With this weekend's action in the books, all ten Horizon League teams now have five or six games under their belts. As teams play more games, things are beginning to sort out the way many expected.
One thing is certain: there is no complete team poised to run away with the conference (as Butler did last season). The top four teams will be battling it out all year for the coveted double-byes given to the top-two seeds in the conference tournament.
One month in to conference play, three of the preseason favorites (Butler, Valparaiso, and Detroit) are in a four-way tie atop the conference (along with a surprising Wright State team) with Cleveland State sitting a half-game back.
Recent losing streaks have sent the Chicago schools tumbling in the standings. The Wisconsin schools have had some good wins and bad losses on their way to near-.500 marks.
In spite of their near-upset of Butler Sunday afternoon, Youngstown State continues to look like the whipping-boy it has been since joining the conference in 2001.
Previous Ranking: 6
In the month since my last set of power rankings, the Flames have posted a mark of 1-7 (0-4). Believe it or not, the Flames' lone win came against the Illinois Fighting Illini of the Big Ten.
UIC has been in the majority of its games (including Saturday vs. Detroit), but its lack of depth has been too much to overcome.
Robo Kreps (15.5, 4.2, 3.4) and Paul Carter (14.9, 8.2, 0.8) continue to lead the Flames in all major statistical categories. Both are ranked in the top-ten in the HL in scoring and Carter is second to Detroit's Eli Holman in rebounding.
UIC's solid forward-guard combination has combined for nearly half of its 62.9 PPG (last in the conference).
If the Flames are to turn this season around and spring some upsets, they will need to cut down on their 15.8 turnovers per game (second-worst in the league).
A legitimate third (and fourth) option will need to emerge if UIC wants to climb out of the cellar.
Previous Ranking: 9
Since Dec. 6, the Youngstown State Penguins have posted a 2-6 (1-3) mark. Senior Guard Vytas Sulskis (14.9, 2.3, 5.5) leads the team in points (top-ten in the Horizon League) and is second in rebounds. However, Sulskis is the only Penguin in double figures.
The lack of scoring balance is the biggest contributor to YSU's struggles on the offensive side of the ball (the Penguins are currently ranked seventh in the league in scoring).
The lack of scoring combined with 36.7 RPG (ninth in the conference) will continue to make winning difficult for the Penguins this season.
There is hope for the future. Sophomore Forward Damian Eargle leads the team in rebounds (6.0) and blocks (2.8) while Freshman Kendrick Perry has posted 3.3 APG and a solid 1.6 assist/turnover ratio (good for 14th in the Horizon League).
The Penguins may be able to steal some wins over the remainder of the season (as they almost did Sunday in Indianapolis); however, YSU fans will have to wait until next year before their team begins to climb in the standings.
Previous Ranking: 7
The Phoenix have stayed true to form, posting a 4-5 (1-2) mark over the last month. Senior Guard Rahmon Fletcher continues to live up to expectations, posting a line of 16.5, 2.2, 2.8. Fletcher currently sits at fifth in the conference in scoring.
This is especially impressive considering the relative lack of support from his teammates. Fellow Senior Bryquis Perine is the only other player in double figures, but his 11.9 PPG has been sliding over the last month (down from 14.1 in my last article).
Freshman Alec Brown (8.9, 5.6, 0.4) and Sophomore Jarvis Williams (8.2 5.7 0.2) provide the Phoenix with the potential for a great frontcourt in the coming years.
Brown (7'0" Center) is currently third in scoring and second in rebounding while Williams (6'5" Forward) leads the team in rebounding and is fourth in scoring.
Brown and Williams lead UWGB to a mark of 38.8 RPG (third in the HL). It should be fun to watch these two grow together in the coming years.
If the Phoenix can find a player to step up as a reliable second option to Fletcher, they have the potential to pull an upset in the conference tournament.
Previous Ranking: 4
The Ramblers have hit the skids over the last month, posting a 3-5 (1-3) mark. Since December 1, LUC has been forced to run a gauntlet unlike any other Horizon League team.
