08'-09' Horizon League Men's Basketball Preview

Justin RattrayContributor IOctober 31, 2008

For the past four seasons, the Horizon League has treated us with at least one NCAA tournament team that advanced at least one round.  UW-Milwaukee had their time, and Butler most recently has been a force to be reckoned with.  However, Butler has lost most of the talent that brought all that success.

So who is going to be the school that steps up this year?  After researching every team, it's obvious that the Horizon League is talented conference with the potential for a couple NCAA tournament bids.  Just who will those teams be?  Here, we have a list of all ten Horizon League Teams and who they should stack up this year, in order from worst to first.

10. Youngstown State

Youngstown State hasn’t really been able to get over the hump for a few years in Horizon League hoops.  Unfortunately, this year won’t be the year for them either.  After losing their two best scorers from last year, the talent they return to the mix just isn’t going to cut it.  Jack Liles is a force in the paint. Vytas Sulskis and Vance Cooksey also return from the starting line-up last year.

With nine newcomers on the squad, the Penguins are looking for a lot of expanded roles from a lot of players.  And while it may not happen for them this year, the wealth of new talent should catch up in the long run, and I would look for the Penguins to pick themselves up from out of the bottom in the next few years.

9. Valparaiso

Last year was a great year for Valpo.  Now that they have had a taste of the Horizon League, I think the honeymoon is over.  Of the 6 top scorers on last year’s team, only 2 of them return, and the top 2 are gone.   Urule Igbavboa and Brandon McPherson return to lead this relatively inexperienced Valpo squad.  Jake Diebler also provides some experience in the starting line-up as a great point guard.

However, the rest of the team may need a year or two to really develop into solid players.  The front court is the biggest question here, as the only real dominate threat I see is Igbavboa.  And while his offensive and defensive prowess is great, unless one of the newcomers can step up, it will be rough going up front for the Crusaders.  Fear not though.  Next year, Iowa State transfer Cory Johnson will be able to help hold down the paint.  As for this year, it’s more or less a matter of how the inexperienced Crusaders will be able to step up.

8. Detroit

Well, Detroit is still Detroit.  UDM doesn’t figure to make too much noise this year, but the team does have hope.  While returning four starters, the team has ten newcomers.  The potential is yet to be determined on many of them, but new coach Ray McCallum has definitely got some solid recruits to work with for the future.

The one I especially like is 7'3" center Jason Bennett from Jacksonville, Florida.  You can’t teach 7'3", so look out for him in the future as a very dominant big man.  Detroit also seems excited about junior college pick-up Thomas Kennedy and former Indiana star Xavier Keeling.  Detroit’s got a new outlook on basketball, as well as a new look team, logo, and coach. Detroit looks to be in for some stronger years in the future…just not yet.

7. Loyola

Loyola just doesn't quite have the look of a top notch team to me.  They do have one of the best players Loyola’s ever seen, J.R. Blount, who is finally going to be totally healthy this year.  It may be a bit tough replacing a guy like Tracy Robinson, and they don’t have a ton of experienced guys on the bench to turn to.  And by experience, I don’t mean age.  They have seniors that can step up, and there is something to be said for that, but the role expansion is going to be quite significant.

Despite only losing one starter, the team does lose a total of six players from last year, so a lot of reshaping in the rotation is going to happen.  One incoming freshman I’d look out for is John Benkoske.  A talented big man who can play forward, and comes from the same system as Loyola starter Andy Polka. The two were teammates for a while at Oshkosh West, and so the transition should definitely be made easier for Benkoske.

6. Butler

The run of greatness may very well be over for the Butler Bulldogs, but boy did they look good.  Matt Howard returns as the only player who’s had a start on this team, and he’s only had 9.  Players of experience returning also include Zach Hahn, Avery Jukes, and Shawn Vanzent.   Grant Leiendecker is a big, strong center who could definitely make an impact this year if he can step up his game.

Aside from these guys, it comes down to a lot of guys who don’t have enough college experience to bring Butler back to glory yet.  But all the exposure the team has gotten in the last couple years will definitely help toward recruiting.  So be ready, because these guys will be good in a few years, so Butler might be back sooner rather than later.

5. UW-Milwaukee

Last year was such a roller coaster for the Panthers, that anything they do this year will be nice to see, but in all fairness, they are a talented team.  The biggest question is the front court.  Losing Skinner and Paulsen is huge, the Panthers do have some experience they can turn to this year.  Kaylan Anderson and Anthony Hill return from solid campaigns last year, and newcomer James Eayrs looks to bring a lot of talent to the Panthers this year.  It will all come down to whether or not these players are ready to fill the shoes of the former seniors.

