After his team’s most recent defeat – a 93-58 beatdown at the hands of Valparaiso – Murray State head coach Steve Prohmdid not mince words: “We need to figure out what we need to do to get better. We are struggling – we’re playing terrible. Everybody knows that.” The 35-point drubbing was the Racers’ third-straight loss, an ugly punctuation to an unexpectedly poor start. “This is definitely not the same basketball team that finished the year,” Prohm said. Those statements were made on November 29 – well over two months ago – and it’s safe to say that his team has figured out how to get better. A lot better, in fact. Since losing to the Crusaders just after Thanksgiving, Murray State has reeled off 18 straight victories and put itself in position to become the first team in 11 years to go unbeaten in OVC play. With the conference’s most exceptional player pacing an highly efficient offense, the Racers seem poised to cement themselves in league history. If they can follow that success up with even more in March? Then it might be time to start mentioning Murray State in the same breath as some of the elite mid-major programs in college basketball.
Cam Payne and the Racers have their sights set on something special. (ovcball.net)
Murray State’s accomplishments to this point have mostly hinged on its ability to score with ease, a strong suit that begins with point guard Cameron Payne – the clear-cut front-runner for OVC Player of the Year. His dynamic scoring prowess (19 PPG) – quick off the dribble, adept at drawing fouls, proficient from deep – combined with equally-great passing skills (5.9 APG) makes the sophomore an unmatched force in the league. Last season, Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neaubauer called Payne “Murray State’s next Isaiah Canaan.” But the sophomore is not alone. Joining Payne in the backcourt are three excellent shooters – T.J. Sapp, Jeffery Moss and Justin Seymour – each of whom shoots better than 40 percent from deep and scores between 8.5 and 11.0 points per night. Down low, the Racers are equipped with arguably the conference’s best big man, 6’8’’ Jarvis Williams (16.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG), whose ability to run the floor – not to mention his great rapport with Payne – make him the perfect five man for Prohm’s uptempo attack (16.6 seconds per offensive possession; fastest in the OVC). Throw in power forward Jonathan Fairell, the fourth-best offensive rebounder in college hoops, and the sum of the parts of Murray State is an offense that might surpass last season’s Belmont group as the most efficient in recent modern OVC history. As it stands, the Racers rank 28th nationally in offensive efficiency (112.4 AdjO), just behind last year’s Bruins (112.9), and with a soft schedule upcoming, Prohm’s group has a great chance to further improve on that number.
Last season, the Horizon League put four teams in the postseason — can it do it again?
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.
Jimmy Lemke is the RTC Horizon League correspondent. You can find his ramblings daily at PantherU.com.
A Look Back
The biggest news out of the Horizon League has been a dearth of dumb losses. Things that have hampered the conference in the past such as losses to low-majors and D-II schools, or blowouts to evenly matched opponents just haven’t been the case as much as in recent years. Despite a couple of puzzling losses — such as Milwaukee to Florida Atlantic and UIC to Charleston — the conference has been very strong out of the gate. In fact, those two schools have turned it on as well. Milwaukee is now on a three-game winning streak culminating in a victory over Northern Iowa, and UIC dumped Rhode Island on a neutral court Sunday.
On The Trail
Recruiting is the big news everywhere this past week with the end of the fall signing period. All in all, the Horizon League picked up some very decent commitments for the 2011 season. Wright State beat out East Carolina and Duquesne in landing Tavares Sledge, a 6’8′ power forward from the Crimson Tide’s backyard in Tuscaloosa. Milwaukee sweated it out for the last week, but point guard Shaquille Boga finally signed his LOI. Boga picked the Panthers over confirmed offers from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and a slew of Missouri Valley schools such as Creighton, Southern Illinois, Missouri State and Bradley. Boga got to see his future team defeat another of his suitors, the Northern Iowa Panthers, Saturday night along with fellow signee J.J. Panoske. Butler got their point guard of the future with a signature from Australia’s Jackson Aldridge(you can find an interview with him at PantherU here). ClevelandState inked AntonGrady, a slim 6’7 power forward out of Central Catholic High in Cleveland. Alvin Boutte of Indianapolis picked RayMcCallum‘s DetroitTitans over offers from Akron, Wright State and IUPUI. The point guard figures to step in behind Ray McCallum, Jr., as a freshman.
