With two weeks to go in the Horizon League season, we are not significantly closer to figuring out a champion than when the coaches and media cast their preseason ballots in the fall.
Of the four favorites heading in to the season, three are still very much in the race. Valparaiso leads the league with an 11-3 mark while Cleveland State sits a half game back at 11-4. Butler sits tied for third with surprising Milwaukee a game and a half behind Valpo at 10-5, with the Panthers holding the tiebreaker after earning a season sweep of BU. Wright State saw its hopes for a conference title double-bye disappear after getting swept on their recent road trip to Butler and Valparaiso.
With three or four games left on the schedule (plus the Bracket Buster), here's where your favorite Horizon League team stands.
Previous Ranking: 10
Over the last month, the Flames have posted a 2-7 mark (all in-conference). Both wins came at the Pavilion against teams from the bottom half of the Horizon League standings (Youngstown State and Green Bay).
In spite of their poor record, UIC has two players (G Robo Kreps and F/C Paul Carter) that should and will receive serious consideration for all-conference (and in Carter's case, all newcomer) honors. Carter has been one of the best big men in the league this year, averaging 14.2 PPG and 8.3 RPG. Kreps continues to be one of the league's better scorers, adding 4.2 RPG and 2.9 APG to his team-leading 16.3 PPG.
The Flames have a twofold problem that hurts them this season and will continue to hurt them in the future. The short term problem is that Kreps and Carter account for half of UIC's league-worst 62.9 PPG. The bigger problem going forward is that both Kreps and Carter are out of eligibility after this season. With no heir apparent on their roster, it looks like UIC could struggle for the next several years.
Bracket Buster Matchup: None. The Flames will instead be playing a makeup game against Butler that had to be moved to make room for the Butler-Duke game last December.
Previous Ranking: 9
The Penguins posted a 1-8 mark in HL play over the last month and added an out-of-conference win over NAIA school Wilberforce. The conference win was a big one, an upset of Butler at the Beeghly Center. YSU has played well in the three games since, forcing Valpo to OT and taking Cleveland State and Wright State down to the wire on the road.
If Youngstown can play good basketball over the next two weeks, they should be able to pick up another win or two. The Penguins have a young team (with the exception of G/F Vytas Sulskis) and should climb into the middle tier of the conference. Sophomore F Damian Eargle and Freshman G Kendrick Perry provide YSU a good foundation for the future (something fellow cellar-dweller UIC doesn't have). A solid finish to the 2010-11 season and further improvement in 2011-12 will go a long way in silencing the critics saying that they don't belong in the HL
Bracket Buster Matchup: Bowling Green. The Penguins welcome in-state rival Bowling Green to the Beeghly Center Saturday at 7:05. The Falcons sit in the middle of the MAC's Eastern Division.
Previous Ranking: 7
Since my last set of rankings, the Ramblers have posted a 4-5 mark. However, considering the competition, I believe the record is somewhat misleading. Three of their four wins came at home against second division opponents at home (UIC, Youngstown State, and Green Bay). There was a big win at Milwaukee, but the Ramblers followed that up with a home loss to the same Panther team last Thursday.
Early this season, Loyola jumped out to a 7-0 start against very weak competition. They followed that with a pair of solid showings in losing efforts against Butler and Valpo at the Gentile Center. Many people (myself included) began to think the Ramblers had turned the corner. I even ranked them fourth in my league power rankings for December.
With the fifth-ranked offense and defense in the league, one would expect the Ramblers to be higher in the standings than they currently are. However, this team doesn't seem to be able to put things together in order to win. With road rematches remaining with Butler and Valpo, I think Loyola is more likely to fall in the standings than rise over the final two weeks.
Bracket Buster Matchup: St. Peter's. The Ramblers host the MAAC's fourth place team Saturday at 3 PM.
Previous Ranking: 8
A road upset of league-leading Valparaiso was the highlight of the last month for the Phoenix. Phoenix posted the same 4-5 record between January and February that they did between December and January. Green Bay has been holding steady at .500 all season.
Green Bay is a typical middle-of-the-road team. They look pretty good at home and struggle on the road. They have a couple of impressive wins, but just as many ugly losses.
Young big men Alec Brown and Jarvis Williams give the Phoenix hope for the future, but UWGB will need to find some guards to help them out.
Bracket Buster Matchup: @Southern Illinois. Southern Illinois is a second division team from the Missouri Valley Conference. This is a chance for Green Bay to get a nice road win heading into the conference tournament (a likely road game against Detroit).
Previous Ranking: 3
The Titans struggled to a 4-7 mark over the past month. Included in those seven losses were series sweeps to Butler and Valparaiso. An upset win over rival Cleveland State last Monday night was one of the highlights of the Titans' season.
Without a doubt, the Titans have been the HL's most disappointing team this season. Many expected the team to be the most dangerous challenger to Butler's crown this year. Poor defense, turnovers and a lack of depth have combined to sink Detroit's season. UDM will have to finish the regular season 3-0 and probably win at least two games in the HL tournament to have a chance at making one of the lesser postseason tournaments (CBI or CIT).
Winning five in a row certainly isn't out of the question for the Titans. The toughest regular season game remaining is at Wright State to finish the season. Though difficult, it is a game UDM can win. Detroit should be able to defeat Green Bay in the HL tournament opening round and has enough talent to pull a quarterfinal upset. However, I feel that their depth (or lack thereof) will make it nearly impossible to win games in consecutive days should they make the semi-finals.
