Horizon Preview: Valparaiso remains dangerous

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Horizon League.

CONFERENCE REALIGNMENT:
IN: Northern Kentucky (Atlantic Sun)

The Horizon League enters the 2015-16 season with some talented teams, including a returning NCAA tournament team that has all five starters back. Adding another level of intrigue to the Horizon’s postseason proceedings, the conference tournament moves to Detroit this season after being played as a true home game for the Horizon’s top team.

Regardless of where the league’s conference tournament is played, Valparaiso enters as the heavy favorite to repeat after winning both the regular season and conference tournament titles last season. The Crusaders return all five starters and three key reserves to a team that took Maryland to the brink in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Junior forward Alec Peters is the league’s Preseason Player of the Year and he’s surrounded by three seniors, including rim protector Vashil Fernandez. Most importantly, head coach Bryce Drew is back and he’s got a chance to lead a dangerous mid-major team that could easily win a game or two in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

Trailing behind Valpo is two talented teams, Oakland and Milwaukee. Greg Kampe’s Grizzlies return player of the year candidate Kahlil Felder, a non-stop threat who played nearly every minute of Oakland’s 2014-15 season. Felder is flanked by two returning starters and some high-major transfers in former Iowa State products Percy Gibson (center) and Sherron Dorsey-Walker (guard). Texas transfer Martez Walker is also eligible to make for a talented group that could push for the league crown.

After sitting out the postseason last season due to NCAA violations, Milwaukee has reloaded and Rob Jeter has his most talented team in years. All-league forward Matt Tiby is the Horizon’s leading returning rebounder while the Panthers redshirted three forwards — including versatile junior Austin Arians — and recruited two talented guards. Six of the top seven return from last season to go along with those five new players and Milwaukee ended the 2014-15 season by winning seven of nine.

Wright State has to stay healthy to be a top-tier Horizon League team but they return their four top scorers. Forward J.T. Yoho was one of the league’s best players when healthy last season and senior guard Joe Thomasson is very experienced. Detroit has to replace the scoring of Juwan Howard Jr., but sophomore forward Paris Bass is one of the league’s most talented players and could be poised for a big year. The Titans return four of its top five scorers from last year’s team, that includes three local recruits.

Things will be quite different in Green Bay as Brian Wardle has been replaced by Linc Darner and Keifer Sykes and Greg Mays are gone. But wing Jordan Fouse is one of the league’s best defenders and guard Carrington Love showed some scoring punch as well. The Phoenix will have question marks after their two returning starters.

UIC is now under the direction of former Indiana assistant Steve McClain and he brought in some immediate talent in guards Dominique Matthews and Dikembe Dixson. Two starters return for the Flames in double-figure scoring guard Paris Burns and forward Jake Wiegand. Cleveland State got hit by transfers as Trey Lewis (Louisville) and Anton Grady (Wichita State) are on new rosters and only starter Andre Yates returns. The Vikings have two redshirt freshmen and three true freshmen they’ll count on early.

Not much is proven for Youngstown State outside of 6-foot-10 senior forward Bobby Hain. Five new recruits will be asked to do a lot of a Penguins team that lost four starters from last season. Northern Kentucky is the new program in the league with a new coach in former Alabama assistant John Brannen. The Norse bring back three starters from a team that was 13-17 last season.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Valparaiso has a team that could have won a NCAA tournament game last season and now everybody is back. With Vashil Fernandez still in the lineup, they’re going to be very tough for any team to beat.”
  • Sleeper: “Milwaukee finished extremely strong to end last season. They bring back a core nucleus of experienced guys and have the postseason to play for. When you put all of those things in the equation, it makes them a dangerous team.”
  • Star to watch: “Kahlil Felder probably means more to his team than Alec Peters, but Peters is the type of player who hits a huge shot to put a game out of reach. When he’s on, Valpo plays at another level.”

PRESEASON HORIZON LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Alec Peters, Valparaiso

The skilled 6-foot-9 junior barely edges out Oakland guard Kahlil Felder for preseason honors, in a debate that should be fun for the next two seasons. With his tremendous efficiency shooting the ball from all over the floor, Peters gets the nod here after averaging 16.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game as a sophomore. Peters put up those numbers while shooting 48 percent from the field, 46 percent from 3-point range and 82 percent from the free-throw line. With Valpo having so much balance in its deep and talented lineup, teams have to decide whether they want to overload on Peters or risk him having a big game. Since Peters can score from all over the floor, he’s a matchup nightmare for nearly any program.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-HORIZON TEAM:

  • Kahlil Felder, Oakland: The 5-foot-9 junior is a complete warrior who averaged 38.5 minutes a game in 33 games last season. Put up 18.1 points, 7.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds per contest.
  • Matt Tiby, Milwaukee: The league’s returning leading rebounder, the 6-foot-8 Tiby can score and rebound among the best in the league. Averaged 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game for a team that couldn’t play for the postseason.
  • JT Yoho, Wright State: If he can stay healthy, the 6-foot-6 Yoho is a Player of the Year candidate. Yoho averaged 15.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season and is talented enough to score from all over the floor.
  • Paris Bass, Detroit: After a productive freshman season, expectations become even greater for Bass since this is his team now. The 6-foot-8 sophomore averaged 12.4 points, 5.7 rebounds per game and is one of the league’s most talented young stars.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @billpotter_HL

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Valparaiso
2. Oakland
3. Milwaukee
4. Wright State
5. Detroit
6. Green Bay
7. UIC
8. Cleveland State
9. Youngstown State
10. Northern Kentucky