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Horizon League Preseason Power Rankings: Is this the year Oakland finally reaches its potential?

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It appears to be Oakland’s race to lose. But a few challengers may have the tools to help them with that.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Oakland Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Horizon League newswire was dominated by the departure of Valparaiso this offseason. The Crusaders won at least of a share of the conference’s regular season title in five of the last six seasons, so the discussion naturally became who would fill their shoes atop the league standings.

With the new season upon us, it is time to look at who the new dominant powers will be in the Horizon League. Last season, Oakland split the regular season crown with Valparaiso, but it was Northern Kentucky who represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament. Will those two teams remain at the top, or will new challengers arise?

Power Rankings

1. Oakland Golden Grizzlies

The past three seasons have seen Oakland ascend to the top of the Horizon League, culminating in share of the regular season title and the one-seed in the conference tournament a year ago. Oakland could be even better this year.

The Golden Grizzlies feature a stacked roster that could dominate the Horizon League. Oakland returns its two leading scorers from last year’s team: Martez Walker and Jalen Hayes. Further bolstering the offense will be transfer Kendrick Nunn, who averaged 15.5 points in his most recent season at Illinois. Both Hayes and Walker are already among the league’s elite players and Nunn very well could outperform them both.

While the trio of stars on offense garner much of the attention, Oakland also returns one of the league’s top defenders from a group that led the Horizon League in defensive efficiency last year. Isaiah Brock decided to return for another season at Oakland after originally announcing he was leaving basketball. Brock pulled in more than six rebounds per game and recorded 72 blocks in his first season at Oakland. He will log major minutes as a defensive anchor, especially given the news that junior center Brad Brechting will miss an extended period of time due to injury to begin the year.

2. Northern Kentucky Norse

Northern Kentucky represents the biggest challenger to Oakland heading into next season. The Norse return nearly everyone from a team that won the Horizon League Tournament last March.

Northern Kentucky’s offense will be what carries them to success. Drew McDonald enters his junior year as the preseason Horizon League Player of the Year and the offensive leader for the Norse. McDonald averaged over 16 points per game as a sophomore while shooting 38% from three. Meanwhile, senior Lavone Holland will run the offense at point guard. Holland too was a double-digit scorer last year and was instrumental in the Norse’s Horizon League Tournament run.

The progression of underclassmen will be key to the Norse as they head deeper into the season. Carson Williams and Mason Faulkner burst onto the scene as freshmen last year and will be asked to contribute even more as sophomores. Perhaps even more important will be the integration of freshman Chris Vogt into the team. The Norse often were outmatched in terms of size a year ago, making the addition of the seven-foot tall shot blocking Vogt vital.

3. UIC Flames

The Flames were a trendy dark horse pick heading into last season. But, UIC’s season took a hit when star player Dikembe Dixson tore his ACL during non-conference play. Despite that loss, UIC finished sixth in the conference and made it to the semifinals of the league tournament.

Dixson will be back and, if he has recovered fully, could be the best player in the league. Alongside Dixson, the Flames return a pair of conference All-Freshman Team selections in Tarkus Ferguson and Dominique Matthews . UIC also has the league’s top returning defensive player in Tai Odiase. Odiase will likely lead the Horizon League in blocked shots and may very well lead the entire country in that category.

A third place finish for the Flames would be their best since a second place finish in 2004. That was also the last time UIC made it to the NCAA Tournament. Both are in UIC’s sights heading into next season.

4. Youngstown State Penguins

Alright, this one might be a bit of a stretch.

Yes, the Penguins are coming off of a season in which they won just five conference games. But they made a run to the conference semifinals to close out the year that included a thrilling upset of top-seeded Oakland. Furthermore, they return the best pure scorer in the conference: Cameron Morse. If they can build upon the momentum they gained at the end of last season, the Penguins could surprise some people this year.

