We have been playing basketball for a little over a month, and the Horizon League opened conference play this weekend. I feel that there is a big enough body of work available to begin publishing conference power rankings.
Cleveland State is the first team to reach 10-0 this season. The Gordon Hayward-less Butler Bulldogs have stumbled out of the blocks, currently at 4-3.
Loyola and Youngstown State have gotten off to faster than expected starts against weaker competition, but league play usually provides the best measuring stick.
Previous Ranking: 7
The Raiders started the season with a loss in Bloomington but rebounded with a modest three-game winning streak. Since then, WSU has lost four straight, including its conference opener in Detroit.
The Wright State defense hasn't been the problem, giving up only 61.8 points (third in the conference). The offense, on the other hand, is currently last in conference (63 points).
Vaughn Duggins has lived up to all expectations this season for the Raiders (averaging 16 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists). Unfortunately, his teammates have let him down. Two other players (N'Gai Evans and Troy Tabler) are scoring in double figures.
The team is having some troubles on the boards (no player is currently averaging over five rebounds). Also, the assist-turnover ratio is below one.
If WSU is to turn its season around, it will need to cut down on its turnovers and improve its play in the post.
Previous Ranking: 10
The Penguins jumped out to a better start this season than most (myself included) expected. YSU is currently 4-0 at home, with wins over MAC members Toledo and Buffalo. The Penguins were nearly able to squeak out a victory at Akron before falling to overtime.
It appears that YSU's 4-1 start was more a product of the schedule than an improved team. Youngstown State traveled to Wisconsin this weekend and was soundly defeated by Milwaukee on Thursday and Green Bay on Saturday.
Saturday's 15-point loss at the hands of the Phoenix must have been the most difficult to swallow, as the Penguins blew an eight-point lead midway through the second half on their way to a 15-point defeat.
Senior guard Vytas Sulskis has led the way for Youngstown, averaging 17, 7.4 and 2.7. Sulskis and freshman Kendrick Perry (11.2, 2.8, 4.8) provide a potentially lethal backcourt combination. Sophomore forward Damien Eagle (6.6 RPG) has become a solid post presence in a league without many.
YSU has the talent to finally climb out of the HL cellar this season. To do so, the Penguins must cut down on their 12.7 turnovers per game and make up the 4.5 RPG deficit they currently have.
Previous Ranking: 5
In spite of a relatively easy season-opening schedule, the Panthers have struggled to stay .500. The hard-fought loss to Marquette and 23-point blowout at the hands of Cleveland State (both at home) are disappointing for completely different reasons.
Things won't get any easier for UWM, as they head to Madison to face big brother Wisconsin Wednesday night.
The brightest spot so far this season has been senior forward Anthony Hill (13.7, 7.6, 2.3). Included in that line is Hill's 30-point, 12-rebound performance in last Thursday's win over Youngstown State. If Hill can produce games like that, Milwaukee can defeat anyone in the conference.
Senior guard Tone Boyle has seen his point production drop this season (without a significant increase in assists).
Hill and Boyle provide the potential for a strong inside-outside combo. If Milwaukee is to get back in the race for the conference crown, it will need career years from both.
Ranking last in the conference defensively (72 PPG allowed) will not make things any easier on UWM. The Panthers will also have to improve on their sub-one assist-turnover ratio.
Previous Ranking: 6
Much like their rivals to the south, the UWGB Phoenix have gotten off to a slow start against less than impressive competition. With the exception of their matchup with Marquette, the Phoenix have managed to keep their games close.
Saturday's victory over Youngstown State was by far the most impressive of the season so far. Green Bay won by 15 in spite of an eight-point deficit midway through the second half.
Rahmon Fletcher has been the offensive star of the team (and league), scoring 17.5 of his team's 66.7 points per game. Senior Bryquis Perine has chipped in 14.1 points and 2.7 assists. Other than Perine, no other Phoenix has stepped up. UWGB will need another player to produce if it wants to compete this season.
Green Bay has not found any kind of production inside but holds a slight rebounding edge over its opponents thanks to solid guard play on the boards. The Phoenix are another Horizon League team that could benefit from taking better care of the ball.
Previous Ranking: 8
The Flames are part of a three-team cluster (with Milwaukee and Green Bay) that are all sitting at or near .500 and will likely remain there all season.
UIC has played to the level of its competition all season. Against solid teams like Valpo and Rhode Island, the Flames have played well (nearly upsetting Valpo in their HL opener Thursday night).
Conversely, the team was subject to a close call against a poor Toledo team and was outplayed by an equally poor Central Michigan on its way to a 10-point defeat.
The Flames are led by senior guard Robo Kreps (17.6, 4.4, 3.9). Equally dangerous is senior forward Paul Carter (15.1, 8.1, 2.3). Trouble is, Kreps and Carter make up half of UIC's offense (ranked ninth in the conference). A third option will need to emerge for UIC to contend with the HL's major players this year.
With Kreps and Carter, Illinois-Chicago is a threat to win every game it plays. This is something the Flames haven't been used to in recent years. The Valpo game showed a major weakness in UIC's game—it has difficulty closing out teams. The Flames let a 14-point lead slip away in the final 10 minutes of the game before falling in overtime.
Previous Rank: 4
A difficult early-season schedule has caused the Titans to get off to a slow start. Early season games at New Mexico, Syracuse and Mississippi State should leave Detroit battle-tested and well-prepared when Horizon League play gets into full swing at the end of the month.
