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2013-2014 Mid-Major Conference Preview: Horizon League

The top 2 teams from last season lost nearly 75% of their rosters to graduation and the NBA draft. The league added Oakland and lost Loyola-Chicago. Who will take over Valparaiso's reigns and win the Horizon League?

The ultimate prize for the Horizon League
The ultimate prize for the Horizon League

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. We continue with the Horizon League.

The Horizon League had 7 teams play in the postseason tournaments last season, but coming into the season it was believed that Detroit and Valparaiso would compete for the conference title.  With these top two teams losing a 90% of their starting lineups, Loyola-Chicago leaving for the Missouri Valley and Oakland joining the league, who will lead the conference and dance in March?

1. Green Bay Phoenix

Last year: 18-16 (10-6), Lost in HL Tourney Semifinals, Lost in CIT 1st round

Key Departures: Brennan Cougill (9.0ppg, 5.3 rpg), Sultan Muhammad (5.7ppg, 23.4 mpg), Kam Cerroni (5.8ppg)

Key Returners: Keifer Sykes (15.9ppg, 4.3apg), Alec Brown (14.1ppg, 6.0rpg), Jordan Fouse (6.8ppg, 7.9rpg)

Green Bay returns their best 3 players, and arguably 3 of the top 5 returning players in the conference.  After an offseason filled with turmoil, the Phoenix are looking to capitalize on their experience.  Sykes will be in contention for Player of the Year, Fouse will be filling a bigger role which suits him well, and Brown will be trying to prove that he is the NBA talent people have been talking about for 3 years now.  An 8-2 conference record at home seems very repeatable and if they can fix their road woes this should be the team representing the Horizon League in the Big Dance.

2. Wright State Raiders

Last year: 23-13 (10-6), HL Tourney Runner-Up, Lost in CBI Semifinal

Departures: None.

Key Returners: Everyone

The Raiders return all 12 of their rotation from last season.  Their formidable defense led the Horizon league giving up only 0.910 points per possession and 58.5 points per game.  Although their 23 wins were bolstered by a fairly weak schedule (Only 2 non-conference games played in the top 150 RPI) they continued to play well in conference.  With the addition of Chrishawn Hopkins from Butler, this team should prove to be a tough team to knock off in the Horizon League.  Hopkins, Reggie Arceneaux and Cole Darling make for one of the tougher match up issues for anyone in the league. Wright State fans don't need to be reminded that this was the same squad that was buzzer beater away from hosting the conference championship.

3. Oakland Golden Grizzlies

Last year: 16-17 (10-6), Lost in Summit League 1st Round, Lost in CBI 1st round (1-1 vs HL last season)

Departures: Drew Valentine (10.2ppg, 6.5rpg), Ryan Bass (TR, 9.3 ppg)

Key Returners: Travis Bader (22.1ppg, .394 FG%), Corey Petros (12.5ppg, 8.2 rpg), Duke Mondy (12.0ppg, 5.1apg)

This is the new kid on the block, and I'm not exactly sure how they will compete against the Horizon League.  Their returning players all dominated the Summit league, but their defense was woefully lacking (1.081 points per possession would have been last in the HL).  Will they sink or swim in the new conference?  I'm putting them as my third place team, with the assumption their offence can carry them ala Detroit last season.  One stat I'll be watching this season is Travis Bader's shots per game.  Last season he put up 15.8 per game, can he crack 20?

4. Valparaiso Crusaders

Last year: 26-8 (13-3), HL Tourney Champions, 14 seed in NCAAs (Lost to #3 Michigan St)

Departures: Ryan Broekhoff (15.7ppg), Kevin Van Wijk (12.4ppg), Matt Kenney (8.3ppg), Erik Buggs (7.0ppg), Will Bogan (6.4ppg), Ben Boggs (5.6ppg)

Key Returners: LaVonte Dority (8.6ppg, .371 FG%), Bobby Capobianco (5.9ppg, 4.5 rpg)

A dream season ended with a 2nd round exit in the NCAA tournament for the Crusaders.  And after that exit came the graduation of 6 of their top 7scorers last season.  Valpo lost 75.84% of the minutes played, 77.23% of their scoring, 75.20% of their rebounding, and 82.44% of their assists.  Now for the good things: They return the sixth man of the year LaVonte Dority, they return a big man in Bobby Capobianco, and they had arguably the best recruiting classes in the league.  With the second semester addition of Keith Carter, the Crusaders are reloading not rebuilding.  With a little luck and some fantastic Freshman performances, Valparaiso could repeat as conference champions.

