Valparaiso has dominated the Horizon League in regular season play over the past few years. They appear to be in the driver’s seat for the regular season championship once more. How will the rest of the league shake out and who has the potential to topple the Crusaders as Green Bay did a year ago in the conference tournament? Here is a look at early power rankings for the conference:
1. Valparaiso Crusaders
Four of the last five Horizon League seasons have ended with Valparaiso at the top of the standings. The Crusaders should remain the favorites to set the pace in the Horizon League this season.
Of course, many factors could be working against the Crusaders this year: They have a new head coach, lost their point guard Keith Carter, and finally have to part with defensive force Vashil Fernandez. However, Alec Peters returns for his senior season after testing the NBA waters earlier this year. It is tough to pick against the Crusaders with the best all-around player in the conference on their side.
2. Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Much like last season, Oakland should be nipping at the heels of Valparaiso. Oakland also suffered a significant loss this off-season when Kay Felder was selected in the NBA draft. However, transfer Stevie Clark should help ease the transition at point guard for the Golden Grizzlies.
Oakland will also turn to junior forward Jalen Hayes to help fill in the leadership gap left by Fleder’s departure. Hayes was the team’s leading rebounder a season ago and was second in scoring. Oakland will lean heavily on him this upcoming season.
3. Green Bay Phoenix
The Phoenix pulled of a major upset of top-seeded Valparaiso en route to the Horizon League tournament championship last season. First year coach Linc Darner installed a fast paced style of play that allowed the Phoenix to wear down opponents.
Despite losing senior leaders Jordan Fouse and Carrington Love, Green Bay should find itself near the top of the league standings as a result. Charles Cooper, Kenneth Lowe, Jamar Hurdle, and Khalil Small all made a significant impact during the conference tournament last year and will look to carry that momentum into 2016-17.
4. Detroit Titans
The Horizon League field begins to jumble at this point. The separation between teams is less apparent. Detroit appears to be “the best of the rest” heading into the season and guard Josh McFolley will look to build on an excellent freshman season for the Titans. He and senior Chris Jenkins will need to fill in the scoring void left by the departure of star player Paris Bass after his dismissal from the team.
The loss of Bass paired with the firing of head coach Ray McCallum makes it difficult to see the Titans finishing any higher than fourth. Nonetheless, Detroit looks decent on paper heading into this season.
5. Illinois-Chicago Flames
The Flames go into the season with a tremendous amount of upside. UIC returns freshman of the year Dikembe Dixson and has the top returning shot blocker in Tai Odiase. The Flames also have the top recruiting class in the conference joining the program. As a result, they will be leaning heavily on players without much experience at the collegiate level.
If the team can come together quickly, the talent is there for them to go from a last place finish a year ago to a top tier finisher. However, overlooking a five-win season makes it difficult to put the Flames any higher in these rankings.
6. Wright State Raiders
The Raiders are consistently one of the more underrated teams in the league but always seem to find their way into the mix atop the league standings. Much of this can be attributed to the coaching of Billy Donlon, but Wright State parted ways with Donlon this off-season. They brought in Scott Nagy though, who had immense success at South Dakota State.
No big names stand out on the Wright State roster as game changers. Mark Alstork should lead the Raiders offensively, but Wright State generally had a slow paced, defensive focus under Donlon. How well Nagy can coach up his roster will ultimately determine where the Raiders finish this season. Wright State could sneak up on league opponents once more, but they are just as likely to see some struggles this year.
7. Northern Kentucky Norse
The Norse round out the “middle of the pack” teams for next season. NKU struggled in its first season in the Horizon League, winning just five league games a year ago. Newcomers will be the key for the Norse this season.
While they return some experience in senior Cole Murray and junior Lavone Holland, how well a transfer and a pair of incoming freshman fit into the scheme will go a long way for the Norse. Carson Williams and Mason Faulkner were huge in state additions for NKU while Alabama transfer Jeff Garrett will also look to make an impact. The Norse are still undersized and, despite the return of Drew McDonald after a solid freshman campaign in the post, this will limit their upside.
8. Youngstown State Penguins
The Penguins should have a potent offensive attack this year, which should keep the team in most of its games this year. Junior Cameron Morse will likely end the season as one of the top scorers in the conference and is capable of taking games over on the offensive end for the Penguins.
YSU also returns third and fourth leading scorers from a year ago, Matt Donlan and Francisco Santiago. Scoring should not be much of a problem for the Penguins. But, keeping opponents off the board on the defensive end is a different story. Unless the Penguins can improve upon the leagues worst defense in terms of points allowed from a season ago, they won’t be able to climb out of the league standings basement.
9. Cleveland State Vikings
The Vikings finished only a game above last place a year ago and will likely remain near the bottom of the league. Rob Edwards was a bright spot for CSU during his freshman campaign and, along with senior Demonte Flannigan, will be asked to lead the team. The Vikings have been devastated by transfers in the past few years and do not appear ready to make their recovery this season.
10. Milwaukee Panthers
The Panthers were a 20 win team last season. However, they easily had the roughest off-season of any team in the league. Milwaukee fired coach Rob Jeter and many players opted to transfer out as a result.
With the dust settled, the top returning scorer for the Panthers is senior Cody Wichmann, who scored just 4.8 points per game a year ago and did not start a single game. In fact, the Panthers return no players who started a game for them in 2015-16. This is a recipe for a difficult season in Milwaukee.