UDM has four players (Eli Holman, Chase Simon, Jason Calliste and Ray McCallum) scoring in double figures with a fifth (Nick Minnerath) just under 10.
Holman, a junior, has led the team on both sides of the floor, averaging well over a double-double (15 points and 11.6 rebounds). McDonald's All-American and coach's son Ray McCallum has not disappointed (12.3, 5.2, 4).
Depth, defense and turnovers are the three big weaknesses with the Titans. Detroit is going to have to see improved bench play (the team's top four scorers account for nearly 60 percent of its scoring). An injury to any of Detroit's starters (especially Holman or McCallum) could ruin its season.
The UDM defense gives up over 70 PPG (ninth in the conference), a number destined to go up with some of the major scoring threats around the conference.
Lastly, the team is currently last in the conference with over 16 turnovers per game. This number should come down as McCallum (Detroit's PG) becomes better adjusted to the college game.
Previous Ranking: 9
With all five starters and the conference sixth man of the year returning from a team that went 5-13, nobody had any idea how the Ramblers would play this year.
After a month, Loyola remains a difficult team to figure out. The Ramblers won their first seven games before losing a pair of conference games to Butler and Valpo at home.
Usually, I would be hesitant to put a winless team this high in the conference rankings, but LUC played outstanding basketball in both of its losses and could very easily be 1-1 or even 2-0 in HL play.
LUC is solid on both sides of the court (currently ranked third offensively and second defensively) and has shown incredible balance in scoring. Five Ramblers are currently averaging double figures, with two others over six PPG. Loyola is also doing a better job of taking care of the basketball than most of the conference.
Until Loyola wins a conference game, I'm not willing to call them contenders. If they do want to make a run this year, the Ramblers will have to improve on the boards. LUC is currently being outrebounded by its opponents.
Previous Ranking: 3
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Valpo is leading the league in scoring (nearly 80 PPG).
The stat that will get most people's attention is the 64.7 PPG that the Crusaders are giving up, good for fourth in the Horizon League. If Valpo continues to play defense at this level, it will be a difficult team to beat.
More impressive than the offensive production is VU's offensive balance. Every player that sees significant court time is currently averaging better than five PPG. Four players (forwards Cory Johnson and Ryan Broekhoff, as well as guards Brandon Wood and Howard Little) are currently over 10 PPG.
The Crusaders also lead the league in assists, averaging over 16 per game.
As an alumnus, I was really tempted to put Valpo second, given Butler's struggles. However, there are too many major issues that VU must figure out in its remaining OOC games before visiting Hinkle Fieldhouse New Year's Day.
The biggest issue has been slow starts. In three of VU's last five games (all away from home), the Crusaders have allowed teams of equal or inferior talent to jump out to double-digit leads in the first half. VU has managed to battle back in all three (winning two). When Valpo plays the other Horizon League contenders, it cannot allow itself to get down like that.
Though Valpo has been outstanding on offense, it has also been bitten by the turnover bug to the tune of 14-plus per game.
Lastly, senior forward Cory Johnson will have to improve on his 4.2 rebounds per game if VU is to compete for the conference title.
Previous Ranking: 1
Second to Valpo offensively is defending conference champion Butler. Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are averaging 17.2 and 16.2 points, respectively.
Don't let the Bulldogs' 4-3 record deceive you. They have faced a daunting schedule so far, with games against Louisville and No. 1 Duke away from Hinkle Fieldhouse. However, the home loss to Evansville is puzzling, if nothing else.
The Bulldogs nearly saw their conference winning streak ended on opening night last Wednesday at Loyola.
After watching this team play several times, it is clear to me that the loss of Gordon Hayward to the NBA has been more impactful than most people expected. Though still a very good team, Butler is no longer the runaway favorite in the HL.
Mack has done more than his fair share for the team this year. Even with his 16-plus points, foul trouble has rendered him ineffective for large periods of time in Butler's biggest games. Teams with strong post presence (Valparaiso, Detroit and UIC) should have some success against Butler.
After Howard, the offensive production drops off. The next leading scorer (senior Shawn Vanzant) is averaging 8 PPG. If Butler wants to successfully defend its title, a legitimate third option will have to emerge.
Previous Ranking: 2
Senior Norris Cole (21.5, 5, 3.6) and the CSU Vikings are the first college basketball team this season to hit the 10-0 mark.
The Vikings should be able to extend that mark to 12-0 before heading to West Virginia on December 18. If they win there, I don't see another threat until their road trip to Butler and Valpo on January 7 and 9.
The Vikings are currently 2-0 against the front runners in the Mid-American Conference. They won in come-from-behind fashion over Kent State and then travelled to Akron and laid a beating on the Zips 10 days later.
With Norris Cole, Cleveland State knows that it will have the best player on the floor almost every game this season. Two other players (junior guards Trevon Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery) are averaging double figures. In addition to its powerful backcourt, CSU brings the league's No. 1 defense (under 60 PPG).
When you have the league's best player and best defense, you should be favored in most (if not all) of your games.
The biggest things hurting CSU right now are the lack of size inside and offensive depth. In spite of their 10-0 record, the Vikings have no rebounding edge over their opponents (38 each per game). The CSU offense is currently ranked seventh in the league, just under 70 PPG.
If a team is to beat CSU, it will have to establish itself inside and be willing to make the game a shootout. CSU isn't going to lose any defensive battles. Butler, Valpo and Detroit are the only teams that appear to be equipped to challenge the Vikings.