The Horizon League will take on a bit of a different look this season, as Butler left the conference for the Atlantic 10 this past summer. The top two seeds — Valparaiso and Detroit, in this case — will still have a double-bye into the semifinals, but now, since there are only nine teams in the league, the three-seed Wright State will have a first-round bye, taking on the winner of the 6-7 game.
Valpo and Detroit are the leagues two best teams, and I don’t think many would complain about a rematch between those two in the final. The split this season, with the road team winning both games after wild, second half comebacks. Wright State was picked to finish last in the preseason, but the Raiders ended up finishing tied third in the Horizon League standings, which earned head coach Billy Donlon Coach of the Year honors. Green Bay, the four-seed, tied with WSU for third, but they may end up being the more dangerous team in the tournament thanks to a pair of all-league players in sophomore Keifer Sykes and junior seven-footer Alec Brown.
One other team to keep an eye on is Youngstown State. They finished 7-9 in league play, but they won at Georgia and at George Washington in November. But their star Kendrick Perry is battling a knee injury he suffered in practice Feb. 20th. He’s doubtful for their first round game.
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Where: First round hosted at the higher seed, the quarters and semis hosted by the No. 1 seed, and the final to be played at the highest remaining seed.
When: March 5, 8-9, 12
Final: March 12, 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Crusaders were the best team in the Horizon League this season, winning 14 of their last 16 regular season games — including a 22 point pounding of Eastern Kentucky in BracketBusters — after a loss to Loyola (IL) in their conference opener. Valpo is led by a pair of forwards in Ryan Broekhoff (15.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg), the 2012 Horizon League Player of the Year, and Kevin Van Wjik (12.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Valpo has been the most efficient and best shooting team in the conference during league play, which should continue as they play every game on their home floor.
And if they lose?: Detroit is the most talented team in the conference, but also the most enigmatic. Ray McCallum (19.2 ppg, 4.7 apg, 5.2 rpg) was the league’s Player of the Year and is the kind of dynamic, athletic point guard that doesn’t often end up in the Horizon League. Throw in Doug Anderson’s acrobatics and the now-healthy Nick Minnerath (15.1 ppg), and the Titans have plenty of weapons offensively that thrive in their uptempo style. But will they defend well enough in March? Detroit was 177th nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.
Sleepers: Wright State surprised the league this season by playing the best defense in the conference and controlling the pace of the game. Given the history of the head coaches at Wright State, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Green Bay has some talent on the roster, but they got worked by Valpo twice, who they are scheduled to meet in the semis should they get that far.
– Doug Anderson, Detroit: Ray McCallum is the star, the coach’s son and the former top 75 recruit, but Anderson is the Horizon’s must-see TV. This is why.
– Kendrick Perry, Youngstown State: He’s the conference’s second-leading scorer (16.9 ppg), leader in steals (2.0 spg), an the biggest reason why the Penguins can make a run.
– Kiefer Sykes, Green Bay: Alec Brown gets the attention because he’s 7-foot-0, but the 5-foot-11 sophomore point guard (15.4 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.2 rpg) is the best player for the Pheonix.
CBT Prediction: Detroit upsets Valpo in a thrilling title game.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.