A few things become immediately noticeable upon stepping foot in Toledo’s recently-renovated Savage Arena. For one, it’s pretty darn nice — complete with a new Jumbotron, luxury suites and a glass-enclosed dinner lounge, the school’s $30 million investment in 2008 has made the venue an enjoyable place to catch a basketball game. And then there are the banners. Plenty hang from the rafters, sure, but it takes some scanning — past the innumerable NIT and MAC West Division title flags — before your eyes arrive at the centerpiece, just to the right of the Stars and Stripes: ‘NCAA Tournament 1979-80,’ it reads. The fact that it’s been 34 years since Toledo last reached the Big Dance seems genuinely surprising, especially when you consider the current state of the program. Loaded with talent and backed by an energized fan base, the Rockets now look the part of an established MAC powerhouse, poised to compete for league championships and postseason appearances in the coming years. As to whether that multi-decade NCAA Tournament drought comes to an end in 2013-14? That depends on just how far their potent offense can take them.
Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk has turned things around in Toledo. (THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY)
Sunday night’s 85-74 victory over Ball State might have perfectly embodied both Toledo’s greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses so far this season. On the one hand, the Rockets had no problem putting the ball in the basket, scoring 1.27 points per possession and shooting 56 percent from the field. On the other, Tod Kowalczyk’s club allowed one of the worst offensive teams in the MAC its most efficient game yet in conference play. “We didn’t have much energy on defense,” big man Nathan Boothe noted about his team’s effort for a chunk of the contest. But as it’s done so many times this year — it will set the school’s single-season record for wins if it beats Northern Illinois on Wednesday — Toledo’s score-at-will offense simply overpowered its deficiencies on the other end of the court, enabling it to run past the Cardinals in the final three minutes. That firepower is the prevailing reason the Rockets are now 23-4 and currently tied with Western Michigan atop the MAC West standings.
It was a return to normalcy for many teams last week after the bevy of tournaments and showcases and neutral-court extravaganzas that marked the latter part of November in college hoops. Across the O26 landscape, some programs were able to play much-needed home games after weeks of travel, while others made trips to take on regional power conference foes or fellow mid-majors. Conference play even tipped off for one league in particular (we’re looking at you, MAAC). And while only a handful of schools took the court more than twice last week, there was plenty enough action in the opening days of December to hand out some superlatives to deserving performers.
O26 Team of the Week
Maurice Creek helped George Washington to an outstanding week. (Richard A. Lipski/Washington Post)
George Washington. After capping off Thanksgiving weekend with an upset over 20th-ranked Creighton in the Wooden Legacy, the Colonials had every reason to be on letdown alert in a return home on Wednesday versus a maligned-but-talented Rutgers team. Instead, George Washington maintained its momentum by defeating the Scarlet Knights by six in an outcome that featured knock-down shooting and a 106-point second half. The team’s two star transfers again the led the way for head coach Mike Lonergan, with former Villanova forward Isaiah Armwood scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds, and Maurice Creek — the Indiana graduate who took to D.C. for his final year of eligibility — dropping in 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Yet, while that contest was relatively tight throughout, it paled in comparison to Sunday’s outcome at the Verizon Center in the BB&T Classic. Thanks to the late-game heroics of Creek, the Colonials edged out fellow capital-area opponent Maryland, 77-75, in a thrilling, impressive win that helped further solidify George Washington as a legitimate at-large (and A-10) contender. The Terrapins made a furious rally in the game’s final stages after trailing by 14 with fewer than seven minutes to play, turning GW over multiple times and eventually tying the game at 75 with a few seconds remaining. But in the game’s final possession, Creek worked his magic, drilling a clutch shot over Nick Faust to make it three straight victories for the Colonials, moving them to 8-1 on the year. With several more very winnable non-conference games on the slate before league play begins in January, Lonergan’s club has a great chance to continue its winning ways and put itself in the NCAA Tournament discussion for the first time since 2007. If that happens, its work this past week may be one big reason why.