5. Cleveland State Vikings

Last year: 14-18 (5-11), 1st round of HL Tourney

Departures: Tim Kamczyc (8.1ppg, 3.6rpg), Junior Lomomba (5.8ppg, 2.3rpg)

Key Returners: Bryn Forbes (12.7ppg, 3.5rpg), Charlie Lee (11.6ppg, 4.8apg), Marlin Mason (8.0ppg, 5.3rpg) Anton Grady (13.7ppg, 5.5rpg in 6 games)

Anton Grady returns after tearing a meniscus in his knee.  Losing Grady last season led to the emergence of Freshman Bryn Forbes to lead the team in scoring.  Unfortunately this also led them to a 5-11 conference record and a first round exit to UIC.  A young team should improve and could prove a good challenge for the top tier of the Horizon League.

6. Youngstown State Penguins

Last year: 18-16 (7-9), Lost in HL Semi-finals, Lost in CIT 2nd round

Departures: Blake Allen (12.4ppg, 3.1apg), Damian Eargle (11.8ppg, 6.6rpg, 3.2bpg)

Key Returners: Kendrick Perry (17.3ppg, 5.5rpg, 4.1apg), Kamren Belin (11.1ppg, 5.4rpg), DJ Cole (6.9ppg, 3.4apg)

Losing 3.2 blocks per game is tough for the Penguins, and Eargle was a huge contributor last season, earning Defensive Player of the Year.  Luckily they return First Team All-League Kendrick Perry, one of the most dynamic players in the league.  Perry should challenge Sykes for player of the year. Along with sophomore Kamren Belin, they will have a great backcourt, but the front court will remain a question mark.  If they can find someone to fill Eargle's mask... err... shoes, they should be able to make a run towards bigger things.

7. Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Flames

Last year: 18-16 (7-9), Lost in HL Tourney Quarterfinals, Lost in CIT 2nd round

Departures: Gary Talton (12.3ppg, 4.4apg), Daniel Barnes (12.1ppg, 4.4rpg), Josh Crittle (10.5ppg, 5.5rpg)

Key Returners: Hayden Humes (10.3ppg, 5.2rpg)

Humes returns for his senior season and he's accompanied by former Purdue guard, Kelsey Barlow.  Together they should provide an offensive spark to a team that is losing their top 3 starters.  The third best defensive team in the Horizon is hoping their offense improves from a dismal 62.8 points per game. I wouldn't say they are a bad team, but I believe they are missing pieces to become a conference championship contending team.

8. Detroit Titans

Last year: 20-13 (12-4), Lost in HL Tourney Semifinals, Lost in NIT 1st round

Departures: Ray McCallum (18.7ppg, 5.1rpg), Jason Calliste (14.4ppg, 3.3apg), Nick Minnerath (14.6, 5.9ppg), Doug Anderson (12.1ppg, 110% dunk-itude)

Key Returners: Juwan Howard Jr. (7.6ppg, 3.2rpg), Evan Bruinsma (5.6ppg, 4.3rpg)

When your star player is a 2nd round NBA draft pick, you know you've got a good one.  When you lose 80% of your starting lineup, you know you could be in trouble.  Detroit could be reeling from the loss of player of the year Ray Jr., but more importantly they could be in trouble losing key role players in Calliste and Minnerath.  Hopefully another junior, Juwan Jr. can fill a portion of McCallum's shoes and Detroit won't be below water two years after being a tournament team.

9. Milwaukee Panthers

Last year: 8-24 (3-13), Lost 1st round in HL Tourney

Departures: Paris Gulley (14.7ppg, 3.5rpg), Demetrius Harris (9.1ppg, 5.3rpg), James Haarsma (6.5ppg, 4.5rpg)

Key Returners: Jordan Aaron (14.4ppg, 4.0apg, .371 FG%), Austin Arians (6.6ppg, .382 FG%), Kyle Kelm (5.1ppg, 3.6rpg)

This is a team in the Horizon league.  They were coached by Bo Ryan and Bruce Pearl at one point.  They aren't anymore.  They lost their top scorer and their top two rebounders.  This could be a really rough season again for the Panthers. This was the only team to shoot below 40% in the league last season and it'll be interesting to see if they can improve their shot selection.