Bracket Buster Matchup: @Drake. Drake has fallen off the map quickly after winning the MVC in 2008. They now sit under .500 both in conference and overall. Combined with a home game vs YSU, this should be a chance for Detroit to get on a roll before their season ending game with WSU.
Previous Ranking: 5
A tough schedule really took its toll on Wright State over the last month. The Raiders went 6-5, playing Valpo and Butler twice while also visiting Cleveland State and Milwaukee. A 1-5 record (a home win over Butler being the only victory) in the aforementioned games all but knocked WSU out of contention for the conference title.
WSU is looking at the five seed in the HL tournament, meaning a likely quarterfinal matchup with Butler or Milwaukee. That's a tough draw for a team that was sitting a half game out of first this time last week.
An upset of Cleveland State Wednesday at the Nutter Center would go a long way to getting WSU back on the right track. Seniors Vaughn Duggins and N'Gai Evans would love to get that type of career-defining win in their final weeks of college basketball.
Bracket Buster Matchup: Hofstra on ESPNU. The Hofstra Pride are tied for third place, two games behind George Mason. This would be a big win for WSU and would all but guarantee them of postseason play.
Previous Ranking: 1
Don't let the overall record fool you, the Bulldogs have been struggling (especially over the last month, posting a 6-4 record). Butler lost three in a row (and four of five) over an 18 day period. Clearly, the worst of these losses was a defeat at the hands of Youngstown State two weeks ago. A road win over Cleveland State and subsequent return to Hinkle Fieldhouse seems to have put Butler back on track, but the damage has already been done.
The Milwaukee Panthers wrote the book on beating Butler. In both wins over the Bulldogs, UWM attacked BU inside, taking advantage of their lack of a competent post defender. Valpo and YSU followed Milwaukee's lead and took it to Butler inside first.
For the first time in recent memory, Butler is going to need some help if they are to get a coveted double-bye in the conference tournament. They will need two of the three teams ahead of or tied with them (Valpo, CSU and Milwaukee) to stumble.
Bracket Buster Matchup: None. The Bulldogs will be playing a makeup game against UIC.
Previous Ranking: 6
A 7-2 record, including a big win at Hinkle Fieldhouse, has sent the Milwaukee Panthers rocketing up the conference standings. UWM became the first HL team to defeat Butler at Hinkle in two years. After losing two in a row at Loyola and Valpo, the Panthers have run off six straight wins.
Their winning streak faces its biggest threat since the Bulter game as Valpo comes to town Thursday. In their last meeting, Valpo hammered Milwaukee 60-43 at the Athletics-Recreation Center. In addition to the Valpo game, the Panthers also have a chance at revenge against Cleveland State (a team that embarrassed them at home in early December). Between the home court advantage against Valpo and CSU's lack of inside defense, I expect Milwaukee to win at least one of these games.
Bracket Buster Matchup: @Buffalo. The Bulls are tied for third in the MAC East. This would be an outstanding road win for UWM and a huge momentum-builder heading into Cleveland for the rematch with CSU.
Previous Ranking: 4
Cleveland State posted a 7-2 mark in the last month and is the only HL team that has a chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Vikings were alone in first place after defeating Valpo at home, before losing consecutive games to Butler (at home) and Detroit (away).
Of CSU's five losses, four are against teams in the RPI top-50 (@West Virginia, @Valpo, @Butler, vs. Butler). Last Monday's loss at Detroit severly damaged the Vikings' chance of getting said bid. However, if they can win out and make the final of the HL tournament, a 26-6 record with only one home loss should keep them in the conversation. However, I feel the Vikings are still on the outside looking in.
Like Butler, CSU's interior game has been its downfall this year. Junior Aaron Pougue has been productive in the post when on the floor. His biggest problem is that he can't stay on the floor, averaging a league-worst 3.9 fouls per game. On the CSU bench are several tall, athletic wings and fan favorite (but unproductive) C Joe Latas.
Bracket Buster Matchup: @Old Dominion on ESPN2. Cleveland State will play ODU on Sunday afternoon on national TV. The Monarchs are tied for third in the CAA, two games behind George Mason. A win Sunday really helps CSU's case for an at-large bid, giving them the notable road win their resume lacks.
Previous Ranking: 2
Go ahead and call me a homer. The truth is I really tried to justify putting Cleveland State ahead of VU. VU tied Cleveland State and Milwaukee with a 7-2 record in the month since my last power rankings. The loss at CSU's Wolstein Center was hardly surprising (as the Vikings were unbeaten at home going into the game). The home loss to Green Bay was ugly as the team was caught looking ahead to Butler and with several injuries.
What tipped the scale to Valpo is their 5-0 home record (7-2 overall) against the HL's top six teams. No other school can make that claim (CSU, Butler, and Milwaukee all have home losses against each other). A win at Milwaukee Thursday night will go a long way towards locking up a double-bye in the conference tournament and a win in Green Bay next Monday should all but guarantee home court advantage.
Unlike Cleveland State, Valpo has a couple of ugly losses that make an at-large tournament bid pretty much out of the question. The Crusaders lost a pair of road games to MAC bottom-feeders Ohio and Toledo early in the season, killing their at-large hopes before 2010 had even ended. That being said, Ball State, Northern Colorado, and Bracket Buster opponent Missouri State could greatly help VU's tournament position by winning their conferences.
Bracket Buster Matchup: Missouri State on ESPN2. Dick Vitale will be coming to Valpo on Saturday afternoon/evening to call VU's game with the Missouri State Bears. MSU is currently tied atop the MVC standings with Wichita State. A win could go a long way to helping Valpo with potential positioning in the NCAA Tournament.