This year marks the first of at least five in which the Horizon League Tournament will take place in Detroit. Taking place this year at Joe Louis Arena, what has been dubbed Motor City Madness represents a philosophical shift in how the Horizon League views itself. Prior to this year, the number one-seed in the conference received home court advantage for the conference tournament. Furthermore, the top two seeds received double byes placing them in the semifinals of the tournament immediately. Should the one-seed lose their semifinal contest, the tournament would shift locations to allow the best remaining seed to host the championship game. All of this was done in an effort to ensure the team most likely to succeed in the NCAA Tournament would get the automatic bid.
While there is some logic to that format, the conference was essentially admitting it was going to be a single-bid league and that its top seed needed protecting. This year, the conference maintained the double-bye format,but the switch in venue to a neutral court shows that the conference is beginning to view itself as a potential multi-bid league. While the conference likely will not be receiving more than one bid to this season's NCAA Tournament, the move to Detroit could help raise the profile of the conference in the same manner that Arch Madness has elevated the Missouri Valley Conference to its current stature.
Naturally, the move to Detroit has been met with criticism from some fanbases around the league (as any change would be). Horizon League officials will be hoping for a solid turnout in terms of attendance and some exciting basketball to justify the move. The bracket has been set and the first round match-ups have been announced. What can the league and its fans look forward to from this years tournament? Here are the keys for each team and some predictions of how things could play out in Detroit over the next few days:
First Round - Saturday, March 5th (Games on ESPN3)
Game 1: #9 Cleveland State vs. #4 Green Bay - Noon EST
This is probably not the exciting game the Horizon League was looking for to kick off the tournament. Green Bay has had a very solid season after losing their head coach and the conference player of the year from 2014-15. First year head coach Linc Darner has installed his "RP40" system (relentless pressure for 40 minutes). This has led to many high scoring contests as the Phoenix, led by seniors Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse, constantly look to push the ball on offense and force turnovers on defense. Cleveland State, on the other hand, has fallen off considerably from contending for the conference regular season title as season ago. Decimated by the loss of Trey Lewis and Anton Grady to the graduate transfer rule, the Vikings have suffered through a season at the bottom of the league standings. While the Vikings have some hope for the future in freshman Rob Edwards, the outlook for the Vikings in this year's conference tournament is not good.
Predicted outcome: Green Bay advances in a blow out. The relentless attack of Green Bay will likely overwhelm Cleveland State. The Phoenix beat the Vikings twice during the regular season, once by 20 and once by 17. Expect a similar result.
Game 2: #8 Northern Kentucky vs. #5 Milwaukee - 2:30 PM EST
Milwaukee enters the tournament after somewhat of a disappointing regular season showing. The Panthers were expected to challenge Valparaiso and Oakland for the top spot in the league and, after road wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota in the non-conference schedule, looked as if they would meet those lofty expectations. However, Milwaukee was unable to find any consistency during conference play and rounded out the regular season in fifth place. The Panthers remain a dangerous squad given the ability of their big men, Matt Tiby and J.J. Panoske, to step outside and hit from three and the fact that they have Jordan Johnson, currently second in the nation in assists per game, running the offense.
On the flip side, Northern Kentucky limps into the tournament on a six-game losing streak. However, NKU's last win was against Milwaukee. While the Norse struggled down the stretch, they were able to compete against the upper tier of the conference at times. They sport wins over Oakland, Detroit, and, as mentioned previously, Milwaukee. When the Norse found success this season, it was on the back of hot three-point shooting. Given their size disadvantage against the Panthers, NKU will need to rely on the three ball.
Predicted outcome: Milwaukee wins this contest, probably by double digits. Even though the Norse have beaten the Panthers once this season, they have no momentum on their side entering tournament play.
Game 3: #10 Illinois-Chicago vs. #3 Wright State - 5 PM EST
It would be easy to dismiss this game as a blow out. UIC only beat three Division I opponents all season and enters the tournament on a five game losing streak. But, one of the teams UIC beat was Wright State. Led by dynamic freshman Dikembe Dixson, the Flames are fully capable of playing with the Raiders. The key for the Flames will be to limit mistakes and take advantage of opportunities at the free throw line where they shot a poor 61.4% as a team.
The Wright State Raiders will come into the tournament with something to prove. WSU handed league regular season champion Valparaiso its only two conference losses and ended in a tie for second with Oakland. Having been swept by Oakland during the regular season, the Raiders missed out on a double-bye. Furthermore, no Raiders were included on either the first or second all-league teams released by the conference earlier in the week. The Raiders will rely on tough defense and methodical offense to win games in this tournament. Wright State should be playing angry.
Predicted outcome: Wright State wins this game, but it could be close. The Raiders were caught overlooking UIC once this season and UIC should have the confidence needed to compete. Wright State coach Billy Donlon likely won't allow his team to overlook the Flames again and UIC's inability to win away from home this year signals a Raiders win.
