Horizon League Preview: Can Oakland rebound from a first round tourney exit?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Horizon League.

The major conference arms race in college basketball claimed another Horizon League staple this offseason as Valparaiso is leaving the league for the Missouri Valley Conference. While losing the Crusaders is a big blow to a proud mid-major league, there is still reason to be optimistic about the conference for this season and beyond. There are a few strong teams at the top of the league with intriguing starpower, while four head coaches will be in the Horizon for the first time.

One of the most scary mid-major teams in the country this season will be Oakland. Head coach Greg Kampe always has a fair share of talented offensive players and high-major transfers and the collection of talent he has in place this year could be great. Returning senior forward Jalen Hayes is a leading conference Player of the Year candidate while senior guard Martez Walker put up 17.8 points per game last season.

This team also adds a huge transfer in former Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn. A 1,000-point career scorer in the Big Ten, Nunn helps offset the loss of Sherron Dorsey-Walker. The Golden Grizzlies had a shocking first-round exit from the Horizon League tourney last season and they’ll be hungry to make the NCAA tournament. If Oakland gets there, nobody will want to play them in the first round.

Behind Oakland in the Horizon League pack comes an emerging threat in Northern Kentucky. Making the NCAA tournament in their first full year as a Division I member last season, the Norse return Player of the Year candidate Drew McDonald in the frontcourt and Horizon League tournament MVP Lavone Holland in the backcourt. With four returning starters of their own off of a 24-win team, Northern Kentucky should not be taken lightly this season.

UIC has been accumulating talent over the past few seasons as the Flames are hoping to stay fully healthy. Former league Freshman of the Year Dikembe Dixon tore his ACL 10 games into the season and missed most of his sophomore campaign as he was putting up huge numbers. The Flames still finished a respectable 7-11 in the league and return four starters besides Dixson, including the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year in rim protector Tai Odiase. Point guard Tarkus Ferguson led the Horizon in assists while Dominique Matthews and Godwin Boahen are both solid scorers on the wing.

Reigning league Freshman of the Year Corey Allen will be the go-to guy for a Detroit team that returns three starters of their own. Scoring guard Josh McFolley and forward Gerald Blackshear are two more returning starters while touted freshman point guard Jermaine Jackson Jr. chose to play for his dad, an assistant coach with the Titans. Transfers Kameron Chatman (Michigan) and Roschon Prince (Long Beach State) add additional depth for an intriguing team.

Wright State was hit hard when Mark Alstork opted to transfer to Illinois but the senior backcourt group of Justin Mitchell and Grant Benzinger will be among the league’s best. The Raiders are hoping that some transfers and redshirts are able to step up. Leading scorer Cameron Morse is back for Youngstown State after back-to-back seasons of over 20 points per game. Senior guard Francisco Santiago is another returning double-figure scorer for the Penguins. Other than that, it will be a lot of new faces for the program as new head coach Jerrod Calhoun, a former Bob Huggins assistant with DII success, brought in six new players.

Green Bay has almost an entirely new roster as all-league defensive guard Khalil Small is the only returning starter. Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen should help with his addition at semester break but this team has a lot of question marks. New head coach Dennis Felton inherits three returning starters at Cleveland State but the trio collectively averaged around 21 points per game so there isn’t much notable production. Senior guard Bobby Word is the team’s biggest threat.

Another new head coach in the Horizon is Pat Baldwin at Milwaukee as the former Northwestern assistant gets back junior Brock Stull, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season. The Panthers return three starters around Stull but they only won 11 games last season. Horizon League newcomer IUPUI was added this summer to be a 10th member and the Jaguars are going to have an adjustment period coming off of six consecutive losing seasons in the Summit League.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

REALIGNMENT MOVES 

In: IUPUI
Out: Valparaiso

PRESEASON HORIZON LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jalen Hayes, Oakland

With nine double-doubles during conference play, the 6-foot-7 redshirt senior is one of the most talented and productive players in the league. The versatile forward put up 15.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per game but he also has the skill to potentially space the floor a bit more this season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON HORIZON LEAGUE TEAM

  • Kendrick Nunn, Oakland: The redshirt senior put up 15.5 points per game at Illinois when he last played in 2015-16 and could put up big scoring numbers.
  • Dikembe Dixson, UIC: Although he only played 10 games before an ACL injury, the 6-foot-7 forward was putting up 20.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game to start his sophomore year.
  • Cameron Morse, Youngstown State: A big-time scorer with four career 40-point games, the 6-foot-3 Morse should be one of the nation’s leading scorers this season.
  • Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky: An impressive sophomore season made McDonald one of the league’s best as he put up 16.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @HorizonLeague

PREDICTED FINISH

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