The visiting Virginia Commonwealth Rams have the ball under their own basket with 9.8 seconds to go, moments after a free throw from Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon tied the game at 56.
“C’mon, you guys, you can do this,” former Navy SEAL John McGuire thought as he sat directly behind VCU’s bench. “Focus.”
Rams point guard Rob Brandenburg brings the ball past halfcourt, cuts to his right and passes to shooting guard Treveon Graham above the top of the key. Graham launches a three-pointer from nearly 30 feet away, snapping the net with just three seconds remaining. The Cavaliers miss a final-second heave.
Just like McGuire taught them.
McGuire, who rode on the Rams’ bus to Charlottesville and gave the pregame speech, has worked with coach Shaka Smart’s team since just after the Final Four run in 2011. The former sniper instructor now runs SEAL Team Physical Training, a Richmond, Virginia, business that focuses on fitness and team-building exercises, including for athletic teams. Smart found out about SEAL Team PT through word of mouth and called McGuire in November 2010, asking about his philosophies on teamwork and building leaders. “I think he liked what he heard,” McGuire said.
Since beginning work with VCU, SEAL Team PT has worked with nine Division I men’s basketball programs, along with college football, lacrosse, women’s basketball and baseball teams. Last offseason, McGuire personally worked with VCU, Toledo and Illinois, teams that are a combined 10-0 in 2013-14.
“Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
McGuire prides himself on taking people out of their comfort zones with his drills, many of them taken from his Navy SEAL training. Working on an unfamiliar task levels the playing field. It forces the people taking part to work together, lead, be confident and communicate. Players are usually divided into teams for their tasks, which can include anything from push-ups and running to carrying a sandbag or rowing a boat together. Given the limited time constraints afforded McGuire by NCAA rules – sometimes his training sessions are as short as three one-hour sessions within a week – cultivating chemistry and rapport is at the top of his task list.
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.
Will Ohio Dance Again?: Three Mid-American Conference teams reached postseason play in the 2010 season, led by the Ohio Bobcats, who shocked the nation by handing third-seeded Georgetown a 14-point loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Kent State Golden Flashes, MAC regular season champions, also represented themselves well by winning a first round NIT contest over Tulsa before falling to Illinois. The Akron Zips were the third team to reach the postseason, qualifying for the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) tournament by virtue of 24 regular season wins.
A Different Coach K: The conference’s lone coaching change this offseason took place at Toledo, where Gene Cross resigned amidst allegations of an inappropriate physical relationship. Cross spent only two seasons on the sidelines at Toledo, compiling a meager 11 wins against 53 losses. Tod Kowalczyk takes over at Toledo, and had previously spent the last eight seasons in the Horizon League with Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he posted a 136-112 mark.
Top Players: In player news, 2010 MAC Tournament Most Valuable Player Armon Bassett left Ohio after his junior season to enter the NBA Draft. The guard had originally joined the Ohio program after transferring out of Indiana, and averaged 17.1 points per game in his only year as a Bobcat. On the recruiting trail, Central Michigan received national headlines as 6’5 guard and ESPNU Top 100 recruit Trey Zeigler decided to join the Chippewas and play under his father and CMU head coach Ernie Zeigler.
MAC leading returning Xavier Silas hopes to propel Northern Illinois to the top of the West Division (espn.com)
Power Rankings [Division and last season's record in brackets]
Ohio [East, 22-15 (7-9)]: On March 1, 2010, the Ohio Bobcats were a struggling 16-14 (6-9) outfit that many fans felt would be fortunate enough to win a game in the MAC Tournament. Twenty days later, Ohio wrapped up its season with a second round NCAA Tournament loss to Tennessee, a team that would go on to reach the Elite Eight. So how will the Bobcats respond this season, with the target of being MAC champions on their back? Had Armon Bassett decided not to forgo his senior season and enter the NBA Draft, Ohio would have been a clear-cut favorite to repeat as MAC champs. Even with the losses of Bassett, center KennethvanKempen, and the transferring Jay Kinney, Ohio is still in good hands with sophomore point guard D.J. Cooper. The 2010 MAC Freshman of the Year is the likely 2011 MAC Player of the Year favorite if he can improve on last year’s numbers of 13.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 5.9 APG, and 2.5 steals per contest. Senior forward DeVaughn Washington (11.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG) and senior three-point marksman TommyFreeman (10.5 PPG, 97 three-pointers made) are returning contributors from last year’s team that will complement Cooper. With the combination of the returning talent and the experience of last season’s run, Ohio has a solid claim on the MAC’s number one ranking.