The Ramblers are the only school that has played all of the HL's current top-five teams (Butler, Valparaiso, Detroit, Cleveland State, and Wright State). Loyola also hosted top-25 Kansas State and played crosstown rival DePaul at the Allstate Arena last month.
In their other conference game, LUC looked impressive on the road against Youngstown State. If the Ramblers want to make the next step as a team, they will have to figure out a way to win a couple of games against the league frontrunners.
At fourth in overall defense and fifth in offense, Loyola continues to be a balanced team on both sides of the court. Five Ramblers are still averaging double-digits in scoring. Senior Andy Polka (6'7") is currently fifth in the HL in rebounding.
It will be interesting how Loyola finishes January, as its schedule lightens up over the rest of the month.
Previous Ranking: 8
Milwaukee has posted an even 4-4 (2-2) mark over the last month. Included in that win total was last Monday's 76-52 thumping of the Butler Bulldogs.
Forwards Anthony HIll and Tony Meier combined for 42 points against Butler's porous interior defense, and the Panthers out rebounded Butler 36-24.
Unfortunately for UWM fans, this team is relatively old (two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore in the top-five in scoring). However, Hill and Meier lead a front line that is one of the conference's best, ranking fourth in rebounds.
Given their current body of work, I don't see Milwaukee finishing the season much over .500. However, this is one that has the talent to spring an upset or two in the HL tournament, but it will have to improve on its 14.4 turnover average (tied for sixth in the HL).
Statistically, the Panthers are unimpressive on both the offensive (seventh) and defensive (ninth) side of the ball.
Previous Ranking: 10
After writing them off last month, Vaughan Duggins and the Raiders have been the Horizon League's hottest team since, going 8-1 (4-0).
In many ways, Wright State has been the perfect foil to Loyola. While the Ramblers are the league's most balanced team, 66-percent of the Raiders scoring comes from three players (Duggins, N'Gai Evans and Troy Tabler).
Loyola started out hot before running in to a brick wall against a painfully hard schedule. WSU started slow before going on its current winning streak while playing sub-.500 opponents (only Air Force and Loyola currently have winning records).
Allowing 59.0 PPG, the Raider defense is currently tops in the HL, while the offense ranks ninth (64.0 PPG). If Wright State is to keep up its current pace over the remainder of its schedule, players other than Evans and Tabler will have to step up and complement the 16.2, 3.8, 2.3 line being produced by Duggins.
The Raiders currently rank last in the league at 31.2 RPG (five behind No. 9 Youngstown State). The lack of a post presence has the potential to cause problems for WSU against some of the HL's stronger post players.
Detroit's Eli Holman put up 17 and 12, and UIC's Paul Carter went for 13 and 11. Wright State still has match-ups with both of those men as well as two games against Butler's Matt Howard and Valpo's Cory Johnson left on their schedule.
Things have the potential to get ugly fast for Wright State, as three of its next four are against Valpo, Butler and Cleveland State.
Previous Ranking: 1
Cleveland State spent most of November beating up on MAC and other small conference schools before coming back to earth with a 5-3 (2-2) mark over the last month. An 0-2 weekend trip to Butler and Valpo has really put Cleveland State behind the eight-ball.
The Vikings will have to go 4-0 against the Bulldogs, Crusaders and Detroit Titans the rest of the way if they are to have any hope of hosting the conference tournament or getting a bye.
Senior Norris Cole continues to play up to expectations, posting a 21.2, 5.1, 4.7 line. Guards Trevor Harmon (13.4) and Jeremy Montgomery (11.4) have provided significant scoring help.
6'9" Forward Aaron Pogue (7.9, 6.4, 0.8) provides the only interior presence for the Vikings. CSU's lack of interior defense was exposed this weekend by Butler's Andrew Smith (22) and Matt Howard (17) as well as Valparaiso's Cory Johnson (20).
Forwards Charlie Woods and Joe Latas are going to have to step up to take pressure off of Pogue and the Viking Guards.
