Championship Fortnight is under way, and what better way to get you through the next two weeks of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s conference tournaments as they get started. Today, the Horizon League and Atlantic Sun tip things off.
Dates: March 4, 7, 8, 11 Site: First Round: Campus sites; Quarterfinals and Semifinals: Resch Center (Green Bay, WI); Championship: Campus site (higher-seeded team hosts)
What to expect: Green Bay was far and away the best team in the regular season, amassing a 24-5 overall record and notching a high-profile non-conference victory over ACC regular season champion Virginia. Led by 7’1’’ center Alec Brown — an NBA prospect with an outside shot — and high-flying point guard Keifer Sykes, the Phoenix should take care of business on their home floor. Brian Wardle’s bunch has been playing some of its best basketball of the season since losing to Milwaukee in early February, securing four its final five wins on the road and dominating opponents by more than 15 points per contest. Still, watch out for Cleveland State and its lights-out three-point shooting — fourth-best in the country at 40.8 percent — as well as defending champion Valparaiso; the Crusaders took down Green Bay earlier in the year. The top seed stumbling at home is not unprecedented for this tournament, but seems unlikely this time around.
Favorite: Green Bay. The team is confident, talented and playing at home. Put simply, anything short of a championship would be hugely disappointing for the Phoenix.
Oakland’s Greg Kampe screamed and scolded and tried everything he could to stop Green Bay’s second half surge on Thursday night, but it was ultimately futile—the Phoenix was just too talented, too relentless, too good for the Grizzlies to handle for 40 minutes. In fact, with a dynamic point guard and an NBA-caliber center leading the charge, Brian Wardle’s club might end up being the Horizon League’s most serious NCAA Tournament threat since the great Butler teams of yesteryear. And not just a one-off threat, either. If it can take care of business in the conference tournament, this bunch has legitimate second weekend potential in the Big Dance.
Keifer Sykes and the Phoenix are capable of doing damage in the Dance. (USAT)
For one thing, Green Bay has the bodies and athleticism to hold its own against a lot of high-major behemoths. Alec Brown—the aforementioned future pro—is a 7’1’’ big man who can be as effective on the perimeter as he is on the low block. Which is to say, all around really effective. Against Oakland, Brown shot 4-for-7 from the behind the arc, including a quick-release transition three, and improved his mark to nearly 47 percent on the year. He’s even more lethal in the paint (shooting well above 50 percent), and is anything but a one-way player: Brown’s block rate is good for 32nd in the country and he’s already broken his own school record for blocked shots in a season three different times. And while the senior might serve to improve on his rebounding, Jordan Fouse and Greg Mays are more than equipped to fill any void that exists on the glass. The pair of athletic forwards are fine compliments to Brown, adept at cleaning up misses and throwing down jams. Fouse, for example, racked up nine rebounds (four offensive) and shot 6-for-6 from the field against the Grizzlies, including a thunderous alley-oop dunk to accentuate the Phoenix’s 11-0 run out of the halftime break. The frontcourt’s size and athleticism is uncharacteristic for a program of Green Bay’s stature, fully capable of giving an unwitting or under-prepared high-major opponent all kinds of fits in a few weeks.
If you hit the town Friday night to enjoy a few beverages or catch up on Oscar-nominated flicks and you missed the Horizon League/MAAC double-header on ESPNU, allow us to catch you up on a couple storylines that emerged from two excellent basketball games.
Alec Brown and the Phoenix can play with anyone this season. (Courtesy: Green Bay Athletics)
Green Bay has tremendous potential. Green Bay withstood another monstrous dunk by Jerran Young to beat Wright State on Friday night and move to 4-0 in the Horizon League, marking its eighth straight win overall. Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes again led the charge for Brian Wardle’s club, combining for 42 points and controlling the game from start to finish, even as the Raiders made numerous mini-runs throughout the second half. Now 14-3 and with metric rankings that scream ‘dangerous mid-major’, it’s time to start asking the question: Just how high is the ceiling for the Phoenix? If the team’s recent play is any indication, the answer might be “really, really high” — as in, NCAA-Tournament-victory-or-victories high. For one, there probably isn’t another inside-out combination as productive and dynamic as Brown and Sykes at the mid-major level. Brown is a legitimate NBA prospect (scouts were in the building on Friday night) whose athletic, 7’1” frame and ability to shoot from the perimeter (50% from three) — when he’s not dominating the paint — make him unstoppable on most nights. Sykes, meanwhile, is a quick, explosive point guard whose skills as a distributor are surpassed only by his scoring prowess — he dropped a career-high 34 points against Milwaukee last week and had 32 against Wisconsin in November. The rest of the group — players like the athletic forward Greg Mays and rebounding/defensive maven Jordan Fouse — complete a Green Bay team well-rounded enough to sit 42nd overall in KenPom’s rankings, having already beaten ACC-contender Virginia and pushed Wisconsin to the wire earlier in the season. Sure, the Phoenix could go on to drop several Horizon contests, lose in the league tournament and miss the Big Dance altogether. But it’s just as easy to see this team winning the conference, embracing the role of disrespected underdog and pulling off an upset or two in March.
