Damon Lewis, a reporter and play-by-play announcer for the Horizon League Network, is RTC’s Horizon League correspondent.
I’m going to keep it simple this time around…using a symbol so recognizable, that sometimes teams use this gesture as a way to call their plays on the floor. It’s either “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as we spotlight the latest and greatest happenings in the Horizon League.
THREE THUMBS UP (If we had that many): UIC – (4-2, 0-0)
The Flames knocked off Vanderbilt on Wednesday at the home of the Commodores, 74-55. “Vanderbilt,” UIC head coach Jimmy Collins told me before the season started, “is the most difficult place on the planet to play.” Well, Collins’ club made it look easy, shooting 12-of-19 from the 3-point arc (63%), outrebounding Vandy, while also tallying more assists and less turnovers than their SEC opponent. We all know Josh Mayo can play (30 points on 8-of-10 shooting from 3-point line), but the key to this firestorm was sophomore, Robert “Robo” Kreps (23 points on 10-of-15 shooting). If Kreps can continue to support Mayo on the perimeter, all while 7-footer Scott VanderMeer controls the glass, UIC could make a push for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003-04.
Damon Lewis, a reporter and play-by-play announcer for the Horizon League Network, is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League.
Predicted Order of Finish.
What You Need to Know. It’s been a slow and steady climb for the Horizon League, but the midwestern ten-member league has built itself into a force to be reckoned with on the mid-major college basketball scene. The buzz word among Horizon League coaches last season was depth, referring to the overall strength of the league from top to bottom. Nowhere was that more evident than in the fact that four teams (Butler, Cleveland State, Wright State, Valparaiso) topped the 20-win plateau. Having four 20-win squads was a first for the Horizon League, and led to three of those four competing in postseason play (Butler – NCAA, Cleveland State – NIT, Valpo – CBI). While having multiple teams competing in the postseason is nothing new in this league, having multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament isn’t yet the “norm,” but it isn’t completely foreign either (3 times in the last 11 years). What’s the point, you ask? This league may be even deeper this season, as seven teams return three or more starters from last season, including front-runners Wright State, Cleveland State, and Green Bay. Butler, by most accounts, is bringing in one of the best recruiting classes the Horizon League has ever seen to go along with reigning Newcomer of the Year, Matt Howard (12.3ppg, 5.5rpg). Meanwhile, UIC has a favorite for league POY honors in sharpshooter Josh Mayo (17.1ppg, 47% 3fg%), and one of the few true “bigs” in the entire league in 7-footer, Scott VanderMeer (9.3ppg, 7.5rpg). This could be another year where the Horizon receives multiple NCAA bids, but for the first time in awhile, that at-large bid isn’t likely to have Butler’s name on it (Butler advanced to the S16 as an at-large NCAA bid in 2003 and 2007).
Predicted Champion. Wright State (#11 seed NCAA). The Raiders have plenty of talent, and trust me, we’ll get to that in a moment. But the green-and-gold have the ultimate ace in the hole: head coach Brad Brownell. Brownell, if he really tried, could probably turn the Oakland Raiders into a winner, all while keeping Al Davis satisfied in the process. Seriously. Alright, kidding aside, all Brownell has done is win wherever he’s been (including two NCAA appearances in four seasons at UNC-Wilmington). He won the Horizon League in his inaugural season two years ago, and followed that up with 21 wins and a 3rd-place regular season finish last year. Admittedly, his team was lacking athleticism and a go-to scorer, but the “other” school in Dayton got it done with grit and commitment on the defensive end, giving up just 60.4 ppg and notching 13 wins in games decided by 5 points or less. In a guard-dominated league, Wright State returns its entire backcourt. Vaughn Duggins (HL 1st Team, 13.8 ppg), Todd Brown (12.7 ppg), and 5th-year senior Will Graham (5.9 ppg, 3.5 apg), will lead the way with a three-headed-monster of Ronnie Thomas, Cooper Land, and Gavin Horne battling for time down low. Two newcomers are expected to see significant minutes from the start. Scott Grote, a transfer from Duquesne, (9.9 ppg in 29 games as a freshman) and Cory Cooperwood (two-time JUCO All-American at Wallace State CC, 15.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), will undoubtedly inject energy, electricity, and most importantly, more points into the Wright State attack. The schedule is solid for a mid-major, but not impressive enough to warrant a single-digit NCAA seed unless the Raiders were to, say, run the table.
