It sounds strange but it's 100 percent accurate; the national runner-up has come from the Horizon League the past two seasons. A conference that was once an afterthought, producing 12, 13 and 14 seeds, is now one that most true college basketball fans have their eyes on. Will this be the year that the Horizon League has a different representative? Lets find out!
1. Valparaiso 21-10 (14-4 Horizon League)
Valpo hoops are back, folks, and what that means for diehard college basketball fans is that we may be seeing another NCAA Tournament magical moment. Valpo has been somewhat of a surprise in the Horizon League, as the Crusaders were the preseason No. 5 pick in the conference.
Some big-time wins against the top-tier teams in the Horizon League have Valpo looking at a potential NCAA Tournament berth, their first since 2004. Surprisingly, it has been the inconsistent play against bottom-tier teams that has hurt the Crusaders. Valpo has losses to Wright State, Green Bay and Milwaukee this year.
2. Cleveland State 22-9 (12-6 Horizon League)
Cleveland State limps into the Horizon League Tournament as the two seed. Having lost five of their last seven, Cleveland State needs a spark to turn things around. They will start with a two-round bye in their conference tournament, which could give them the time they need to get rested and focused.
If Cleveland State can get back to their defensive-minded style of play, they could "ugly" their way through the Horizon League Tournament. For Vikings fans, it's not panic mode yet as they only need to win two games to get to the dance. It is also encouraging that they have won their last two games in convincing style.
3. Detroit 18-13 (11-7 Horizon League)
The Detroit Titans came out of a three-way tie for third on top. Their up-tempo style of play is a blast to watch and a refreshing change of pace in a rather defensive-oriented conference.
Sensational sophomore, and coach's son, Ray McCallum has been a beast this year. If he can gain his focus for a four-game stretch, this team has a good chance. They play extremely well together and have enough athleticism to make some noise not only in the Horizon League Tournament, but also in the NCAA Tournament if they were to make it.
4. Milwaukee 19-12 (11-7 Horizon League)
Milwaukee has earned the fourth spot in the Horizon League Conference Tournament. A team that has been tested throughout the regular season looks to use some early-season growing pains to benefit them in the tournament.
The Panthers played Michigan State, Wisconsin and Marquette earlier this season, all to respectable outcomes. If Milwaukee wins the tournament they will be plenty battle-tested for a matchup with a top-tier team such as those three.
5. Butler 18-13 (11-7 Horizon League)
All I can say is do not count this Butler team out. The Bulldogs have underachieved this regular season, but that doesn't mean they can't figure it out in time. After being tabbed the preseason No. 1 team in the Horizon League, Butler had their share of growing pains throughout the season, including losses to Green Bay and Milwaukee.
My trust is in Brad Stevens, however, as I feel Butler has what it takes to make a strong run in the Horizon League Tournament. Butler will be squaring off with a struggling Wright State squad and then would more than likely play Milwaukee, a team that has given the Butler offense fits this year.
6. Youngstown State 15-14 (10-8 Horizon League)
Youngstown State is the six seed in the Horizon League Tournament and carries an identical record as Green Bay into their first-round clash. While the same question can be asked of both teams, the major question is which Youngstown State team will show up?
Youngstown State had an impressive win over conference champion Valparaiso back in early February. The winner of this game plays the winner of Detroit vs. Loyola.
7. Green Bay 15-14 (10-8 Horizon League)
As the seven seed, Green Bay truly needs to embrace the coined phrase that "everyone is zero and zero" heading into the tournament. The Phoenix are the hottest team in the Horizon League, as they ride a five-game winning streak into their first-round game with Youngstown State.
The major question in this game is which Green Bay team shows up, the one that lost to YSU by 30 in January or the one that beat YSU by six in February?
8. Wright State 13-18 (7-11 Horizon League)
The Wright State Raiders are the eight seed in the Horizon League tournament. The Raiders are looking for a magical formula to fix their free fall. Having won just two times in the last eight games, Wright State plummeted from the top of the conference to the bottom in February.
Wright State will square off with Butler in the first round, a team that has beat them twice this season. As if being the eight seed isn't tough enough odds to overcome, they get the two-time national runner-up first.
9. Illinois-Chicago 8-21 (3-15 Horizon League)
Illinois-Chicago heads into the Horizon League Tournament as the nine seed. The Flames' story could be a bit intriguing for the optimist, as they match up pretty well with four-seed Milwaukee and No. 1 seed Valpo.
UIC lost to Milwaukee by two in overtime earlier this season. They also played Valparaiso tough in their two matchups, losing by five at home and nine on the road. It's a long shot but a fun one nonetheless.
10. Loyola (Ill) 7-22 (1-17 Horizon League)
Loyola comes into the Horizon League Tournament with a league-worst 1-17 record. The Ramblers may win the award for the conference's coolest nickname, but that seems to be all they have going for them in 2012.
I think it will be a quick exit for Loyola as they head into a summer with some much-needed improvement. For the loyal Loyola fans, next year doesn't look much better, as the Ramblers graduate six seniors this year.
Here is how I see the Horizon League Tournament playing out:
No. 3 Detroit over No. 10 Loyola (Ill)
No. 7 Green Bay over No. 6 Youngstown State
No. 4 Milwaukee over No. 9 UIC
No. 5 Butler over No. 8 Wright State
No. 3 Detroit over No. 7 Green Bay
No. 5 Butler over No. 4 Milwaukee
No. 3 Detroit over No. 2 Cleveland State
No. 5 Butler over No. 1 Valparaiso
No. 5 Butler over No. 3 Detroit
Horizon League Champion: Butler Bulldogs (22-13, 13 Seed in NCAA tournament)
The Final Buzzer
While it may seem like a cop out or bandwagon pick, I think Brad Stevens has his Butler Bulldogs poised to make another run. Paired with a psychological edge, Butler seems to hold a certain tournament magic.
Until they get knocked off, I have a tough time thinking they can't do it again, to a lesser degree this time. Detroit has beat Butler twice this season and are another favorite for me in this tournament. It is tough to beat a team three times, but if anyone can it will be Detroit.
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