Aric Van Weelden has missed the last six games. Without them the Ramblers have really had to tighten up their rotation. After Terrance Hill was ejected early from the game against Youngstown State guards Courtney Stanley and Geoff McCammon both played almost the entire game. Stanley ranks second in the Horizon League in assists and when he’s on Loyola shoots much better from the field. Also, senior Andy Polka is first in the conference in rebounding. He should be back next season too after receiving a medical redshirt for his junior year.
Cleveland State. After playing a killer non-conference schedule the Vikings have slowly started to get on track in the Horizon League. They’ve won their last five games and have a three-guard attack that is really humming along. Still, they’re at 11-12 overall, so the Vikings need to keep piling up wins. The leader of the charge has been junior guard Norris Cole. He ranks second in the conference in scoring. Jereme Montgomery and Trevon Harmon also average double-figures. Cleveland State drew a terrible Toledo team from the MAC as their Bracket Buster game, and it’s not really going to help them at all.
Detroit. The Titans have proven they can beat the bottom tier of the conference, but they’ve really struggled against the top teams. They lost two close games to Butler, lost a home game against Wright State and lost at Green Bay. In order to keep their place in the top half of the conference the Titans have to win at Valparaiso on Saturday, which will be no easy task. Detroit is going to play Eastern Michigan in the Bracket Busters. This might be a good time to point out that while the Horizon League is down this season, it’s not the MAC. Central Michigan, which sits in second in the MAC, lost to both Wright State and Detroit on the road earlier this season. Sophomore forward Eli Holman is second in rebounding and 1st in field goal percentage in the conference.
Wright State. The Raiders don’t have anyone that really wows you statistically, but they work great as a team. Junior guard Vaughn Duggins has returned from injury to become one the of the top guards in the Horizon League. He’s currently ninth in the conference in scoring. Other than him Wright State gets it done with good defense and a balanced attack. They’ve won their last four games and might be the toughest test Butler has remaining in conference. Their game on Saturday should be a good one. If anyone has a right to be angry about the Bracket Buster game it’s Wright State. The Raiders needed a good opponent in order to bolster than NIT credentials, but were given Ohio (12-10, 3-5 in MAC). Close losses at Washington and Nebraska really sting right now, as well as an inexplicable loss to Miami (OH). Change those results and Brad Brownell’s team might be looking at the bubble.
Ed. Note: for our Midnight Madness wrapup post, click here.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our first Boom Goes The Dynamite of the new season. And now, we can say those words — “new season.” For tonight is the final hurdle in that long lull of the off-season that we have to cross. Maybe it’s inappropriately named, but who cares? Tonight is Midnight Madness across the country. Schools all over the place have got the festivities going, the first official games are less than a month away, and we can finally say that the new season is here.
ESPN-U’s broadcast is minutes away from starting. I’m John Stevens, one of the editors here at Rush The Court, and I’ll be live-blogging the whole way with RTMSF, our founder and guru, behind the scenes watching message boards, Twitter accounts, and getting texts and video from all over, and we’ll put up everything we get. So settle in, enjoy the coverage, and let us know your opinions as always. Keep hitting that refresh button, and we hope you enjoy it. Most of all — welcome. It’s finally here.
9:01pm: Here are some tweets RTMSF has already procured from various sources:
Mike Davis, Illinois
IlliniBalla24… @BuckWildBill33: Three point contest tonight, i’m looking to go 15 for 15 <—- I like ur confidence but I like @dkeller23 for a bill lls
Abdul Gaddy, Washington
gaddy0uw…Midnight madness tonight! Everybody come support
Jim Boylen, Utah
JimBoylen…Talking to the media for a few minutes before practice starts. We’re going to hit the ground running!
MDCoachWilliams…MARYLAND MADNESS IS HERE!!!! Come out to the Comcast Center and check out all the action.
9:12: Evidently the University of Kentucky had recording artist Drake at the festivities. No report on Ashley Judd’s whereabouts.
9:16: Right now, just lots of talk by Katz, Gallindo, and Branch. Mostly about North Carolina. Keep in mind, in the race for all-time wins, UNC is only 4 behind Kentucky, and the two face off on December 5th. Might be REALLY important.