Monday's announcement that Alec Peters would return to Valparaiso for his senior season rather than transferring has massive consequences on this upcoming Horizon League basketball season. Peters will be the only member of the 2015-16 all-league first team to return and will likely be the preseason Horizon League player of the year.
His return also elevates the Crusaders from contender status to the early front-runner in this season's race for the Horizon League crown, despite losing quite a bit of talent. The Crusaders will be without Vashil Fernandez's shot-blocking and without point guard Keith Carter's experience (unless he is somehow able to get another year of eligibility). Add to that the departure of Horizon League coach of the year Bryce Drew and it is plain to see the level of dominance the Crusaders enjoyed in 2015-16 will be difficult to sustain.
But keeping Peters on the roster gives Valparaiso the best player in the league. Pair that with the immense amount of turnover around the conference and it is difficult to pick against Valparaiso.
This isn't to say that other contenders aren't lurking. But who are they? Some of the usual suspects, like Milwaukee, Wright State, and Detroit, may be in for rough seasons after they let their head coaches go and lost talent to graduation and transfers. Cleveland State, Northern Kentucky, and Youngstown State are still rebuilding (or in NKU's case, just building) and don't appear prepared to challenge Valparaiso.
That leaves three potential threats to Valpo's throne: Oakland, Green Bay and Illinois-Chicago (yes, the UIC that only won three D-1 games last season).
Despite losing superstar Kahlil Felder to the NBA Draft, Oakland should not come as much of a surprise. The Golden Grizzlies return a solid core of Jalen Hayes, Martez Walker, and Sherron Dorsey-Walker, and gain the services of transfer Stevie Clark, who will look to fill Felder's role at the point. Factor in the Nick Daniels' streaky shooting and Oakland should have another high-powered offense in 2015-16.
Green Bay knocked Valpo out in the Horizon League semifinals last season en route to a Horizon League tournament championship and NCAA Tournament berth. The Phoenix lose their two best players to graduation in Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse. However, they will return the other key parts to their championship squad. Charles Cooper, Khalil Small, Jamar Hurdle, and Kenneth Lowe will all be seniors and all gained valuable experience in last year's championship season. While Green Bay may have less individual talent next year, the talent and experience of the team as a whole makes them a threat to contend with Valparaiso and, as we've seen, coach Linc Darner's up-tempo system can beat anyone in the conference.
The final team and undoubtedly the longest shot of the three is UIC, which finished 5-25 last season. It is impossible, however, to ignore the wealth of talent UIC has coming to campus this fall. 2016's Horizon League freshman of the year Dikembe Dixson will be the focal point of UIC's offense and should be a preseason all-league first team selection. Tai Odiase will anchor the defensive end for the Flames and is among the favorites to win defensive player of the year as one of the most prolific shot blockers in the nation. Throw in the conference's best incoming recruiting class and the Flames are oozing with potential. What remains to be seen is how all of the young incoming talent will fit into the system coach Steve McClain wants to employ. UIC will need to do a lot of maturing early on if it wants to challenge for the conference title, but the talent is there.
It is only June, though, and quite a bit can happen between now and the beginning of the basketball season. Graduate transfers and newcomers from the junior college ranks will likely fill out the remaining roster spots across the league. However, as it currently stands, the Valparaiso Crusaders are the front-runners once again.