CSU has a pair of games against Detroit and Eli Holman as well as rematches with Butler and Valpo left on their schedule. Improved interior defense is a requirement is CSU is to win the HL tournament.
Previous Rank: 5
Detroit has yet to really hit its stride this season, going 5-3 (3-1) over the last month. The Titans have jumped out to a fast start in conference play against relatively weak competition. The easy HL start is about to end as UDM welcomes Butler and Valparaiso to town next weekend.
The Horizon League's top offense (74.6 PPG) is led by hot-shot Freshman Ray McCallum, Jr. (15.8, 5.0, 4.6). Eli Holman (11.6, 10.7, 1.1) is the only player in the league currently averaging a double-double. Chase Simon and Jason Calliste provide additional way for the Titan offense to beat you.
As with all the HL contenders, Detroit isn't without its weaknesses. The Titans commit a Horizon League-worst 16 turnovers per game and shoot an abysmal 66.7 percent from the charity stripe (seventh in the league). The 69.3 PPG against ranks the Titans eighth in the conference.
Against some of the HL's better teams, I fear that Detroit's depth issue will play a bigger role as we get later in the season. McCallum, Holman, Simon and Calliste combine for 69 percent of Detroit's offense (a number that jumps to 94 percent when you include the next two scorers).
Previous Ranking: 3
It has been an up-and-down month for the Crusaders as they achieved a 6-3 (2-1) mark. On the plus side were VU's big victory over Cleveland State on Sunday, easy wins over in-state rivals Ball State and IPFW, and a thrilling 103-102 win over Summit League favorite Oakland in the final of OU's Lou Henson Award Tournament.
The negatives were losses to Purdue and Butler and an inexplicable overtime defeat at the hands of previously winless Toledo.
The Crusaders boast the No. 2 offense (73.9) and No 5 defense (66.3) in the Horizon League. Valpo has a rotation that runs ten deep for most games.
Offensively, VU is paced by Forwards Cory Johnson (16.5, 4.5, 0.9) and Ryan Broekhoff (10.5, 4.4, 1.9) as well as Guards Brandon Wood (15.9, 4.8, 3.9) and Howard Little (9.4, 4.9, 2.2)
Defensively, the Forward duo of Cory Johnson and Kevin Van Wijk provide Valpo with one of the HL's strongest interior defenses (as evidenced by Matt Howard's 8-point game on New Year's Day).
Likewise, starting PG Erik Buggs and sixth man Michael Rogers combined to hold Norris Cole to 10 points (less than half his average) Sunday after noon).
For a team that had a questionable defense at best heading in to the season, shutting down the HL's top-two scorers within a week is quite the statement.
All is not perfect in Valparaiso however, as the Crusaders have several major issues that need to be addressed over the next two months.
The biggest issue is the team's failure to finish at the basket. In the Butler game and first half of the CSU game, VU had many wide-open drives to the rim that they were unable to convert into points.
The Crusaders will also have to improve on their 14.4 turnovers per game and 69.6 free-throw percentage.
Previous Ranking: 2
It seemed inevitable that the Bulldogs would eventually find their way back to the top of these rankings. They did it with an 8-2 (3-1) record over the last month. BU has picked up wins over Valpo and CSU (both at home) since the first of the year.
Butler ranks third in the league in both offense (73.3) and defense (64.2). Matt Howard (17.1, 7.9, 1.1) is second in the conference in scoring. Shelvin Mack (13.9, 4.6, 3.4) is the only other player in double-figures, but Butler does have five others averaging between five and eight PPG.
In the last week, Butler's lack of interior defense was exposed by Valpo's Cory Johnson and Kevin Van Wijk. UWM's Anthony HIll and Tony Meier also had solid games against Matt Howard and Andrew Smith. I expect Eli Holman to get close to 30 against Butler's front line later this week.
I think that in spite of its weakness, Butler will likely win the conference regular-season title with a record somewhere in the neighborhood of 14-4.
This will bring the conference tournament back to Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the Bulldogs are nearly unbeatable. It will be up to Valpo, Detroit or CSU to spring the upset.