With non-conference action all but wrapped up and league play already going in earnest, it‘s time now to pass out some mid-season superlatives to deserving players and coaches across the O26 world. A few of these guys will probably do enough to earn some national honors by season’s end, but all of them are worth keeping an eye on over the next two months.
O26 Midseason Coach of the Year
Gregg Marshall has Wichita State off to a 15-0 start this season. (Jamie Green/MCT)
Gregg Marshall – Wichita State. Could the Shockers actually outdo themselves from a year ago? Even with expectations high coming into 2013-14, very few could have predicted the kind of start Wichita State has had to this season, fresh off its Final Four run last March. Monumental success of that type often breeds sluggish beginnings or even major letdowns the year after, which is what makes Marshall’s coaching job so impressive — his team has not missed a beat. The Shockers have jumped out to a 16-0 record that includes wins over BYU, Tennessee, Saint Louis and Alabama, the latter two coming on the road and all of them despite losing key seniors Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead to graduation. Together with preseason MVC Player of the Year Cleanthony Early and NCAA Tournament hero Ron Baker, Marshall has inserted Fred Van Vleet and Tekele Cotton into the lineup — complementary pieces a season ago — along with JuCo transfer forward Darius Carter to create a starting five arguably more efficient and consistent than last year’s group. They are balanced (four players average in double figures), deep, and rarely lack focus from night to night. And while the early winning has generated a lot of buzz about Wichita State possibly going undefeated in the regular season, its coach won’t let the commotion deter his team’s one-step-at-a-time approach. Marshall recently said, “I’ve always said you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Right now, we’re not thinking about eating the entire elephant. We’re thinking about our next meal.” That mentality has earned Marshall our award for mid-season O26 Coach of the Year.
Honorable Mentions: Steve Fisher – San Diego State, Derek Kellogg – Massachusetts, Tod Kowalczyk – Toledo, Mitch Henderson – Princeton
Every Friday throughout the rest of the season, the Other 26 Microsite will dig into some of the top storylines featuring those leagues from the previous week.
1. O26 Teams Make Statements Against Power Conference Teams
George Washington’s Joe McDonald and Maurice Creek turned heads with a buzzer-beating win at Maryland (washingtontimes.com)
Saturday: New Mexico cruises at home, handing Cincinnati its first loss, 63-54; Green Bay’s Greg Mays and Keifer Sykes each contribute 20+ points to defeat Virginia, 75-72
Sunday: Maurice Creek’s buzzer-beater lifts George Washington to a big win at Maryland, 77-75
Tuesday: After trailing nearly the entire game, Gonzaga surged ahead late to win at West Virginia, 80-76
Wednesday: North Dakota State’s Marshall Bjorklund scored 26 points to lead the Bison over Notre Dame, 73-69
Near misses: Arizona 63, UNLV 58; Xavier 85, Bowling Green 73 (OT); Washington State 67, Idaho 66; Kansas State 64, South Dakota 62; Xavier 63, Evansville 60.
2. Chances For More Statements to Come
With only a few weeks remaining before conference play gets into full swing, opportunities are winding down for Other 26 teams to trip up power conference opponents. Some of this week’s most intriguing match-ups:
Ethan Back is the Horizon League correspondent for RTC.
The Departure of Butler: It’s pretty crazy to think that the Horizon League has produced two of the last three runners-up in the NCAA Tournament, but Butler did indeed reach the final game of the season in both 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs have been the reason why the conference receives the national attention that it does, but they are now members of the A-10. What does this mean for the conference? Wright State head coach Billy Donlon and Cleveland State head coach Gary Watersdon’t seem to think much of the departure, as the former noted that Butler finished fifth in the conference a season ago, and the latter speculated that the Bulldogs would not have been the favorites this season. Despite this, Butler’s departure has been covered extensively by the national media, and we will be able to see its effects in the seasons to come.
Will Valparaiso Dominate Conference Play? Results from the Media Day polls would seem to indicate that Valparaiso will indeed dominate the Horizon League, as the Crusaders received 40 of the possible 44 first-place votes this preseason. Valpo went 14-4 in conference last year, and returns reigning Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff and first team all-Horizon League forward Kevin Van Wijk. Reaching the NCAA Tournament will be the goal for the Crusaders, as this was a feat they were unable to accomplish one season ago.
Will The McCallums And Detroit Step Up To Fill The Void Left By Butler? (AP)
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.