Dates: March 1, 4-5, 8
Site: Milwaukee, Wisc.
Outlook: Talk about your tight league races. The Horizon League had it, and then some. Milwaukee (never Wisconsin-Milwaukee; sorry, old habits die hard) won nine of its last 10 and claimed the regular-season title thanks to tiebreakers on Butler and Cleveland State.
It got quite the prize as a result. The Panthers (21-9, 13-5) got a bye into the tournament’s semifinals and the chance to host the tournament title game. When Butler, Cleveland State, Valparaiso and Wright State all could be viewed as better teams, that’s no small thing. (There’s an excellent breakdown of the first-round games here.)
Of those four, Wright State (18-13, 10-8) has the toughest path with games against Green Bay, then likely Cleveland State and Butler. And then it’s in the title game. That’s brutal. Valpo (21-10, 12-6) has a better path and has beaten all of the league’s top teams at least once. But it’s probably a year too early for the Crusaders.
Cleveland State started the season 12-0 and led the league for most of the year before hitting back-to-back rough outings in Feb. That means playing an extra game before facing Butler in the semis. The winner of that game should win the tournament, which makes sense.
One of those two has won the last three Horizon League titles. No reason to expect anything different this year.
Championship game: March 8, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
Player to watch: Norris Cole, Cleveland State
Few guys fill up a statsheet like the Vikings’ 6-2 point guard. He scores (21.6 ppg), passes (5.5 apg), rebounds (6 rpg) and plays defense (2 spg) and does it efficiently. He’s capable of historic performances (him and Blake Griffin) and rarely comes off the court. If you catch any of this tournament, odds are you’ll see some Cole highlights.
I learned last March not to pick against Butler. Last year’s March darling didn’t dominate the league again, but showed impressive resolve down the stretch by winning seven straight, some of which didn’t have senior center Matt Howard. Heck, even coach Brad Stevens wasn’t at the season finale vs. Loyola. (His eye’s better now.)
The Bulldogs (21-9, 13-5) are the best bet to win – and defend their tourney title – but are hardly a lock. But when you have Howard, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored, that counts for a lot. Especially in March.
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