By: Ross Weber, KCOU Sports
The Horizon League is a relatively new conference in the landscape of college basketball, but has still been able to produce some NCAA Tournament bracket-busters over the years; from 14 seed Xavier in 1991 who pulled off a first round upset over 3rd seed Nebraska, to the unforgettable Butler squads in 2010 and 2011 that made it to back-to-back National Championship games.
Still the Horizon league hasn’t sent two members of the conference to the big dance since 2009, and with Butler’s recent departure to the Big East the Horizon has seemingly regressed down to being a one-bid league. A lot is on the line this season, so let’s get started.
#8 Youngstown State Penguins (11-20, 2-14) vs #5 Detroit Titans (14-17, 7-9)
The Penguins immediately struggled in conference partially due to playing four of their first five games on the road, and partially due to only playing one power conference team (lost to Texas A&M at College Station by 18).
Detroit seems to be the opposite of Youngstown State in terms of scheduling. The Titans played three power conference teams on the road and traveled to Kansas to take on Wichita State who is good enough to hold their own with most, if not all of the top teams in the country. Even though Detroit suffered losses in all four of those games they are still tough tests that made the team better.
#7 Wright State Raiders (11-19, 3-13) vs #6 UIC Flames (8-23, 4-12)
The Raiders have been on a major slide recently losing nine straight games, including one at UIC to close the regular season. Wright State is one of the smallest and worst rebounding teams in the conference, which is obviously not a great formula to win games. I don’t see the Raiders lasting long.
The Flames have prided themselves on toughness and rebounding this season and it has slightly paid off. They obviously aren’t word-beaters but they make due with what they have. They sit third in the conference in rebounding and generate decent offense by attacking and converting from the free throw line, as they lead the conference in free throw percentage and are second in free throw attempts.
#4 Cleveland State Vikings (11-5, 17-13)
Cleveland State can thank the Milwaukee Panthers for their bye this season, as normally only the top three seeds in the tournament get bye weeks, but due to UWM being disqualified from postseason play due to a violation of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. Still the Vikings are as strong of a defensive team as they come, leading the conference in steals. Add in an above average offense that shoots 45% from the field and the Vikings have an outside shot at a tournament bid.
#3 Oakland Golden Grizzlies (11-5, 16-15)
The Grizzlies took on a very tough non-conference schedule and made the most of it. They went 0-6 in games against power conference teams, including trips to Iowa State, Arizona and Maryland, then immediately started conference play by handing Valparaiso an overtime loss. What Oakland does well is that they move the ball, actually ranking top 20 in the nation in assists. The offense is the strength, but they give up more points than any other team in the conference outside of Youngstown State and have surrendered 80 points or more eleven times this season.
#2 Green Bay Phoenix (23-7, 12-4)
Now we are getting to the cream of the crop. A team that doesn’t have more size than some other schools in the conference but can rebound and defend with the best of them. Their five blocks and 36 rebounds per game both sit top two in the conference, and they shoot better than any other team in the conference from the field. Senior point guard Kiefer Skyes is the clear leader of this team, and leads the conference in scoring. The key to defeating Green Bay is if anyone can find a way to disrupt him.
#1 Valparaiso Crusaders (26-5, 13-3)
Even though Valpo didn’t challenge themselves much in non-conference, only taking on one power conference team in Mizzou (who barely qualifies as a power conference team), it didn’t seem to matter. This team sticks to their guns: well-coached and covers the boards like it’s nobody’s business, actually 31st in the nation in rebounding and collect close to 12 offensive boards per game. The development of sophomore forward Alec Peters, who is shooting almost 50% from the field and 47% from three-point range, has been huge to this team’s success and this team looks hard to beat if they play their game.
UIC def. Wright State
Detroit def. Youngstown State
Cleveland State def. Detroit
Oakland def. UIC
Valparaiso def. Cleveland State
Oakland def. Green Bay
Valparaiso def. Oakland