At the beginning of the year, I was really looking forward to the Horizon League stepping up to become a two-bid conference. While I don’t know if the league is up to that level just yet, they took a big step last night, as the Cleveland State Vikings upset No. 11 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome last night on a buzzer-beating 60-foot shot by Cedric Jackson.
A win like that has to feel like sweet redemption for the Vikings, especially after one of their first two conference games turned out to be a loss at home against Butler.
As we are now about a third of the way through the season, and conference play is nearly upon us, I feel it’s about time we take a look at the Horizon League and how the teams appear to stack up heading into 2009.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Bulldogs after they lost just about all of the talent that’s gotten them so far in the NCAA tournament the last couple years. This team, however, is full of young talent like Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward, both of whom have earned player of the week honors this year in the conference. They are certainly making a case for Butler as being the perennial powerhouse of the conference.
2. Cleveland State
The win last night against Syracuse was phenomenal, but the loss at home against Butler is still fresh in my mind, so I can’t put them in the top spot. J’Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson are both living up to the billing as being top-notch players. The Vikings are certainly a candidate to get the Horizon League two bids, and they have the trademark win to do it.
As I began working on this, UIC was going to be my clear No. 2 choice here. If it weren’t for Cleveland State beating Syracuse, it would have been so. With road wins at Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech, the Flames have definitely looked like a team poised to make a run at the Horizon League crown.
This team has proved to be strong on the road, and I would be interested to see how they fare when going to Cleveland State or Butler for matchups later this year. Those will be real tests as far as the talent this team has.
Between UWGB and UWM, it’s nearly a toss-up. I give the edge to UWGB strictly because they are getting one of their best shooters, Ryan Tillema, back from injury. Returning a 6'8" shooting guard can never hurt. A six-game winning streak ended by Wisconsin recently has got the team still feeling pretty good, and there’s no reason why this team shouldn’t be competitive for the top spot in the Horizon League.
Milwaukee looks like a good, not great team to me. I do verily appreciate the non-conference schedule they’ve played, but they haven’t impressed me with how they've played it yet, so I can’t give them all the credit. This is nonetheless a talented team that has the tools to make a run at a Horizon League crown.
I’m highly disappointed in the Raider team. I realize that the team has been missing Vaughan Duggins for a while, but seriously. The Raiders have looked bad. Duggins looks to be out for another couple weeks, according to the Horizon League’s weekly press release. That would mean he may not be back for the beginning of the conference block of the schedule.
They have won their last two, so perhaps they are finding their stride without Duggins, but hopefully for the Raiders’ sake, they can get back to being competitive in this conference.
The Crusaders haven’t looked all that bad by any account this season, but they haven’t done anything to merit a higher rank than this. They do get a game against No. 1-ranked UNC this weekend. While I’m not predicting a Cleveland State upset, I do hope that this game will at least be competitive. Valpo should see an improvement in their record as conference play begins, but not by too much.
The Ramblers have two teams that could show up. Either it’s the aggressive, powerful team that can punch you right in the mouth and run with the more competitive teams on their schedule, or the cupcake that mails in the performance and probably deserves to lose.
We’ve seen both this year against both kinds of teams, so I’m not sure what to think of these teams. Inconsistent teams almost always tell me that they can’t sustain any success, so I can’t rank them very high here.
Much like the Detroit Lions, they are definitely giving all the effort they can, but they just don’t have the talent. It is encouraging to see the team rebounding like mad, but that doesn’t actually win the games. I see this team winning a few conference games, but not enough to be competitive in the conference title hunt.
Again, just not enough talent to be the competitive team they want to be. Hopefully the power of the conference can eventually bring in a few more talented recruits to schools like YSU, and they can be more of a force in this conference again.
Games to look out for this week
Wright State vs. Norfolk State: Dec. 17
Wright State needs to win a few games to start to get on a roll before the New Year when conference games come into full swing. This is a good place to start.
Green Bay vs. Oakland: Dec. 18
After having their winning streak snapped, how will Green Bay respond in another highly winnable game? Also, it would be nice to get Tillema back into the swing of things.
Players to watch
Troy Cotton: UWGB Jr. G
After a dismal sophomore campaign, Troy has found his rhythm again and is averaging just short of three three-pointers per game.
Josh Mayo: UIC Sr. G
Mayo is an absolute machine. Over 20 points per game and three assists per game have him most certainly in the running for conference player of the year.
Matt Howard: Butler So. F
Gordon Hayward: Butler Fr. F
Shelving Mack: Butler Fr. G
This trio of young guns for Butler is going to ensure that they are good for a long time. One of them is top 10 in just about every stat category in the Horizon League. Oh, and by the way, on many of those top 10 lists, they are the only freshmen or sophomores. They are talented beyond the conference, which should equal long-term success for the Bulldogs.