Where the front court falls short, the back court can definitely make up for it.  Deonte Roberts and Ricky Franklin both return this year, and Avery Smith comes back after not being able to play last year.  If he can regain his past form of 15.5 ppg in 06-07, then I’d say Milwaukee has one of the strongest back courts in the Horizon League.  So with the back court leadership, Milwaukee becomes a good team.  If the front court can follow suit, they will become a great team, and coach Rob Jeter could have them contending as a sleeper for the conference title.

4. Illinois-Chicago

I really like this UIC squad.  They return they’re big three: Sophomore Robo Kreps, 7 footer Scott VanderMeer, and Horizon League preseason player of the year Josh Mayo.  The only question whether or not they can fill out the rest of the rotation strong enough.  Jeremy Buttell looks like a solid player to step into the starting line-up this year in the post, and Tori Boyd had a good freshman year, and will hopefully come in this year and keep that trend going.  Also, junior college pick-up Robert Eppinger is force in the post, and has been a part of a winning program at the junior college level. 

UIC looks to have a very complete team up and down their roster, and while many of this years players did see some playing time last year, I still have questions about the experience this team has.  This team looks like it will be strong for a few years to come, but I'm not sure if it will all come together this year.  UIC, like Milwaukee, will be a team to definitely look out for come Horizon League tournament time.

3. UW-Green Bay

Returning basically all of the team they had last year, the Phoenix combine a lot of experience with a wealth of talent.  Schactner and Tillema are great shooters in their senior year.  RahmonFletcher is a year more experienced, so the point guard position should be shored up through that.  Terry Evans is a defensiveforce, but he needs to stay within himself on the offensive end.   Randy Berry is the biggest question in the starting line-up to me.  Inconsistent play at the center position has really hurt the phoenix, but if Berry can stay healthy and still be physical, there's no reason why he can't be a good center.

I also think this team has a great bench, but one of the biggest question I have with this team is that there is no "go to" player.  The team has plenty of shooters, but I don't see that one big time talent that can take over a game when necessary, like a Josh Mayo for UIC, or Vaughn Duggins for Wright State.  The Phoenix seem to like Schactner, but I'm not convinced.  If someone can step up to become the "it" guy for Green Bay, then I could certainly see an NCAA or at least an NIT bid in their sites.

2. Wright State

Another squad I definitely like to make some noise this year is the Wright State Raiders. To lead off, they have a great player in Vaughn Duggins.  It doesn't end there, as the rest of the lineup looks like a talented bunch.  Todd Brown returns with a wealth of experience, and William Graham is a great contributor on both offense and defense.  Duquesne transfer Scott Grote also looks like a guy who could be a great contributor this year.  Cory Copper wood is a junior college player who should look to contribute this year as well.  I’d also look for Troy Tabler and N’Gai Evans to see more action this year and contribute well off the bench.

Overall, this is a team that reminds me a lot of UIC in the fact that they keep their top players, and just need to re-tool around them.  I feel like Wright State is better equipped to do so, and that the players that are going to have to step up have all seen plenty of playing time in past seasons.  Let's not forget that this team squeaked in an NCAA tournament berth just two years ago by beating a great Butler squad in the Horizon League tournament.  If the conference can be strong enough to merit two NCAA bids, this is certainly a team that has the talent to snag one of them.

1. Cleveland State

A very trendy pick to win the Horizon League this year, Cleveland state has a lot of returning talent to work with.  J’ Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson both come back as preseason first team all-conference selections.  Norris Cole returns as well and will hopefully step it up as a starter to help out Cedric Jackson in the back court.  George Tandy returns for his senior season to assist J’ Nathan Bullock in the post.  He’s got plenty of experience and should be a solid contributor this year (Hopefully more than last year).  Chris Moore should also be able to help out in the post.

One big X-factor will be Joe Latas. The big freshman center is coming off a high school senior season in which he didn't get to play much because of a broken ankle.  He had additional surgery in July to fix it.  If he is able to get back to where he was physically when he was recruited, he is going to be one of the best big men in the Horizon League.  Either way, Cleveland State is an extremely strong team, and I'd look for them to make some noise in the NCAA tournament if they get there.

The Horizon League has been a mid-major that has really only been known as a one-bid conference ever since it's inception.  However, the last few years have proved that the one team that does get in has been a very good basketball team.  The conference looks strong enough to me this year that it shouldn't be surprising if they come away with at least two bids this year.


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