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Mid-Major Conference Preview: Horizon League

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After a season of surprises the Horizon League looks to have a repeat regular season champion. But after upsetting Green Bay in the Horizon League tournament the Milwaukee Panthers went dancing in the NCAA Tournament. Who will win this year?

Who will hoist the trophy this season?
Who will hoist the trophy this season?
USA TODAY Sports

Last year saw a lot of turn over in the top teams of the Horizon League. This allowed Green Bay to go 14-2 in the conference and be in some conversations for an at large bid into the NCAA tournament. But after losing to Milwaukee in the semifinals, the Phoenix were on the outside and had to settled for an NIT bid. Milwaukee went on to defeat Wright State to earn a surprising bid to go dancing. In a feline battle the Panthers lost to Villanova in the Round of 64 and thus concluded the Horizon League's long shot bid for an NCAA championship.

So who will take home the Horizon League Championship and go dancing this year? Let's take a look at the teams and come to a conclusion ourselves. The following teams will be in order that the teams finished in the Horizon League's preseason poll.

1. Green Bay Phoenix

Last year: 24-7 (14-2), HL Regular Season Champion, Lost in HL Quarterfinals, Lost in NIT First Round

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: Keifer Sykes (20.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.2 spg), Greg Mays (10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.0 bpg), Jordan Fouse (6.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.2 spg, 1.5 bpg)

Green Bay had an outstanding season last year, only to have it turn into heartbreak.  Reigning Player of the Year Keifer Sykes is back for his senior season and right now the 6 foot senior is head and shoulders ahead of everyone in the league.

The Phoenix lost the 7'1" Alec Brown to graduation the Phoenix still have Greg Mays and Jordan Fouse to provide an inside presence. The junior, Fouse, is a two-time Horizon League all defensive team player while the senior, Mays, is back after shooting 58.6% from the field last season.

Joining Sykes in the backcourt was Carrington Love. He averaged 7.9 points last season, but coach Brian Wardle thinks he could improve do double digits and raise his 31.5% 3 point shooting.

Prediction: While losing Brown will certainly hurt, the Phoenix will lean heavily on Sykes and Mays for leadership and should be able to make up for Brown's offense with shooting improvements from Love and Fouse. I think they will win the regular season title for the second straight year going 13-3.  Road losses in the tough to play Cleveland St., Valparaiso and Wright St. will be their only blemishes.

2. Cleveland State Vikings

Last year: 21-12 (12-4), Lost in HL Quarterfinals, Lost in CIT First Round

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: Trey Lewis (13.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.4 apg), Anton Grady (10.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.7 apg), Charlie Lee (9.8 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.4 rpg)

The Vikings lost the only other player who posed the largest threat to Sykes for Player of the Year, Bryn Forbes.  Forbes transferred to play for his hometown team, Michigan State, after averaging 15.6 points per game. They also lost the Horizon League 6th Man of the Year Jon Harris to graduation.

Despite these losses the Vikings return 3 of their top 5 scorers. Senior Trey Lewis transferred from Penn State last season and put up an excellent all around season. Junior Anton Grady returned from a grusome knee injury that took away his entire 2012-2013 season, and was outstanding. Junior Charlie Lee had a late season awakening scoring 13.4 points per game in the last 10 games of the season. He also put in 89.5% of his free throw attempts.

Prediction: Obviously losing Forbes will cause the Vikings a little problems, but the returning starters should provide enough offense. While I don't think they'll have the league's best offensive points per possession, they will be a force to reckon with. I could see them going 12-4 and being the second best team in the regular season.

3. Detroit-Mercy Titans

Last year: 13-19 (6-10), Lost in HL First Round, no postseason

Starters Returning/Lost: 3/2

Key Returners: Juwan Howard, Jr. (18.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 spg), Jarod Williams (7.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.0 apg), Matthew Grant (7.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg), Carlton Brundidge (7.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg)

Juwan Howard really came into his own last year. I believe this is going to be the year that he becomes a household name throughout the country.  What's that? His dad was... Oh yeah ok.

Howard, Jr. comes into his senior year as the go-to-guy for Detroit and in this writers mind the sole threat to Keifer Sykes' repeat POY bid.  Howard took 515 shots last season, nearly 300 more than his sophomore season. The loss of Ray McCallum Jr. predicated the Titans get a new lead score and Howard took it upon himself to do lead them.

Returning with Howard is a front court that is looking more comfortable in their new surroundings. Sophomores guards Jarod Williams and Mathew Grant each averaged just under 8.0 ppg and as their game improves so should their scoring.  Carlton Brundidge, the junior transfer from Michigan, was coming off the bench at the end of last season but should be more familiar in the Titans system this season.

Prediction: The Titans won't have to lean on Howard as much this year with their front court all getting one more year of experience under Coach Ray McCallum Sr. While this won't mean a return trip to the NCAAs it will make for a much more interesting season. I can see a finish in the top half of the conference with a 9-7 record.

