Horizon League Basketball Preview: Butler Bulldogs Will Be Challenged By 3 Teams

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Horizon League Basketball Preview: Butler Bulldogs Will Be Challenged By 3 Teams
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Can Butler match last season's success?

Tuesday night, in an HLN exclusive online special, the preseason media/coaches' poll was released.  To the surprise of just about nobody, the Butler Bulldogs were the unanimous pick to win the conference title after falling just short of the National Championship last season to Mike Krzyzewski's Duke Blue Devils. 

After Butler, three schools (Cleveland State, Valparaiso and Detroit) were tightly packed in second through fourth place with Milwaukee in a distant fifth.  Shelvin Mack of Butler was selected as preseason player of the year.  The full report can be found here.

The following article is based entirely off my own opinion, with the ballot I would have cast if I had one.  I'll begin with player of the year and end with preseason power rankings.  My preseason rankings will hopefully be the basis for a weekly Horizon League power rankings article once conference play begins. 

Player of the Year

Norris Cole: G, Cleveland State—Cole is the star player on the Cleveland State squad.  He averaged 16.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists last season as a junior.  The last remaining key player from CSU's run in the 2009 NCAA tournament, the Vikings will need to rely heavily on Cole this season.  He will need to average 18 points and five-plus assists if CSU is to knock Butler off its perch as they did two years ago.

All Conference First Team

Norris Cole (Sr): G, Cleveland State

Shelvin Mack (Jr): G, Butler—The media pick for player of the year and the most NBA-ready player in the conference.  Butler will rely heavily on him to replace a good deal of Gordon Hayward's production from last season.  Averaging 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season combined with an outstanding performance in the NCAA Tournament gives you reason to believe he should be up to the challenge.

Brandon Wood (Jr): G, Valparaiso—Last season's scoring champion (17.7 average) is the clear favorite to repeat.  He is a threat to put up 30+ in any game and is also a better than average rebounder.  There is a good chance he'll be the first player in several years to average 20+ points this season.

Cory Johnson (Sr): F, Valparaiso—Valparaiso's clear-cut MVP last season.  In my opinion, the most balanced big man in the conference.  He is far more physical than Matt Howard and better away from the basket than Eli Holman.  His 15.6 point scoring average was fourth in the conference and best for a post player.  Defensively, Johnson showed no fear banging with the likes of Holman and Howard on the boards, averaging 5.8 RPG.  He is a surprisingly efficient jump shooter (21-of-41 from three-point range).

Eli Holman (Jr): F/C, Detroit—The most dominant player in the league from inside six feet.  Led the league in rebounds (8.9) and blocked shots (2.5) by a wide margin.  He is at a great disadvantage if he can be forced out of the post on both sides of the ball.  Detroit needs him to improve on this weakness if they are to succeed in its challenge to Butler's crown.

All Conference Second Team

Matt Howard (Sr): F, Butler—I'm sure that this is the pick that I'll catch the most flack for making.  Howard is the league's most recognizable player, arguably the preseason MVP for the league's best team.  However, numbers don't lie.  His offensive production (11.6 points) is four PPG behind Johnson and his rebounds (5.8 per game) are two behind Holman's average.  Don't get me wrong, Howard is a solid player and key contributor to Butler, but he just isn't one of the five best in the league.

Rahmon Fletcher (Sr): G, Green Bay—At 15.8 PPG, Fletcher was one of the league's best offensive threats.  With little help (especially up front), the Phoenix will need him to come through big as they battle with Wright State and Milwaukee to avoid finishing in the league's second division.

Vaughn Duggins (Sr, Redshirt): G, Wright State—The Raiders will need the same kind of production out of their fifth-year senior as Green Bay needs out of Fletcher.

Robo Kreps (Sr): Guard, UIC—The only bright spot on an otherwise poor UIC team.  The Flames will need him to improve on his 15.2 PPG from last year as they fight with Youngstown State and Loyola to stay out of the cellar.

Ronald Nored (Jr): G, Butler—The league's best defender by a long shot.  The only player in the entire conference who I think has the skill to shut down the HL's leading scorers Brandon Wood and Rahmon Fletcher.

Preseason Power Rankings

1.  Butler—Unanimous pick for league champion, and rightfully so.  However, there is no chance that they'll run the table again.  They are going to come back to the pack this season, and three schools (CSU, Valpo and UDM) have the talent to challenge them.  They have earned the benefit of the doubt.  Additionally, Butler is the only team in the conference that I believe has the ability to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament should they fail to win the HL Tourney.

2.  Cleveland State—They have the Horizon League's best player (Norris Cole) and my pick for Coach of the Year (Gary Waters).  Waters was largely responsible for building the Kent State team that made it to the Elite Eight in 2002 and has been the class of the Mid-American Conference since. He also won the first NCAA tournament game in over 20 years at CSU.  The Vikings were the last Horizon League team to defeat Butler.  If Cleveland State can put any kind of production around him, they have the best chance to knock off Butler.

3.  Valparaiso—This team is going to put up a lot of points this year.  I also think they have the deepest roster in the league.  They have at least 10 players who would be in the rotation (and probably starting lineup) of every team in the conference (except maybe Butler).  If Homer Drew can get this team to play any defense whatsoever, they are going to be really good.

4.  Detroit—The trio of Holman, Chase Simon and Ray McCallum Jr has the potential to be the best in the conference.  On paper, the Titans' starting lineup looks like the best in the conference as well.  However, they are really weak on the bench.  This is what puts them fourth among the league's power teams going into the season.  If they can get any production from their bench, they should climb in the standings and challenge Butler.

5.  Milwaukee—Since their runs in the NCAA Tournamant earlier this decade, the Panthers have always been a team that is better than the sum of its parts.  I don't have any of their players on my all conference team (neither does the media poll), but that doesn't mean they won't play solid basketball.  Should one of the top four teams fall, Milwaukee is the best bet to take their place.

6.  Green Bay—They have the best player of the three second-tier teams.  The presence of Rahmon Fletcher should give them a chance at passing rival Milwaukee by the end of the season.  Their lack of depth up front will cost the Phoenix in the long run and leave them behind Milwaukee in the standings.

7.  Wright State—Vaughn Duggins is the type of player that will keep WSU in the majority of their games.  They have enough depth to remain competitive should he miss time.  However, neither Duggins nor the Raiders' team depth is enough to make them a serious contender in the conference.

8.  UIC—Though they have one of the HL's dominant scorers (Robo Kreps), they have no depth to support him.  Should a couple of players step up, they could climb as high as fifth.  If Kreps goes down, the Flames will be fighting Youngstown State to stay out of the cellar.

9.  Loyola—The good news is that the Ramblers return all five starters from last season as well as HL sixth man of the year Walt Gibler.  The bad news is that these six players managed a 5-13 conference record last season.

10.  Youngstown State—2-16 last season.  There is no good reason to think the Penguins will improve this year.

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