Others Considered. Cleveland State. Most prognosticators will likely choose the Vikings as the team to beat this year in the Horizon League, and they may very well be right. Gary Waters has no doubt turned this program around in just two seasons at the helm, and while his programs have a history of taking major leaps forward in year number three (Kent State, Rutgers), a major leap forward this year will be hard to achieve given the depth in the Horizon League and the Vikings brutal non-conference schedule. The two unknowns about this squad are: 1) How will they respond to having a target on their back? And, 2) How will they respond to losses? After all, they came out of nowhere last year to score 21 wins and finish 2nd in the Horizon League. But, in late January the Vikes held a two-game lead over Butler in the league standings, only to lose five straight and fall back to the pack. One thing is for sure, however, J’Nathan Bullock (HL 1st Team, 14.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Cedric Jackson (HL 2nd Team, 13.9 ppg, 4.9 apg) make up the best inside-out combination in the league. Waters readily admits his team struggled shooting from the perimeter last season (30.2% from 3) and combine that with a trend of using several bodies on the bench — nine players averaged at least 14 mpg and played in at least 33 of 34 games last year — and freshman bombers like Jeremy Montgomery, Josh McCoy, and Charlie Woods could find themselves in crucial roles. All five starters return in Green Bay, along with coach Tod Kowalczyk’s top two reserves. Mike Schachtner, Terry Evans, and Rahmon Fletcher each took home Horizon League postseason honors last year. Senior forward Ryan Tillema is no slouch either. Battered and bruised, this team struggled to a 15-15 mark last season. If healthy, the Phoenix will be much improved. Underachieving again would be a bittersweet way to go out for Schachtner, Evans, and Tillema. The player to watch at Butler — aside from Matt Howard, whose exploits are well documented (check out #96) — is freshman combo guard, Shelvin Mack. His maturation process will determine how successful the extremely young Bulldogs will be this season. Loyola top gun J.R. Blount and the rest of the Ramblers should rebound from a rough season, thanks to a returning core of veterans (four starters). Valparaiso may be in for a big slide after losing their top two scorers to graduation, and two more major scoring threats in the offseason — Bryan Bouchie and Samuel Haanpaa — who both left the program (Bouchie transfered to Evansville, Haanpaa returned overseas and signed a professional contract). Here are Butler’s final seconds in last year’s Horizon League championship.
Key Games / RPI Booster Games.
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. If Cleveland State can get to their first showdown at Wright State, (12.30.08) sporting a record of 11-3 or better, then the chances of the Horizon League being a two-bid league are very solid. Only the Vikings boast a non-conference schedule strong enough that, if they can win a couple of the big games, would compensate for a couple of extra losses in league play. Of course, if Wright State runs away with the regular season title (or anyone for that matter), an upset in the championship game could also result in multiple bids for this league.
Did You Know. Following the 1992-1993 season, University of Michigan assistant coach Perry Watson left Ann Arbor to take over as the head coach at Detroit-Mercy. The spot vacated by Watson at Michigan was initially filled by Ray McCallum, but McCallum never coached a game at Michigan. Instead, he returned to his alma mater, Ball State, and became the head coach of the Cardinals. After a successful run in Muncie, IN, McCallum moved on to lead the University of Houston, followed by assistant coaching jobs at Oklahoma and Indiana. This past spring, McCallum was hired as the head coach at Detroit, once again filling a void left by Watson, who resigned after 15 seasons with the Titans. Watson guided Detroit to the NCAA second round in 1998 and 1999, and the NIT in 2001 and 2002.
65 Team Era. Let’s get this out of the way right now – over the last decade the Horizon has been the most successful mid-major conference in the NCAA Tournament (defining mid-major as normally a one-bid league). In six of the last eight tournaments, a Horizon team has won at least one game (with an average seed of #11.1). Three of those years, a Horizon team played itself into the Sweet Sixteen (Butler – 2003, 2007; Milwaukee – 2005). Additionally, you wanna talk about a tough out – consider the teams that are knocking out these Horizon squads – three #1 seeds, three #2 seeds, two #3 seeds, including both Florida national champions. Not bad, not bad at all. The Horizon’s record of 20-32 (.385) over this era matches up even or better than every one of its peers, and there’s no reason to believe it will end soon.
Final Thoughts. It’s hard to imagine a program like Valparaiso finishing 8th, but someone has to end up there in this deep, talented league. Heck, we haven’t even mentioned Milwaukee yet, as scoring machines Ricky Franklin, Avery Smith, and Deonte Roberts are all back. While programs like Detroit and Youngstown State seem to be a step behind the rest of the league right now, you can bet they’ll be competitive night in and night out. If you catch a Horizon League game on television, you won’t be “wowed” by superb athletic ability, but what you will find, for the most part, is team-oriented basketball with disciplined student-athletes who are just as comfortable grinding out a 54-52 victory as they are pushing their team’s point total into the 80s. The players are skilled, the action is rough, and the future is bright.