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Horizon League Tournament preview: Is Motor City Madness due for more chaos?

Can the favorites survive? Or will a dark horse contender emerge.

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NCAA Basketball: Horizon League Conference Tournament-Milwaukee vs Northern Kentucky Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few years, Motor City Madness has in fact lived up to its name. The top seed has won the tournament just once since 2015. A lower seed doesn’t mean anything as a No. 8 seed and No. 10 seed has made the championship game in the last two years. There are favorites, yes, but it is one of the few conferences in the country where you could say that its anybody’s tournament to win. Look at these simulation numbers from Bart Torvik’s T-Rank site:

Based on those projections, every team except for Detroit has at least a 20 percent chance of winning their first round game. Six of the teams have at least a 10 percent chance of making the championship game. Some of the chances are slimmer than others, but there isn’t an overwhelming favorite. That’s what parity looks like, and it should make for an exciting tournament.

Bracket

Horizon League

Schedule

Quarterfinals (Tue., March 5)

ESPN+ will stream both games.

Game 1: No. 8 IUPUI at No. 1 Wright State, 8 p.m.

Game 2: No. 5 UIC at No. 4 Green Bay, 8 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Wed., March 6)

ESPN+ will stream both games.

Game 3: No. 6 Youngstown State at No. 3 Oakland, 7 p.m.

Game 4: No. 7 Detroit at No. 2 Northern Kentucky, 7 p.m.

Semifinals (Mon., March 11)

ESPNU will air both games.

Game 5: Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner, 7 p.m.

Game 6: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner, approx. 9:30 p.m.

Championship (Tue., March 12)

Game 7: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/2)

How each team can win

As mentioned above, it’s hard to pinpoint one true favorite. Wright State and Northern Kentucky probably fall into the top tier, with Oakland, Green Bay and UIC falling into the “dark horse” category. But even seeds 6-8 have attributes that could lead them to a run. It’s completely fathomable for each of these teams to rip off three straight wins. So let’s make the case for each of the teams.

Wright State: The reigning Horizon League champs bring back a lot of their core that made the NCAA Tournament last year. Loudon Love continues to be more than a handful down low, and the Raiders boast the league’s best defense in conference play. Bill Wampler has provided a nice foil to Love on the wing, and Cole Gentry is the type of steady point guard that wins you games in March. Scott Nagy continues to be one of the more underrated coaches in the country, and his team is hitting its stride at the right time, having won seven of eight down the stretch.

Northern Kentucky: The Norse might have the most talent in the league, and looked like the favorite for most of the season. The Norse have been the league’s most proficient offense, and can hurt you both inside and out. Drew McDonald has been battling some nagging injuries of late, but when he’s healthy he’s one of the best players to come through the league in recent memory. The Norse are deep, they’re athletic and they have a winning pedigree. When they’re humming, they have a higher ceiling than any other team in the conference. A return to peak form would make the Norse a tough out for anyone.

Oakland: This year was expected to be a rebuild of sorts for Greg Kampe’s crew, but Kampe has put together a great season of coaching to get the Grizz to the No. 3 spot. A lot of that is due to the emergence of Xavier Hill-Mais, a burly banger down low that is also capable of hurting you from the outside. The Grizzlies rank No. 2 in the country in assist percentage, and shot it at nearly a 38 percent clip from three-point range. When Jaevin Cumberland and Karmari Newman are knocking down outside shots, Oakland can be tough to beat. As winners of their last four, Oakland is hitting its stride at the right time and will benefit from hosting a quarterfinals game where they’ll have a great crowd behind them.

Green Bay: In terms of pro potential and pure talent, there might not be a better player in the Horizon League than Sandy Cohen. The do-it-all transfer from Marquette is the leader of Linc Darner’s track meet style of play, and he’s scored 20 in four of his last five games. Because of their up-tempo attack, the Phoenix can be hard to prepare for if you aren’t ready to run. They’ve gotten to the free throw line better than any team in the conference and can force turnovers at a high rate if their opponents get too sped up. Their path to the championship relies on winning the tempo battle.

UIC: Guard play is one of the biggest keys to winning in March, and UIC has some of the league’s best. The trio of Marcus Ottey, Tarkus Ferguson and Godwin Boahen are going to put up 3’s with regularity, and are capable of getting hot in a hurry. The Flames’ calling card in conference play, however, has been on the defensive end where they’re just one of two teams in the league to hold opponents under 1.00 points per possession in league play. They’ve shown they can compete with the league’s best with wins over both Wright State and Northern Kentucky. It might just come down to if they can find a rhythm on offense to match how they’ve been performing on the defensive end.

Youngstown State: At one point in the regular season, it seemed likely that the Penguins were going to miss out on the conference tournament. A six game winning streak changed that, and now they’re set for a trip to Oakland where they’ve already won once this year. The Penguins are going to get up a lot of shots from deep. When they’re falling, they can take down anyone as they showed in wins over Oakland, Green Bay and UIC. Their path to the championship probably looks a lot like those games.

Detroit: It’s not completely out of the question for Antoine Davis to go nuclear and at least make things interesting for the Titans. The conference’s leading scorer comes in at No. 3 in the nation at 26 points per game and set the record for 3’s made by a freshman just last week. He’s helped the Titans exceed expectations in Mike Davis’s first year, and he can be a headache to gameplan for. It’s unlikely that Detroit makes a run without him lighting it up, but it would be foolish to count them out with a guy like him capable of doing such a thing.

IUPUI: Despite being the No. 8 seed in the tournament, IUPUI is actually the No. 4 team in terms of KenPom rank in the Horizon League. Simply put, the Jaguars are a little bit better than their record shows. They have a couple of big shot makers in Camron Justice and Jaylen Minnett, and they really punish teams on the offensive glass. Their offensive rebounding rate of 35.5 percent ranks 15th in the country, and that number increases to 39 percent in league play. They got a tough draw by way of a tiebreaker, but the numbers show that the Jags should not be taken lightly. If they cut down on the turnovers and can defend the arc, IUPUI is capable of hanging with anyone.

Prediction

Through the first 1,250 words of this post, it’s been harped on that any outcome for this tournament is relatively conceivable. Recent tournaments would suggest not to expect the bracket to go chalk. With Drew McDonald’s health still in question, Wright State probably has the slightly better claim to being the favorite. The Raiders would be the “safest” pick, in a sense, but no team is really safe. Expect a lot of close games, a few upsets, and a lot of fun along the way.