Jimmy Lemke of PantherU.com is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League.
A Look Back
The big picture of the Horizon League got further muddled when Valparaiso, who owned first place not one week ago, lost two successive games in Wisconsin (sandwiched around an excellent Bracketbusters victory over Missouri State) and dropped back to the pack. Cleveland State is in first for the time being after defeating Wright State last week. Their loss at Old Dominion all but ensured the Vikings need to win the conference tournament to make their way into the Big Dance, but it’s not over yet. The big winners were Milwaukee and Butler, who moved up to second place (five losses) with Valpo’s loss at Green Bay on Monday night. Both have hopes of hosting the Horizon League Tournament next weekend, but only two schools – Cleveland State and Milwaukee – are in control of their own destiny.
1. Cleveland State (21-6, 12-4) – Gary Waters and his program missed a great opportunity to get the marquee victory they needed to get into the Dance. Like Utah State, their resume needed a big Bracketbuster victory to set them up for an at-large berth. Unlike USU, they didn’t deliver, and now are faced with winning the conference title to go dancing. Fortunately for Cleveland State, all they need to do is win. Two home victories over Milwaukee and Green Bay mean Cleveland State is the sole regular season champion, and the Horizon League Tournament goes through Cleveland. Lose, however, and the Vikings are almost guaranteed to drop out of the top two spots (and the double-bye that comes with them) due to being swept by Butler.
2. Milwaukee (16-12, 11-5) – I’ve spent the whole season putting the Panthers lower on the Power Rankings because I didn’t want to be accused of homerism, but the fact is Milwaukee deserves to be in this spot. Beating Valparaiso at home was huge, avenging yet another early season loss and putting the Panthers’ goal of winning a conference championship directly in sight. CSU and Milwaukee are the only teams that control their own destiny, with either team winning out being crowned conference champs. However, the Panthers would share the regular season crown with any combination of Cleveland State, Butler and Valparaiso. Should Milwaukee win out, they have the trump card, a sweep over Butler that no other team has. The loss on the road in the Bracketbuster is deceiving; Milwaukee held out their defensive stopper, Ryan Allen, after he took a hard fall on Wednesday. He will be tasked with guarding Norris Cole, who still riding a season-long high after his national coming-out party against Youngstown State when he went off for 41 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and three steals.
3. Butler (19-9, 12-5) – The Dawgs most likely will dispatch Loyola on Senior Night, and let me just say that nobody deserves to be applauded more than Matt Howard. Talk about a career, this guy has put everything he has into starting at power forward for the Butler Bulldogs since his freshman year, and I’d be astonished if his last regular-season home game was a loss. Loyola has recent history of winning at Hinkle, but look for Butler to enter the Horizon League Tournament with yet another 20-win season. To win the conference and host the tournament, Butler needs the winner of Thursday’s Cleveland State-Milwaukee game to lose on Saturday. It’s a tall order, expecting the 7th place team to win on the road or the 9th place team to win at home, but both have done it this season – Green Bay won at Valpo and Butler fell on the sword at Youngstown State.
4. Valparaiso (18-9, 11-5) – You wanna talk about bad luck, look no further than Valpo. Heading into Milwaukee, Valpo sat at three losses and owned a tiebreaker with Cleveland State. Just six days later, they’re on the wrong end of tie-breakers with all three teams. At Milwaukee, the Crusaders missed two bunny layups in the final seconds, although they got help with the Panthers missing several free throws in the closing minutes. At Green Bay, Howard Little grabbed a rebound that would have all but sealed a victory for Valpo, but he fell to the ground and traveled, giving the ball back to Green Bay for the winning basket. Valpo will likely start the conference tournament at the ARC in the first round. The good news? They only have one home conference loss.
5. Wright State (16-2, 10-7) – The Raiders were still in it a couple weeks ago, but lost games to the contenders and find themselves out of the running. Wright State is still a very dangerous team, and has beaten almost everybody in the conference despite absences from Troy Tabler and Cooper Land. Vaughn Duggins and N’Gai Evans, when it comes down to it, are still one of the best backcourt tandems in the H-League. Depending on where they finish, the Raiders will play Green Bay or Loyola in the first round of the tournament, teams they should be able to beat.
6. Detroit (14-15, 9-8) – Remember the beginning of the season, when the national pundits kept putting Detroit in first or second place? Why was that? Of course, the answer is Ray McCallum Jr. Guys like Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale and Seth Davis couldn’t fathom how a top-20 recruit would go into the Horizon League and lose enough to finish out of the top two, especially when he’s got a 6’10 monster transfer from Indiana in the block. The truth is, none of those guys really know how good the Horizon League is. Detroit isn’t a bad team; they have a very talented starting five and will be a tough out in the Horizon League Tournament. Their problem is lack of bench depth and questionable coaching. How can Ray McCallum Sr. not want the ball in Eli Holman’s hands every time down the floor?
