By Kyle Jones
The Horizon League kicks off the action on Thursday as college basketball tournament season ramps up. With 12 teams battling out for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, here’s what to expect from the 2021 Horizon League Tournament.
There’s not much to split the two squads at the top of the conference. In fact, Wright State and Cleveland State have identical records in Horizon League play. Cleveland State comes in as the No. 1 seed, but I actually give the edge to Wright State.
The Raiders have been consistent all season, with their toughest loss coming in the season opener at Marshall (80-64). Since then, Wright State has strung together season sweeps against the majority of conference opponents, has not lost by more than 10 points to any conference opponent and has put together an impressive nine-game winning streak in the heart of the season. When the Raiders get hot, they get hot.
Cleveland State just hasn’t had the same kind of consistency. It was outclassed by every respectable team in Ohio to start the season (Toledo, Ohio and Ohio St) before stringing together wins against the bottom of the conference, and has been unable to string together long winning streaks since its early season flurry.
Players to watch:
There’s one name that has dominated Horizon League headlines this season, and he’s likely to do the same come tournament time: Loudon Love. Love has been the boss for Wright State this season, and he is one of the main reasons that the Raiders captured joint first place in the conference.
The senior center was named Conference Player of the Year for the second year in a row in 2021, becoming the first player since 2014-2015 to do so. Love averages a double-double, despite not shooting a single three-point shot all year. He dominates in the paint on defense and offense and has the ability to put his team on his back in the clutch.
Another name to keep an eye on is Northern Kentucky freshman Marques Warrick. Warrick earned consistent minutes with the Norse this season, averaging about 16 points per game.
Warrick even had back-to-back 20-point performances against Wright State. His three-point shooting may hold him back, but he is still a reliable point-getter, and his efforts have earned him Conference Freshman of the Year. Look for him to guide the Norse in the tournament alongside the older core.
The dark horse;
Wright State and Cleveland State are the frontrunners, but don’t sleep on Northern Kentucky. The Norse caught a rough spot of form in the middle of the season, but they’ve caught their stride towards the end, winning eight of their last 10 games. A lot of success in tournament play is about who gets hot when, and right now NKU is steaming.
With the shooting prowess of Marques Warrick and junior guard Trevon Faulkner, the Norse can hang with the top scoring teams. If starting forward Adrian Nelson can control the boards, which he has all year, NKU will have a good shot at going deep in this year’s tournament. Making their case even better is a strong win against Wright State, 81-75.
NKU may only be the four-seed, but it has a strong chance to challenge the top teams in the conference for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
I don’t expect any first round upsets, but Youngstown State may take a surprise win over Oakland in the Quarterfinals. Look for NKU to snag the upset over Cleveland State, before falling to Wright State in the championship. Wright State will likely be a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament, with a chance to join UMBC in the exclusive club of famous bracket busters.
Edited by Emma Moloney