By: Chris Olszewski
The Horizon League has been relatively successful in the NCAA tournament as of late. While a member of the conference, Butler reached the Final Four twice; the Bulldogs never won the tournament, but gave Duke a run for their money in 2010 and UConn in 2011. Since Butler’s departure from the conference in 2013, the Horizon League has largely been dominated by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Valparaiso University. This year is no different.
The favorites this year are once again the #1 seed Valparaiso Crusaders (26-5, 16-2). Coached by Coach of the Year finalist Bryce Drew and led on the court by All-League First Team Alec Peters and Defensive Player of the Year Vashil Fernandez, the Crusaders went 26-5 over the course of the regular season. The team led all Division I squads in points allowed per possession (0.87), and have been hailed by some (including Reid Forgrave) as the best mid-major team in the country.
The biggest challenge to Valparaiso’s supremacy is likely the Wright State Raiders (19-12, 13-5). The Raiders handed Valparaiso both of their in-conference losses, and currently sit at the #3 seed. While the two can’t meet until the championship, it’s not a stretch to say Wright State could steam roll their competition on the way. Despite not having a player average more than 12.6 points a game, the Raiders have relied on a shooting percentage of 44.8 percent to maintain their status as one of Horizon’s heavyweights.
One shouldn’t sleep on the other perennial contender in the Horizon League, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers (19-12, 10-8). The Panthers had an off year, only doing well enough to garner a #5 seed. That statistic could be misleading, as Wright State, UW-Milwaukee, and the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay (19-12, 11-7) all ended the season with the same overall record. Of the three, the Panthers obviously had the toughest time in the conference; the Panthers only won one game against the conference’s top three seeds. However, they kept up with Wright State and proved that they can beat Oakland University (21-10, 13-5). One shouldn’t expect Milwaukee to run away with the tournament, but if there’s a “sleeper pick”, it’s the Panthers.
If there is a team that is overrated in the tournament, it is the Oakland Golden Grizzlies. The Grizzlies ended up with the same record as Wright State, but was given the #2 seed by dint of the head-to-head record. On the other hand, their losses are rather major. A pair of losses to Valparaiso aren’t unexpected, but losses to Youngstown State (11-20, 6-12) and Northern Kentucky (9-20, 5-13) are…unimpressive to say the least. Oakland’s saving grace is its large scoring margin: the Grizzlies are scoring 7.8 more points per game than their opponents. It’s unlikely, though, that Oakland makes it past the semifinals.
Try as they might, there really aren’t any teams that can touch Valparaiso other than Wright State. Expect those two to make the championship.
Prediction: Valparaiso over Wright State.
Very Specific Prediction: Valparaiso beats Milwaukee with double-doubles from both Peters and Fernandez.