4. Valparaiso Crusaders

Last year: 18-16 (9-7), Lost in HL second round, Lost in CIT First Round

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1 (1 starter is out for season)

Key Returners: Alec Peters (12.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Keith Carter (5.7 ppg 1.8 rpg), Jubril Adekoya (5.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg)

Graduation and injury have taken Valparaiso's starting back court from last year. Levonte Dority graduated  last season and before the season even starts the Crusaders lost their starting point guard Lexus Williams for the entire season to a torn ACL. Luckily for the Cursaders they have Keith Carter returning and ready to play a full season.  After gaining second semester eligibility, Carter shot only 42.7% from the field. With a full offseason and starting the season as the starting point guard, Carter should see those numbers get higher.

Also returning is all freshman team 6'9" forward Alec Peters.  Peters poured in 30+ points three times last season and shot 38.3% from three point range. He's a match up nightmare for most teams and is poised to have another big season.

6'7" sophomore forward Jubril Adekoya and 6'10" big man Vashil Fernandez make up the rest of the very shallow front court for Valparaiso. Adekoya looks to improve on his freshman season and his 17.2% three point shooting, and Fernandez looks to continue his shot blocking ways (1.7 bpg last season) while staying out of foul trouble that plagued him last season.

Prediction: Front court depth is no problem with the Crusaders bringing in two freshman guards from Canada, returning Carter and sophomore Nick Davidson.  The problem the Crusaders will have is in the front court. They only have three players over 6'8". They'll struggle offensively some times as they leaned heavily on Dority when the team went into droughts, but overall they should be quite alright. A 11-5 record should be attainable as last year's incoming class improves.

5. Milwaukee Panthers

Last year: 21-14 (7-9), Won HL Tournament, Lost in NCAA Round of 64

Starters Returning/Lost: 3/2

Key Returners: Matt Tiby (12.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1 hair cut), Austin Arians (11.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Steve McWhorter (7.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.0 apg)

Last year's surprise conference champion won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.  And Matt Tiby won't be able to confuse anyone with a sudden change of hair styles. (Yes that second link is the AFTER)

The Panthers are going to be looking for some scoring to replace tournament MVP Jordan Aaron.  The first target to increase his role offensively is senior Steve McWhorter. He's a true leader on the court and dished out 140 assists last year.  If he can have an expanded role in the points column the Panthers could be dangerous.

Austin Arians is an athletic swingman with range. His 177 three point tries put him at 5th in the league behind only departed seniors and a transfer. Coach Rob Jeter sees this as a chance for Arians to increase his offensive opportunities with Aaron departed.

And finally the third returning starter, the aforementioned Tiby. This is exactly the type of player you want on your team, and you don't want playing your team.  Tiby adds the "Joakim Noah" effect with his energy, hustle points, and just overall effort that doesn't show up on the stat sheet. Unfortunately for other teams in the Horizon League his 12 points and 6.5 rebounds a game do show up. He gets to the free throw line over 6 times a game and he knocks them down at a 75% clip. Only Sykes and the departed Kendrick Perry  got to the line more in the league.

Prediction: Milwaukee is a tough team to predict. I don't see them making another run to the NCAAs, but if one of their shooters gets hot again like Aaron did last year, anything is possible. I seem them as a streaky top half team that will win more games on effort than skill. 9-7 with a caveat that if freshman Justin Jordan plays like his Uncle Michael that this is my #2 team in the Horizon.

6. Wright State Raiders

Last year: 21-15 (10-6), Lost in HL Finals, Lost in CIT Second Round

Starters Returning/Lost: 0/5

Key Returners: JT Yoho (7.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg), Reggie Arceneaux (7.1 ppg, 2.2 apg), Chrishawn Hopkins (5.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg)

No returning starters and yet they have four returnees who averaged over 20 minutes a game. Coach Billy Donlon's style of play allowed a balance that saw only one player average over 25 minutes a game

Senior point guard Reggie Arceneaux will be a staple of the Raiders offense. He led the Horizon in three point shooting percentage at 46.5% and is one of the top free throw shooters at 91.9%. He also had a great passers touch with over 70 assists las seaon.

Butler tranfer guard Chrishawn Hopkins looks to get more comfortable in the system.  Coach Donlon liked his shot selection, hitting 44% of his three point attempts, but would like him to take more. Hopkins will have to improve his defense really please Donlon though.

Senior forward JT Yoho is the Raiders leading returning scorer, and he's one of my favorite names to say in the Horizon League. Say it with me YO! HO! It's like I'm at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney, before Johnny Depp got his weird hands all over it. Yoho has good range hitting 36.7% of his threes.