Game 4: #7 Youngstown State vs. #6 Detroit - 7:30 PM EST
The best game of the day is saved for last. Detroit swept the season series between these two and both games were high scoring. Both games were also decided by single digits. Led by the high scoring Cameron Morse, Youngstown State tallied big regular season wins over both Oakland and Green Bay, scoring in the triple digits in each game. But, the Penguins also gave up triple digits to opponents five times this season. Detroit also played in the triple digits a few times over the course of the year and are led by the athletic Paris Bass. These two team's styles of play seem to feed into one another. The end result should be a game filled with offensive fireworks and not much defense.
Predicted outcome: Detroit will have the edge in terms of proximity to the venue and that may very well be the difference in this game. Detroit wins but not by more than two possessions.
Second Round - Sunday, March 6th (Games on ESPN3)
Game 1: #5 Milwaukee vs. #4 Green Bay - 1 PM EST
These two rivals split their season series. Milwaukee won the first meeting by one while Green Bay took the second by two. Milwaukee will look to slow the Phoenix down by running a methodical and efficient offense, avoiding turnovers. Green Bay can find success by speeding things up and forcing the Panthers to try to keep up with their pace.
Predicted outcome: Milwaukee succeeds in dictating the pace of play and wins in a nail-biter. If the Panthers remain efficient on offense, Green Bay won't be able to get out on the fast break like they hope to.
Game 2: #6 Detroit vs. #3 Wright State - 3:30 PM EST
Detroit and Wright State also split their season series. Wright State took game one by a single point while Detroit claimed victory by seven in game two. Another contest of contrasting styles, Wright State will look to keep the game low scoring and Detroit will want to run the score as high as they can. Detroit's offense has hit its stride as of late, which could be the difference maker in this game.
Predicted outcome: Detroit's offense is able to keep the tempo up while playing in front of a "home" crowd and Wright State's offense is not quite able to keep up in the end. Detroit wins it by five.
Semifinals - Monday, March 7th (Games on ESPNU)
Game 1: #5 Milwaukee vs. #1 Valparaiso - 7 PM EST
The top two teams in the conference regular season finally make their appearances in the semifinals. First up is Valparaiso. The Crusaders, for the most part, dominated the Horizon League this year. Valpo beat everyone twice (except for Wright State who they didn't beat at all). The key for the Crusaders this season has been the size advantage they enjoy over almost every opponent. This has led the Crusaders to rebound and defend at an elite level. In this tournament though, the Crusaders will be looking to get healthy given the injury status of both Tevonn Walker and David Skara remaining in question. A well-rested Valpo squad at full strength will be difficult to beat.
Milwaukee gave Valparaiso fits in the last weekend of the regular season. The Panthers took the Crusaders to overtime and easily could have won the game. How will the Panthers fare against Valpo on a neutral court?
Predicted outcome: Valpo wins by double digits. Milwaukee has absolutely demonstrated they are capable of playing with the Crusaders. But playing their third game in three nights and coming off of an emotional, rivalry game win, the Panthers run out of steam.
Game 2: #6 Detroit vs. # 2 Oakland - 9:30 PM EST
This is the game everyone is hoping to see. These two teams don't like each-other, play high-scoring games, and would draw the most fans out to the game of any participants in the tournament. Oakland took both regular season meetings between the two squads. Led by Horizon League Player of the Year Kahlil Felder, the Golden Grizzlies are another team that relies heavily on pushing the tempo. A key for Oakland will be controlling their emotions. They struggled early on in the conference season playing at home and will be playing an emotional contest in front of thousands of their own fans. Keeping composed and organized will be vital to the Golden Grizzlies.
Detroit will also be playing in front of many of their own fans. Emotions will run high for the Titans too. The Titans can make a run at Oakland if they convert their emotions into energy. This will be their third game in three days and they will need adrenaline to feed off of.
Predicted outcome: Oakland scores in the triple digits and pulls away from Detroit in the final five minutes of the game. Much like Milwaukee in the first semifinal, Detroit is capable of hanging with their opponent but simply won't have enough gas to finish an upset.
Championship - Tuesday, March 8th at 7 PM EST (Game on ESPN)
#2 Oakland vs. #1 Valparaiso
A big time matchup of the leagues two best players, Felder of Oakland and Alec Peters of Valparaiso, looms in the Horizon League Championship game. The Crusaders won both games against Oakland this season. The last time the two teams met, Valpo was in control for most of the game. However, an Oakland run prevented the Crusaders from coasting to victory. The end result was a two point Valparaiso victory. Oakland will have the advantage of playing in front of what would be a vastly pro-Golden Grizzly crowd. But, Valparaiso has proven capable of winning in hostile environments this season.
Predicted outcome: Valparaiso wins, but may very well do so on a shot at the buzzer. The Crusaders have played some close contests at the end of the regular season and have learned to close out games. Valpo was dominant during the regular season and will finish the job.
Motor City Madness is full of potential for excitement. The bracket is setup so that some rivals could meet in the rounds leading up to the championship game. No matter who ends up playing in the championship game, expect a close game with a lot of points scored.