The first year of the post-Valparaiso Horizon League was full of question marks.
Who would step in and assert themselves into the upper echelon? Could Northern Kentucky maintain its upward trajectory? Would Oakland live up to preseason expectations? What should we expect from newcomer IUPUI?
It all culminated in Wright State earning its first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2007 after defeating the No. 8 seed Cleveland State in the Horizon League Tournament. With a lot of the prominent names gone, we might be in for another unpredictable season in the Horizon League.
1. Wright State Raiders (25-10, 14-4 Horizon)
The Raiders made their first NCAA Tournament in a decade last year, and come into this season with a good chance of making it two in a row. With multiple key rotation players returning, Wright State is poised to win at least 20 games for the third consecutive year under Scott Nagy.
It all starts with Loudon Love, who will be one of the favorites to win Horizon League Player of the Year. The bruising sophomore is among the best big men around, and he’ll be a double-double threat every night. He’ll get help from Mark Hughes, Cole Gentry and Parker Ernsthausen, who all saw time as starters last year. Add in Drake transfer Bill Wampler and the Raiders have another strong core to contend with.
2. Northern Kentucky Norse (22-10, 15-3 Horizon)
The Norse are here to stay. The school has invested in its basketball program and it’s paying off as John Brannen and Co. will once again be among the contenders. Drew McDonald returns as the league’s leading scorer at 17.0 PPG as he shifts into the senior leader role for the Norse. Jalen Tate is back as one of the league’s best defenders, and Zaynah Robinson will fill in the void that Lavone Holland III’s graduation leaves at point guard.
One incoming player to keep an eye on is freshman wing Trevon Faulkner. He was named Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball, and he leads a freshmen class that should have an opportunity to contribute right from the jump.
3. UIC Flames (20-16, 12-6 Horizon)
The Flames had a bit of a weird season last year, but ultimately scrapped out 20 wins and a third-place finish in the league. A big part of that was the backcourt duo of Marcus Ottey and Tarkus Ferguson. Both players return as double-digit scorers, and with Godwin Boahen in the mix, they’ll form one of the league’s best perimeter trios.
There is some concern about a lack of a major interior presence without Tai Odiase patrolling the paint, but Jordan Blount is capable on the glass. The Flames were No. 20 in the country in tempo last year, and with a backcourt-heavy roster, it’s likely that they’ll be pushing the pace once again.
4. Green Bay Phoenix (13-20, 7-11 Horizon)
Speaking of teams that play up-tempo, the Phoenix will once again be one of the fastest teams in the country. Khalil Small graduated, but Sandy Cohen III is the perfect guy to pick up the extra workload. After averaging 16.1 PPG last year, one could reasonably expect an uptick and a run at the league scoring title.
Alongside him will be Kameron Hankerson, who returns as another double figures scorer that should see some extra touches. Look for Cody Schwartz to be a solid third option after sitting out a year as a transfer from San Jose State. Points will be aplenty for the Phoenix.
5. IUPUI Jaguars (11-19, 8-10 Horizon)
The Jaguars exceeded expectations last year after they were projected to finish last in the conference. With a year to get acclimated to the league, Jason Gardner’s team should be able to at least fit into the middle of the pack. The top three scorers from last year are gone, but there’s still plenty of talent on the roster.
Seniors D.J. McCall and Evan Hall are both experienced starters who have been with the program for their entire careers. Nick Rogers improved at the point as the year went on, and freshman Jaylen Minnett showed that he has the potential to be a microwave scorer. Vanderbilt transfer Camron Justice will be one of the best shooters in the league, and Ahmed Ismail and Grant Weatherford will continue the trend of transfers that Gardner has become fond of.
6. Oakland Grizzlies (19-14, 10-8 Horizon)
There might not be a team that lost as much talent as Oakland. The dynamic trio of Kendrick Nunn, Jalen Hayes and Martez Walker are all gone, as is Nick Daniels. The early part of the season could be rough for Greg Kampe.
He’ll look to Brailen Neely to move into more of scorer’s role after averaging over five assists per game last year. George Mason transfer Karmari Newman will provide some scoring punch on the wing, and Eastern Michigan transfer Jordan Nobles will be a major contributor inside. It’s not a rebuilding year, but Kampe has his work cut out for him.
7. Cleveland State Vikings (12-23, 6-12 Horizon)
The Vikings were almost one of the biggest surprises of the year when they made a run to the Horizon League championship game as the No. 8 seed. Tyree Appleby burst onto the scene as one of the best freshman in the league, and will be one of the better scorers as a sophomore.
Stefan Kenic also returns as a starter for Dennis Felton, but there isn’t too much else in terms of returning production. Felton will look to Algevon Eichelberger to provide some minutes in the front court, and Kasheem Thomas will be Appleby’s running mate in the backcourt.
8. Youngstown State Penguins (8-24, 6-12 Horizon)
The Penguins were one of the worst defensive teams in the country last year, particularly at defending the three-point line. They allowed opponents to shoot 40.8 percent from distance, which ranked 350th out of 351 teams. Needless to say, improvement is necessary on that end if Jerrod Calhoun’s group wants to reach double-digit wins.
The roster is extremely young, but there’s a bevy of sophomores that the team will rely on to carry the offense. Garrett Covington and Naz Bohannon will be called upon to step into bigger roles following the departure of Cameron Morse. Unfortunately, it could end up being a season of growing pains for the Penguins.
9. Milwaukee Panthers (16-17, 8-10 Horizon)
The transfer bug hit Milwaukee especially hard this offseason. Key contributors such as Jeremiah Bell, Brock Stull and Bryce Nze all transferred, leaving Pat Baldwin with a pretty bare cupboard in his second season.
In order to rebuild on the fly, Baldwin opted to fill the roster from the JUCO ranks. Of the returning players, Bryce Barnes is the most likely one to fill a larger role after starting 26 games for the Panthers last year. All in all, the Panthers are a bit of an unknown entity, and they might not have the talent to improve on last year’s record.
10. Detroit Mercy Titans (8-24, 4-14 Horizon)
Is it weird to say that Detroit is in the worst spot in the league while also making a great hire during the offseason? After a tumultuous coaching search following Bacari Alexander’s dismissal, the Titans ultimately ended up scoring a great hire in Mike Davis.
It’ll be a total rebuilding job, but Davis is up to the task. One interesting player to note is freshman Antoine Davis, who is Mike Davis’s son and originally committed to Houston. Josh McFolley and Cole Long will be the go-to guys, but there just isn’t much talent on the roster. Detroit may wind up struggling as much as any team in the country.