Prediction: Wright State won't have a scorer over 13 points per game. Their offense has always taken a back seat to the defensive system Donlon preaches. They also will have 8 guys who average 25 minutes a game. Will this mean they'll be successful minutes? That all depends on how well they shoot the ball.  Last year they were the leagues 2nd best defense, yet the 7th ranked offense. I see an 8-8 finish for the Raiders as they continue to struggle offensively.

7. Oakland Golden Grizzlies

Last year: 13-20 (7-9), Lost in HL Second Round, no postseason

Starters Returning/Lost: 2/3

Key Returners: Kahlil Felder (9.5 ppg, 6.4 apg), Corey Petros (13.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg)

Gone is Travis Bader, but don't expect a different type of Oakland team.  Greg Kampe has never shied away from high octane offense and with junior transfer, and appropriately named, Max Hooper from St. John's Kampe has his three point specialist. Kampe also wants returning point guard Kahlil Felder to take on a more aggressive role on the offensive side. His 6.4 assists were nice but Kampe wants scoring from the perimeter.

The one player who won't score from the beyond the 3 point arc is Corey Petros, who is downlow to scoop up all the errant threes and put them back. Petros averaged 3.1 ORebounds a game and didn't take a single three the entire season.  Expect that to continue as Kampe likes to have 4 players on the perimeter and Petros patrolling the paint for easy layups.

Oakland's schedule also doesn't play Oakland any favors the easy layups though. With games on the road Michigan State, Arizona, Pittsburgh, Clemson, and Maryland, the Grizzlies will be very happy to have Valpo in the O'Rena to start conference season.

Outlook: Losing your leading scorer isn't going to help the Griz improve in their second year in the conference, but the expierence should leave them a little better prepared. Another 7-9 finish awaits the non-Bay Area residents (Seriously you name your university after the county when there's a much larger city with the same name founded over 100 years prior? Doesn't the Auburn Hills Golden Grizzlies sound better? Sorry that's bothered me for ever.) They could surprise if Felder and Hooper can recreate a little of Bader's magic touch.

I also think they'll have a rough go of it in the non-conference season, but that doesn't matter to Coach Kampe. I'd like to say a special hello to Coach! According to the preseason Media Day, he reads everything that's written about the team.

8. Youngstown State Penguins

Last year: 15-17 (6-10), Lost in HL First Round, no postseason

Starters Returning/Lost: 2/3

Key Returners: DJ Cole (8.3 ppg, 4.6 apg, 3.1 rpg), Bobby Hain (11.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg)

How much did I love watching Kendrick Perry? He was absolute treat to watch night in and night out, and not just on the offensive end.  He was a true shut down defender and had an excellent 2.4 steals per game to go along with his 21.3 points per game. But he graduated and with him left 2 other starters, senior Kamren Belin to graduation and Sophomore Ryan Weber to Ball State. The three combined to account for 73% of  Youngstown State's three point shooting.

Coach Jerry Slocum hopes to replace some of the office with returning point guard DJ Cole. The 5'11 senior shot 37% from downtown and added in 4.6 assists to help set up the scoring. He's a leader on the court and the Penguins will have to rely on some of that leadership.

Also returning the starting line up is 6'11" junior Bobby Hain. He's one of the best big men in a conference that's certainly not lacking in posts. His jump from 6.2 points per game as a freshman to 11.1 last season points to the fact that Hain has only more room to grow.

Outlook: Thinks wouldn't have been as bleak if Weber had stuck around as he would have provided a scoring presence from the wing, but without him there isn't much in terms of outside scoring. There are some transfers who could make an impact on the season, but the proven commodities are not there. A .500 season in the conference would certain surprise people, but I see this team struggling with the talent the rest of the league possesses. Games against UIC will certainly help the record, but a 3-13 finish is what I see.

9. Illinois-Chicago Flames

Last year: 6-25 (1-15), Lost in HL First Round, no postseason

Starters Returning/Lost: 2/3

Key Returners: Marc Brown (11.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg), Jake Wiegand (7.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg)

Bad. I'm sorry I don't know what else to say about this team.  Yes they lost some closer games last year (1-8 in games decided by five or less points), but in the ones they were leading in they completely collapsed. They lose their leading scoring, they lost a very promising freshman to transfer and they only return 2 starters.  While sometimes that means more talent will come in and take the place of players who were under-preforming, but in this case, I don't see the talent influx.

Marc Brown is their returning scorer and I'll be honest I don't remember much about him. The stat sheet says he shot 34.7% from three point range. Jake Wiegland is a big body who could post up and pull down a decent amount of rebounds. After that their roster is almost all  brand new.

Prediction: I'm not sure how Howard Moore survived last season. I don't believe he survives year, which is a shame because he's a good in game coach, his recruitment has lacked a little of late. If you're following along you know I don't have any wins left to hand out, so I'm predicting an 0-16.