Mid-Major Top 10: Horizon League

Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

With Butler departing the conference, it might be easy to dismiss the Horizon League. But the league remains deeply talented as six of the top 10 players from last season return. We are looking at a strong showdown for Player of the Year with a number of strong candidates.

We did not attend the Horizon League media day in Chicago, which drew the ire of some of our fans. After all, all the best players were just steps away from our home office. It should have been a no-brainer to go.

But this is what you chalk up to #dayjobproblems.

So we promised that we would move up our analysis of the conference in order to satisfy the cravings of the rabid fans out there. That meant crunching a lot of numbers this week, and thinking for a while about what it really means to be great within the Horizon League.

And it was really because the guy who was the preseason selection for Player of the Year at media day - and in the preseason magazines - wasn't even one of the top five players when we ran the numbers. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

Here are the top 10 players in the Horizon as we see it heading into the season.

10. Nick Minnerath, Detroit - Minnerath is going to be the hidden gem this season for the Titans and this ranking will probably seem low when it is all said and done. The 6-9 forward tore his ACL last year, and missed the bulk of the season after jumping off to quite a start. This was coming off a junior year that had him as the second best offensive player on Detroit.

He will still be second fiddle to Ray McCallum, but Minnerath should see his ability to shoot and draw fouls come in handy as an outlet for the Titans star. Minnerath actually scored a HW30 of just over 2.0 before the injury knocked him out, which probably underrates what he will mean to the team this year.

9. Kevin Van Wijk, Valparaiso - One of five starters back for the Crusaders, Van Wijk is a returning first team all-conference player and a strong force inside. His 14.1 points per game were second on the team to Ryan Broekhoff, and he should again be among the best on the team at putting points on the board. The question will be whether the addition of some additional size for Valpo will change the distribution of the basketball.

The Crusaders add Bobby Capobianco from Indiana, and Vashil Fernandez, a 6-10 center. Both players could eat into the number of possessions that Van Wijk touches the ball (an insanely high 30 percent last season). He should still remain a target for the offense, but the additions could hold him back from the season he put together last year.

8. Anton Grady, Cleveland State - We already covered Anton Grady this summer, so it should be no surprise that he makes this list. As a freshman, he put up a 3.7 HW30, which is huge for a first year player. Keep in mind that most freshman fail to provide contributions that even make them a positive value player. Grady helped Cleveland State get 14 percent of its team victories.

The Vikings were one of the better defensive teams in the country and Grady will help continue that trend this season, even though much of his help has moved on. A little more foul control could have him looking at first team status in the league.

7. Brennan Cougill, Green Bay - This is probably not the second player from the Phoenix that you would expect on this list. Keifer Sykes made a nice impact as a freshman point guard for Green Bay, but Cougill gave the Phoenix more bang for their buck on the offensive side. Despite being among the best in the country at effective field goal percentage and total shooting percentage, the senior will likely be overlooked by a lot of defenses as they prepare to try and stop Alec Brown.

Cougill should continue to be a great outlet player for Green Bay, and will likely continue to dominate on the boards. The forward should be in the running for at least a second-team all-conference selection this year, while helping keep the Phoenix in the chase for the league crown.

6. Damian Eargle, Youngstown State - Few players are going to make a top 10 list in a conference for dominating at a single facet of the game, but that is exactly why Eargle is here. That is not to say that he is a slouch offensively; it is merely a statement that he is the best defensive player in the conference. Eargle swatted 116 shots last season, good enough for a 12.8 percent block rate, putting him just outside the top 10 in the country. In addition, he was a huge rebounder on both the offensive and defensive ends.

The Penguins aren't getting a lot of love in the preseason, but they seem ready to pull off quite a few upsets with the returning talent. Eargle scored a 6.0 in HW30, while his better known teammate Kendrick Perry just edged him out at 6.8. With those two taking the lead, it will take just one more player to step up for Youngstown to start making waves in the Horizon.

5. Ray McCallum, Detroit - I am sure this will come as a shock to most Horizon League fans, but I am not that sold on McCallum. He is a great scorer and a great distributor, but he is not a great shooter. I worry that too much of the Detroit offense is focused on him, and that makes them vulnerable to cold nights from the junior star.

After all, it isn't like the Titans are as strong on the defensive end as Cleveland State or Milwaukee.They are just kind of average. That means the shooting has to be there to get Detroit to a win. Perhaps McCallum lucks out; there just aren't a lot of guards in the Horizon League that can keep up with him on the floor.

But outside the conference, I could see McCallum taking his lumps this coming year. Here is the bulletin board material for the junior as he takes on those tougher non-conference opponents and attempts to better the Titans' 22-14 record from last season.

4. Ben Averkamp, Loyola - Averkamp took a back seat during Midnight Madness at Loyola and allowed his teammates to shine both with their dance skills and their basketball talents. That won't be the case when the real games start as Averkamp will be needed to run the Rambler offense.

The senior looks ready for the year, and his movement with the ball is impressive. There will be a lot of youth around him so Averkamp will need to rely on some of the transfers to run a little interference for him this season. The addition of Iowa transfer Cully Payne should help with that, along with some more maturity from senior Jordan Hicks.

Averkamp would be a candidate for player of the year in the league if the team could offer him some more help. I think he will take just getting to double digits in wins.

3. Kendrick Perry, Youngstown State - I get that Youngstown coach Jerry Slocum relied on a short rotation last season, but with Perry and Eargle back, it is hard to believe that the Penguins won't be better than some of the predictions give them credit for.

Here is the offensive side to Eargle's defensive wall. Perry is a strong shooter in addition to his scoring prowess (best in the Horizon last year), and he distributes the ball well while running the point as a combo guard. He is no slouch on the defensive end either, grabbing 74 steals last season.

I can see the junior making a lot of waves not only in the league, where his talent is well-known, but outside the conference, and emerging as a major name to watch going into 2013. I could see Perry averaging 20 points per game without hurting his efficiency one bit.

2. Alec Brown, Green Bay - I raved and raved about his teammate Cougill, and then you get to Brown and you realize that the junior is just Cougill, but better in every aspect of the game. He rebounds better, he blocks better, he steals better. He just has the hands, quickness and agility, that aren't often seen from a 7-1 player. Brown is tough to stop inside, in a conference that is hurting for a lot of size as it is.

The thing with Brown though is that the size is just an added benefit. He plays like a player that doesn't have the height. The length just makes him all the more deadly. Among the best three defenders in the league, Brown turned in a 7.2 HW30 score, and is a few upset wins away from walking home as the best player in the conference this year.

1. Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso - Broekhoff was the Player of the Year last season, and there is no reason to believe he shouldn't be the player of the year again. The senior is probably the second best defender in the league behind Eargle, and even better, he does it without sending the opposing player to the line.

He is a fantastic shooter, even considering how much of his damage is done near the hoop. He has the range to be dangerous from all over the floor though, while being very cautious with the ball at the same time. With most of the major contributors back for the Crusaders, they will find even more ways to take advantage of Broekhoff's talent, which should push the senior to be even more valuable.

He scored a league high 9.2 in HW30 last year, and he should come close to breaking 10.0 before it is all said and done. As long as Broekhoff is healthy, it is hard to choose anyone but Valpo to win this league.

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