Akron [East, 24-11 (12-4)]: Akron was an overtime loss to Ohio in the MAC Tournament final away from reaching the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year. Leading scorer and First Team All-MAC performer Jimmy Conyers is gone, but the Zips were hardly a one-man team in 2010. Eight Zips averaged between 16.8 and 27.6 MPG and 5.1 to 10.1 PPG last season, five of whom are back for the 2010-11 campaign. Headlining that group is senior forward Brett McKnight, who averaged ten PPG in just under 20 minutes per contest, numbers which figure to increase this season. Also returning is the senior backcourt duo of Steve McNees (8.3 PPG) and DarrylRoberts (7.3 PPG), both of whom are capable outside shooters. Joining McKnight in the frontcourt will be 6’8 junior Nikola Cvetinovic (6.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG) and 7’0 sophomore center Zeke Marshall (5.1 PPG, 1.7 BPG). Marshall, a 2010 MAC All-Freshman performer, but who weighs in at just 218 pounds, will be an interesting player to watch develop this season. This isn’t a flashy group — nor was last year’s — but Akron has been a MAC Tournament finalist four years running, and is in position to make it five.
Kent State [East, 24-10 (13-3)]: The Golden Flashes were the MAC’s best team during the regular season, but flamed out in the tourney quarterfinals by way of a 17-point loss to Ohio. After a 1-2 start to the MAC season, Kent State reeled off 12 wins in its final 13 conference games, including a No. 1 seed-clinching win at Akron in the season’s final game. Returning from last year’s team is leading scorer and rebounder Justin Greene, a strong post presence who contributed 13.6 PPG and 6.9 RPG as a sophomore. But fifth-year senior guard Rodriguez Sherman (10.6 PPG) is the only other returning starter from last year’s squad, which will have to replace the all-around consistency of First Team All-MAC performer Chris Singletary. Overall, four of the top six scorers from last year’s team are gone, which signals a step back for this program, even with the expected continued development of Greene. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Wright State (24-6, 15-3)
Cleveland State (21-10, 13-5)
Green Bay (19-12, 11-7)
Butler (16-13, 11-7)
Loyola (20-11, 10-8)
UIC (13-16, 8-10)
Milwaukee (13-16, 7-11)
Valparaiso (12-18, 7-11)
Youngstown State (10-19, 4-14)
Detroit (7-22, 4-14)
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.
@ Washington — 11.18.08 (…tough)
@ West Virginia — 12.6.08 (…tougher)
@ Syracuse — 12.15.08 (…toughest)
vs. Kent State — 12.23.08 (…a rivalry game to boot!)
@ Ohio State — 12.13.08
@ Xavier — 12.23.08 (…a good measuring stick for the Bulldogs)
@ Wake Forest — 12.14.08 (…Wake is rumored to be “back”)
vs. Oral Roberts — 12.20.08
vs. Cleveland State — 12.30.08
@ Cleveland State — 1.31.09
Pre-Season NIT vs. Georgia — 11.17.08 (…guaranteed 4 decent games)
@ UIC — 12.6.08
vs. UIC — 2.27.09
vs. North Carolina — 12.20.08 (…in Chicago @ United Center)
@ Purdue — 12.28.08
*A complete list of Horizon League contests set to be broadcast by the ESPN family of networks can be found here. All league contests can be viewed online, for free, on the Horizon League Network.
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.