New Green Bay coach Brian Wardle is from Illinois, attended Marquette (a private school in Wisconsin with a heavy Illinois fan base), and now he’s bringing that Chicago deep dish style up with him to the land of Lambeau. Aaron Armstead, Greg Mays and Keifer Sykes, all Illinois prospects, will join the Phoenix in 2011. As for those teams that stay in Chicago, UIC landed three in-state recruits and two out-of-state players for 2011. Will Simonton is a 6’11 center out of Fishburne Military Prep in Virginia, and Marc Brown is a sweet-shooting guard out of Texas, but new coach Howard Moore has shown he isn’t against recruiting the Chicago Public League to get his talent. On the northside of Chicago, Loyola inked juco standout Colin Beatty from Barton CC in Kansas. The ValparaisoCrusaders, looking to bolster their frontcourt depth, are bringing in Richie Edwards, a 6’8 power forward. Youngstown State grabbed 6’9 small forward Cale Zuiker out of the Wisconsin boondocks of Marshfield.
One look at Wright State’s box scores and you’ll notice a void. N’Gai Evans, the Raiders’ point guard and one of their biggest contributors, has been out with a strained knee ligament. While the Raiders are now 2-1 after dropping lowly Southern, they were blown out by Indiana and are seriously struggling in different ways. WSU needs him back, and yesterday. Without Evans and the graduated Todd Brown, guards Vaughn Duggins and Troy Tabler have struggled shooting this season. If the Raiders are to challenge, Evans needs to be back in the lineup. Jarvis Williams of Green Bay injured his ankle in a blowout loss at Marquette and missed the San Diego State game.
Butler (2-1) – It’s too early for me to go out and crown a new champ. While Butler’s blowout loss to open Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center was anything but good, they did take care of business at home against in-state foe Ball State and hung up a Final Four banner before the season-opening victory over D-II Marian.
Cleveland State (5-0) – Believe me, I racked my brain on whether or not to put CSU or Detroit over Butler in the first power ranking. I give the nod to Cleveland State over Detroit for one simple reason: they win. They haven’t blown out anybody (discounting non-D-I Urbana), but the Vikings haven’t lost a single game. While UL-Lafayette and Kent State made them sweat, the Vikings have pulled it out in the end every time out.
Detroit (1-2) – Should a sub-.500 team be in third place of a top 10 conference? Not in January, but just a week and a half into the season, we’ll give Detroit a break. Their drubbing of Indiana Tech aside, the two road losses to New Mexico (by nine) and Syracuse (by 11) were impressive, with the Titans in it until the last couple minutes each time. Ray McCallum, Jr. is already prospering, Eli Holman is dominant and the Titans are meshing well despite suspect depth.
Loyola (5-0) – Winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing, and Loyola is making it happen. The Ramblers have squashed low-majors (Eastern Kentucky by 16, Texas-Pan Am by 22) and handily beaten mid-majors. The one thing the Ramblers hadn’t done until Saturday was win on the road, but they took care of that with an 18-point schellacking at Western Michigan. The Ramblers are getting big help from AndyPolka and his veteran supporting cast.
Milwaukee (3-2) – The Panthers started bad…real bad. Portland may be a third-place WCC team, but 20-point losses are tough to swallow. A nine-point loss to Florida Atlantic was even tougher to swallow. But Milwaukee is getting better every game, and significantly so. Dropping UC Davis was expected, but a beatdown in Niagara’s death trap, the “Taps” Gallagher Center, was gravy. Top that off with a solid home victory over Northern Iowa, and the Panthers have arguably the best victory of the Horizon League’s young season.
UIC (3-2) – The Flames get the upper hand over the bottom four for one simple reason: they beat Rhode Island out of nowhere Sunday afternoon. A season-opening blowout at Pitt was disheartening, but the Flames only have one hiccup since, a home loss to College of Charleston.
YoungstownState (2-1) – Coach Jerry Slocum has never been one to beat decent teams out of the gate. Heck, he’s lost some pretty bad games in the early parts of his six years at Youngstown State. But the Penguins are taking no prisoners this season. Their three-point victory over Samford may seem so-so to some, but the Penguins of past years would lose that game. Couple that with an eleven-point victory over Buffalo, and the Penguins were rolling until Akron got lucky Saturday night. The guess here is they enter conference play 4-1 with games against lowly Toledo and St. Francis (PA).
Green Bay (2-2) – Through four games, coach Brian Wardle is in dire need of help down in the block. Freshmen Alec Brown and Clayton Heuer have been overmatched early, and Heuer only played four minutes against San Diego State, which seemed to work in a surprisingly close nine-point loss. Troy Snyder, a 6’7 forward, may help them, but the Phoenix real strength is the guards; Bryquis Perine and Rahmon Fletcher are great upperclassmen who carry the team on their shoulders.
