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Previewing the Madness: The Horizon League

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It doesn’t get much more entertaining that the Horizon League. Its a balanced league that always has a handful of quality basketball teams that play competitive, emotionally draining games. You want an example? Just last week, last place Loyola (IL) took league champion Valpo to overtime on Valpo’s home court.

This season was no different. Detroit was the trendy pick to win the conference in the preseason, but they got off to a slow start to the year. Milwaukee and Cleveland State both looked like they were getting ready to run away with the league before a collapse in February dropped them off the pace. Valpo took control of the conference in the final weeks, but it was late-season surges by Butler and (you guessed it) Detroit that have caught notice.

Will this, once again, be Butler’s year to shine, or will a new top dog emerge in what has quickly become a guilty pleasure of so many basketball fans?

The Bracket

Where: Campus sites for the first round, Valpo for the quarters and semis, at the higher seed for the final.

When: Feb. 28th-Mar. 6th

Final: March 6th, 9 p.m., ESPN

Favorite: Valparaiso

I don’t have a choice but to go with Valpo here. The Crusaders have arguably the best front line in the conference. Kevin Van Wijk is a load on the block and one of the best in the country at getting to the foul line while Ryan Broekhoff provides a nice compliment on the perimeter with his ability to not only step out and knock down the three but to rebound on both ends of the floor. With a couple of playmakers in the back court and a handful of guys that can hit a three, Valpo is a good team when they keep the floor spread and allow those two to operate.

And if they lose?: Cleveland State

My pick to win the league all season long has been Cleveland State, and while they struggled late in the season, those losses can be directly attributed to the loss of D’Aundray Brown, the point man on their press and the Viking’s second-leading scorer on the season. The good news? The Vikings finally figured out a way to win without Brown in the last game of the regular season. The better news? Brown should be back in the mix in the tournament.

Sleepers: Am I allowed to call Butler a sleeper? Because late in the season, the Bulldogs finally found their stride offensively, scoring and shooting just well enough that they were able to win fight straight at one point in late February. The loss to Valpo in the regular season finale cost them the No. 2 seed, however, as the Bulldogs now have to win four straight games from the No. 5 spot. Detroit, like Butler, had a great finished to the regular season, winning five of their last six games and eight of their last ten. Ray McCallum is talented enough to carry the Titans. And don’t forget about Milwaukee, a staunch defensive team.

Studs

Ray McCallum, Detroit: A former top-75 recruit, McCallum was the catalyst for Detroit this year, averaging 15.1 ppg and 3.9 apg while playing the role of the catalyst for Detroit.

Alec Brown, Green Bay: A 7’1″ center, Alec Brown has become a double-double machine and may be a legitimate first-round pick in a year or two.

Ryan Broekhoff, Valpo: The league’s fourth-leading scorer, leading-rebounder and a sharpshooter from beyond the arc. Not a bad combo.

Kendrick Perry, Youngstown State: Perry is the most-dynamic back court player in the conference, averaging a league-high 16.2 ppg and 3.9 apg.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman out with a knee injury

UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. shoots against San Diego State during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
(L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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The injury Stephen Zimmerman suffered on Saturday will keep the star UNLV freshman out for at least a week, a source told NBC Sports.

The injury is not thought to be serious, however. Zimmerman may be kept out for longer as a precaution, but that’s a result of the Runnin’ Rebels being in a situation where the rest of their regular season is relatively meaningless.

They’re not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament regardless of how they finish out league play. With back-up center Ben Carter out with a torn ACL, it’s more important to make sure that Zimmerman, who is averaging 10.6 points and 9.1 boards this season, is totally healthy for the Mountain West tournament.

That tournament, mind you, will be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

So the Runnin’ Rebels, regardless of how poor they’ve played this season, will always have a chance to land an automatic bid.

Anyway, the more interesting aspect of this story is how Zimmerman injured the knee. It was a completely avoidable play that came after the whistle, but I’m not sure it was what you would call a “dirty play”. You tell me:

VIDEO: Buddy Hield is ‘all money’ on game-winning three vs. No. 24 Texas

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) takes a shot over Oklahoma State forward Chris Oliver during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
(AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
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With a little more than three minutes left on Monday night, No. 24 Texas held a 57-51 lead on No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman as Jordan Woodard struggled again and Buddy Hield failed to find the rhythm that he had throughout the first three months of the season.

At that point in the game, Hield was 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 points and four turnovers. He had just missed a pair of wide-open threes

“I couldn’t make a shot,” Hield said after the game. But that changed down the stretch. First, Hield finally got a three to drop. On the next possession, he got all the way to the rim and scored. On the following two possessions, he was fouled on a drive to the rim and hit four free throws. And after missing a pull-up jumper, Hield did this:

“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Hield said, “I saw Lammert coming to bite, so I pulled up.”

“It’s all money.”

Hield is already the favorite to win National Player of the Year, and this performance is only going to help his cause further. Think about it like this: Buddy was not good on Monday night, at least according to his (admittedly lofty) standards. But he still finished with 27 points and shook off a cold shooting night just in time to take over down the stretch.

Now think about this: Hield’s head coach has enough confidence in him to hand him the keys in the final minutes despite the fact that he’s struggling and on a team that has two other players that Lon Kruger trusts on game-winning possessions. Think about it. When Oklahoma beat West Virginia at the buzzer, it was Jordan Woodard that the play was drawn up for. When they beat LSU, it was Isaiah Cousins that got the rock on the final possession while Hield was used as a decoy. .

Want to talk about coaching luxuries?

Kruger has three guards that can shoot, penetrate and score, and penetrate and kick, and one of them is the National Player of the Year that doesn’t mind being used as a decoy.