The biggest issue facing Youngstown State is its defense. The Penguins have been in the bottom two of the conference in defensive efficiency the past four years according to KenPom. They also have a lot of question marks at the post positions. However, new head coach Jerrod Calhoun comes from great success at Fairmont State and spent time as a Bob Huggins assistant at West Virginia. He might know a thing or two about defense.

5. Detroit Titans

The Titans, quite simply, were bad last season. They rounded out the year ranked No. 302 in KenPom and lost by 25 to last place Milwaukee in the Horizon League Tournament.

However, the Titans have the potential to be dangerous in coach Bacari Alexander’s second year at the helm. Jaleel Hogan returns for his senior season after a summer of uncertainty and is among the league’s elite post players. They also bring back reigning Horizon League Freshman of the Year Corey Allen, who scored over 15 points per game and shot over 40% from three during conference play.

The key for Detroit is not who they return, but who they are adding. Michigan transfer and former top-100 recruit Kameron Chatman will now be eligible after sitting out last season. The Titans also add Long Beach State transfer Roschon Prince and freshman Jermaine Jackson Jr., a three-star recruit according to Verbal Commits. If Detroit can integrate all the new faces into its game plan, the talent present on the roster could lead to big things.

6. Wright State Raiders

To be honest, it is hard to say exactly what Wright State will bring to the table in 2017-18. The Raiders lose their top two scorers from last season: Mark Alstork and Steven Davis.

The cupboard isn’t totally bare, though. Grant Benzinger and Justin Mitchell return from double-digit scoring campaigns. What remains to be seen is if those two are capable of taking the reins on offense. If not, the options are very limited for Wright State. Too many unknowns make it hard to trust the Raiders. But, Wright State always seems to be a tough out in conference play.

7. Green Bay Phoenix

After a few seasons of hanging around the top of the league standings, Green Bay appears to be headed towards a rebuilding year. Only two of the Phoenix’s top ten scorers from last season are on this year’s roster. In fact, only one player played more than ten minutes per game and returns this year: Khalil Small.

Small will be a senior this year and will have to carry the team if the Phoenix want to make any noise. Outside of Small, quick development of transfers and freshmen are necessary for Green Bay to compete this year. Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen III could become a leader for the Phoenix, but will not be eligible until second semester. Green Bay also brings in an impressive recruiting class, headlined by Manny Patterson, a three-star recruit according to Verbal Commits. The Phoenix may not be down long with the talent they have developing, but don’t expect much from them this season as they build for the future.

8. Milwaukee Panthers

Milwaukee surprised everyone with a run to the Horizon League Tournament championship game after a last place finish during the regular season. Momentum was on Milwaukee’s side heading into the offseason, but the departure of first year head coach Lavall Jordan to Butler eliminated much of it.

However, many key pieces of last year’s team return for the Panthers and they should improve upon their four conference wins from last season. The team’s leading scorer, Brock Stull, returns as does senior big man Brett Prahl. Whether or not Milwaukee plays like they did in the Horizon League Tournament last year will decide how far up the standings they can go.

9. IUPUI Jaguars

The good news for IUPUI is that it’s hard to see them finishing last in their inaugural campaign. But they probably won’t be too far from it.

Looking strictly at KenPom rankings, IUPUI would have come in sixth in last year’s Horizon League. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, last year’s squad will not be suiting up this year. The team’s top three scorers were seniors last year, leaving Ron Patterson as the highest scoring returner at just over nine points a game. As a result, it will likely be a tough year for IUPUI as it introduces itself to the Horizon League. But help should be on the way in 2018-19 as Vanderbilt transfer Camron Justice becomes eligible.

10. Cleveland State Vikings

The Vikings don’t appear to have any positive momentum heading into the season. Cleveland State lost its best player, Rob Edwards, to transfer and head coach Gary Waters also stepped down following the season.

Cleveland State had the worst offense in the league in terms of efficiency according to KenPom last year. Given the departure of Edwards, not much suggests that will be changing this season. Senior Bobby Word will likely pace the offense while the Vikings look for progress from Kasheem Thomas following a solid freshman campaign. Outside of them, points could be hard to come by in Cleveland.