Valparaiso (2-1) – The Crusaders have only been party to blowouts. It may seem odd to have a team with two beatdown victories under its belt, but the VUCru haven’t played anyone of any consequence outside of Kansas, who murdered them by 35 at the Phog. Winning by 47 and 54 doesn’t seem as nice when the games are against IU-Northwest and Purdue North Central. We’ll find out much more about the Crusaders in the next two games against D-I opponents closer to their level in Ohio and Northern Colorado.
Wright State (2-1) – N’Gai Evans has been out with a strained knee ligament, and the Raiders have seriously missed his scoring and passing ability. Just the return of Evans may spark a rise in the power rankings, but be wary of the total lack of an inside game; Cole Darling and Johann Mpondo have been the best of a weak frontcourt.
A Look Ahead
Thanksgiving week is a time for us to all think about what we’re thankful for. The Horizon League will hopefully be thankful for victories in the following games: Detroit at Mississippi State, Valparaiso at Ohio, Oakland at Wright State, Wright State vs. Richmond, Central Michigan at UIC, and Marquette at Milwaukee. RPI Boosters will be big for the conference heading into in-house play just a week away.
Signature victories over Northern Iowa and Rhode Island are good for the conference, but the Horizon League as a whole needs more of them for the conference to get recognition beyond Butler come March.
Traveling teams in the Horizon League go in pairs: the University of Wisconsin’s Green Bay Phoenix and Milwaukee Panthers; Chicago’s UIC and Loyola; Indiana’s Valparaiso and Butler; Ohio’s Cleveland State and Youngstown State; and Wright State and Detroit, the odd couple. The Chicago teams host the Indiana teams, the Ohio teams go to Wisconsin, and Wright State faces Detroit at Calihan Hall on December 4th.
One For The Calendar
Marquette at Milwaukee – Sunday, November 27: The Panthers play host for the first time in history to Marquette, their cross-town foe from the Big East. If you’ve caught any of the recent Marquette blowouts on television, you might have seen a graphic detailing the current 37-0 series lead by Marquette as the second-most without a victory by the other team. Digging deeper, however, and you’ll find that Milwaukee’s media guide lists three victories over teams named Marquette dating back to 1902. Marquette claims these games do not count because the private school didn’t field a team until the late 1910’s. Their first year of recorded history is just two seasons after Milwaukee claims two victories over Marquette in 1914-15. While the Milwaukee media guide lists the series at 37-0, it says that the series started in 1902, where the Milwaukee Normal School defeated a team named Marquette, 35-16. Very interesting to a Panther who is annoyed. You know what I say? Throw out any games where either team is not D-I, and you get 9-0 Marquette. A little closer to the truth.
As for the game itself, the Golden Eagles’ thin front court has taken a beating in the early season. Forward Joe Fulce will miss 2-4 weeks with a left knee injury, and freshman behemoth Davante Gardner is questionable against Duke Monday night. Without them, Marquette has a significant size disadvantage in the block; players on the Golden Eagles that do have height (Erik Williams, Jimmy Butler) are outside scorers. Jae Crowder may be the Golden Eagles’ best option to stack up against Milwaukee senior Anthony Hill, junior Tony Meier, and freshman Kyle Kelm.
One thing the Panthers can’t do against Marquette is try to go guard on guard. While Kaylon Williams, Tone Boyle and RyanAllen are up to the task, they’d be playing right into Marquette’s wheelhouse of Vander Blue, Darius Johnson-Odom, Dwight Buycks, and a host of other capable guards. Get spooked and start jacking up threes and the game could be over like it was for Green Bay last Wednesday. Play hard, keep pounding the block and control the tempo, and Marquette may be on its heels in the waning moments. Marquette has never lost to a D-I Milwaukee team. But then again, Milwaukee has never played the game at home. We’ll see how the intra-city showdown goes down on Saturday.
Macking on the MAC
Following Green Bay’s victory over Miami (OH), the Horizon League has improved to 7-1 over their fellow midwest mid-major, the Mid-American Conference. While the MAC gets a load more attention due to fielding a football conference, the Horizon League has quietly built a dominating presence. The lone loss this season is Youngstown State (picked 10th in the Horizon) to Akron (picked 2nd in MAC East), and that only happened because Akron hit a shot to send the game to overtime.
Caught On Film
Northern Iowa gets a taste of its own clutch medicine, as Milwaukee wins a hard-fought game with a Tone Boyle jumper in the closing seconds.