7. Green Bay (12-16, 7-9) – The victory over Valpo on Monday was their biggest of the season, on Senior Night no less. Brian Wardle has an outside chance at the six seed, but will likely open the conference tournament on the road at Detroit. He is looking at a tough year in 2011-12 without Bryquis Perine, Rahmon Fletcher and Greg LeSage, but Monday night showed that he’s got an excellent building block in seven-footer Alec Brown.
8. Loyola (15-13, 6-10) – It looks like this could be the swan song for Jim Whitesell. For the fourth season in a row, Jim Whitesell’s weak non-conference scheduling has led to the team being unprepared for the conference season. The Loyola Ramblers haven’t been above the eight seed in the conference tournament since 2006-07, and they have a large renovation to the basketball arena taking place after the season. This could be a situation like Missouri State, when new digs meant a new coach in Cuonzo Martin. Unlike the Bears, however, the Ramblers haven’t come truly close the tournament in a long time. Gone after the season are seniors Andy Polka, Terrance Hill and Geoff McCammon. The Ramblers have good pieces in Ben Averkamp, Denzel Brito and (potentially) John Gac, but they won’t have the firepower to compete in 2011-12 and after that season will lose almost everybody else of consequence.
9. Youngstown State (7-18, 2-14) – It sure looked like Youngstown State was going to make me eat some crow there for a bit. The day my RTC post condemning the YSU program as unworthy of the Horizon League was released, they up and defeated Butler. Nearly taking out Valpo a couple days later would have been big for a program that hasn’t had a whole lot to root for. It’s likely the final go-round for Jerry Slocum, whose wild success in lower-division NCAA did not translate to the D-I Penguins. But the problem isn’t Slocum as much as it is the inherent problems the department has. Unless some money is taken from football and injected into the basketball program’s budget, the Penguins will be relegated to the bottom of the barrel for the time being. And even then it likely won’t be enough.
10. UIC (6-22, 2-15) – Unlike Youngstown State, UIC has the structure to be competitive in the Horizon League. This season was a lost year the second April 2010 came around and Jimmy Collins was still coach. The season was further doomed for every month Collins remained, staying long enough to make things especially tough on incoming coach Howard Moore. The truncated recruiting timetable left the Flames with a couple good players remaining from Collins’ team and bunch of residents of the Island of Misfit Toys. UIC will be better in 2011-12, but it will be a few years before Howard Moore gets them up to speed. It seems funny that two of the conference’s best non-conference victories, over Illinois and Rhode Island, came from the Flames.
A Look Ahead
The season is almost over, with only one weekend remaining. Games on Thursday and Saturday will determine the championship and seeding for the Horizon League Tournament, and while no seeds are official, we do know this:
The top four seeds – Cleveland State, Butler, Milwaukee and Valparaiso - are untouchable. A fifth, Wright State, has guaranteed at least a home game in the conference tournament. Detroit has an outside chance of losing their home game to Green Bay, but all signs point to Green Bay at Detroit next Tuesday. Loyola is the safest team in their seed, with only a 0.6% chance they land in the seven seed. Youngstown State and UIC will fill out the final two spots, and YSU will likely be the nine seed.
The final thing we know is this: the winner of Thursday’s game between Milwaukee and Cleveland State all but locks up a conference championship going into the final game of the regular season. Both teams would need to sweep; each team going 1-1 and Butler beating Loyola would make Butler the conference champion. That scenario, however, is unlikely as Cleveland State hosts Green Bay and Milwaukee visits Youngstown State. A game this big deserves the viewership, and as long as you’re reading this, you can see it: HorizonLeague.org, Thursday, 7 p.m. Eastern.
- 2.24.11 – Milwaukee at Cleveland State, 7 p.m., Time Warner Sports 32/HLN
- 2.25.11 – Detroit at Wright State, 7 p.m., HLN
- 2.26.11 – Milwaukee at Youngstown State, 1 p.m., HLN
- 2.26.11 – Green Bay at Cleveland State, 2 p.m., HLN
- 2.26.11 – Loyola at Butler, 2 p.m., HLN
Video of the Week – With such a huge game on the Horizon for Thursday, we’ll take a look back to December, when Cleveland State went to Milwaukee and laid a drubbing on the Panthers: