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Horizon League Tournament Primer: Can anyone stop Oakland?

The Golden Grizzlies ride a wave of momentum into Motor City Madness.

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

Oakland enters the Horizon League tournament as the top overall seed and the favorite to win it all. But the Golden Grizzlies had to endure some low points to end up on the top.

It was expected to be a two team race in the Horizon League. Oakland and Valparaiso would fight for conference supremacy. We didn’t have to wait long for the two to meet on the court in conference play. Oakland dominated Valparaiso on the Crusaders’ home court, leading many to anoint the Golden Grizzlies the top team in the conference.

But, Oakland was not able to build off their big win, losing four of their next six. In a flash, Valparaiso was the favorite once more and Oakland was all but left for dead. The Golden Grizzlies had four league losses including three on their home floor while Valparaiso ripped off eight consecutive wins.

Momentum swung back Oakland’s way with the help of a little luck. On January 29th, the Golden Grizzlies were seconds away from a third straight loss. At home against bottom of the conference Milwaukee, it took three missed free throws by the Panthers with just five seconds to play to send the game into overtime and allow Oakland to win.

That win was the beginning of a nine-game winning streak to close the regular season for Oakland. The streak included another dominating victory over Valparaiso and allowed the Golden Grizzlies to finish the regular season in a first place tie with the Crusaders. By virtue of their sweep of Valparaiso, Oakland was awarded the top seed in the conference tournament.

Tournament Format

For those of you who have paid attention to the Horizon League tournament in the past, this year’s format will look different. The tournament remains in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena, but the bracket has been changed.

The double-byes for the top two seeds are gone. Last season both top seeds were eliminated in the semifinals and the new format is likely a response to that. The general consensus was that the top teams were disadvantaged by playing for the first time on an unfamiliar court against teams that had already won twice on that court to get to them.

In this year’s format, the bottom four teams will square off on Friday evening. The winners advance to play the top two seeds on Saturday evening. The winners of Saturday’s games are awarded a day off on Sunday while the third through sixth seeds take the court. The semifinals will be played on Monday with the championship following on Tuesday.

How to Watch

(All times Eastern)

First Round:

Friday, March 3rd

10 Milwaukee vs. 7 Detroit, 5:30 p.m., ESPN3

9 Youngstown State vs. 8 Cleveland State 8:00 p.m., ESPN3

Quarterfinals:

Saturday, March 4th

8/9 Winner vs. 1 Oakland, 5:30 p.m., ESPN3

7/10 Winner vs. 2 Valparaiso, 8:00 p.m., ESPN3

Sunday, March 5th

6 UIC vs. 3 Green Bay, 5:00 p.m., ESPN3

5 Wright State vs. 4 Northern Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3

Semifinals:

Monday, March 6th

4/5 Winner vs. 8/9 v. 1 Winner, 7:00 p.m., ESPNU

3/6 Winner vs. 7/10 v. 2 Winner, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU

Championship:

Tuesday, March 7th

Championship game, 7:00 p.m., ESPN

Tournament Bracket

Men’s bracket on the left, women’s on the right (no the winners of the two do not face one another).

3 Things to Watch

Can Oakland keep momentum?

The Golden Grizzlies come into the tournament having won nine straight to end the regular season. They also took the 1-seed away from Valparaiso on the final day of regular season play. Momentum is on Oakland’s side. But their early season losses at home still serve as a reminder that nothing comes easy in the Horizon League.

How does Valparaiso respond without Alec Peters?

The Crusaders had to play their final two regular season games without conference player of the year Alec Peters. Earlier this week, it was revealed Peters would not be returning this season. Valparaiso played competitively in their two games without Peters, but split the games. Shane Hammink and Tevonn Walker will have to step up if the Crusaders want to avoid another early exit in Detroit.

Will another challenger arise?

Last year Green Bay defied expectations and won the conference tournament as the four seed. This year, Green Bay, Northern Kentucky, and Wright State could all be poised to make a run. Will one of them rise to the challenge and take out Oakland or Valparaiso?

Prediction

Oakland’s momentum carries into the conference tournament and they win it all. Valparaiso struggled against the Golden Grizzlies twice with Peters. Now, if the two meet again the Crusaders will be without their best player. Meanwhile, Oakland seems to have moved beyond its early season struggles and should handle the lower seeded competition.