The Horizon League announced its annual awards Monday, but the biggest winner in this announcement is the conference itself.
Only one senior was named to the All-League first team, Green Bay's Keifer Sykes, who also took home the player of the year honor for the second year in a row. He finishes his career with the Phoenix having been named player of the week in the conference 13 times in his four seasons, more than any other player in league history.
That is a record you shouldn't expect to fall any time soon. The list of talent behind Sykes is just too long for any one player to dominate as the likely NBA draft selection did during his time in college.
Consider his teammates on the first team, Oakland's Kahlil Felder and Valparaiso's Alec Peters. Both are sophomores that made huge strides in their games to end up at the head of the class. Felder, who was forced into action last season for the Golden Grizzlies, used his experience to mature and get better at distributing the ball, and reducing his tendency to try too hard. He became a better defender this season, even as he had to shoulder a ridiculous load at the point for Oakland (95.4 percent of the minutes for his team).
Peters didn't have the same distractions that clearly affected his game last season. His growth over the summer allowed him to adjust better to changing defenses designed to stop him. He became more aggressive at both ends of the floor. He was more efficient in his shooting and became a monster on the boards while cutting down his turnover rate.
The two should be the banner carriers for the conference in the coming years, overshadowing many of the rising seniors for next year.
And they will be pushed too. The All-Freshman team is packed with talent unlike we have seen in a while in the Horizon League. The trio of Paris Bass (Detroit), Jalen Hayes (Oakland) and Tevonn Walker (Valparaiso), should be contenders to all jump to the first team next season provided they improve as much as Felder and Peters.
All of this could signal a return to a league that does enter the conversation for two teams in the NCAA Tournament each year. Oakland is packed with young talent that almost managed to win the league this season. Valparaiso could do worse than having Walker and Peters lead them, not to mention Jubril Adekoya, who earned 6th man honors. Cleveland State still has another year with leaders Anton Grady and Trey Lewis. And let's not forget that Milwaukee returns to challenge next season without losing many minutes, and after turning and 0-3 start in the league into a 9-7 record.
If the Horizon League coaches can go out and schedule some teams this offseason, they will send some shivers into the major conference teams. This batch of players have it in them to make this a two-bid conference, and one that will turn out more All-American candidates like Keifer Sykes, just like it has for the last several seasons.
It is going to be hard to choose just one.
Here is the complete list of Horizon League award winners for this season:
Player of the Year: Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
Defensive Player of the Year: Vashil Fernandez, Valparaiso
Freshman of the Year: Paris Bass, Detroit
Sixth Player of the Year: Jubril Adekoya, Valparaiso
Coach of the Year: Bryce Drew, Valparaiso
Keifer Sykes, Green Bay, Sr., G
Kahlil Felder, Oakland, So., G
Alex Peters, Valparaiso, So., F
Anton Grady, Cleveland State, Jr., F
Trey Lewis, Cleveland State, Jr., G
Juwan Howard, Detroit, Sr., F
Corey Petros, Oakland, Sr., C
Greg Mays, Green Bay, Sr., F
Matt Tiby, Milwaukee, Jr., F
Steve McWhorter, Milwaukee, Sr., G
Paris Bass, Detroit, G/F
Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso, G
Jalen Hayes, Oakland, F
Grant Benzinger, Wright State, G
Nick Daniels, Oakland, G
Vashil Fernandez, Valparaiso, Sr., C
Jordan Fouse, Green Bay, Jr., F
Dante Williams, Oakland, Sr., F
Anton Grady, Cleveland State, Jr., F
Charlie Lee, Cleveland State, Sr., G