Horizon League Power Rankings (Nov. 29 – Dec. 5)

Following this week, the Horizon league has the 7th highest RPI of any conference in the land; between the SEC and Conference USA.

This week marked the early start of conference play and it shook up our power rankings something fierce.  Could Cleveland State and Loyola continue their torrid starts to the season?  Could Butler get revenge in their rematch against Duke?  Would upstart Youngstown State fall back to earth?  All these questions were answered this week; see who’s up and who’s down in our weekly power rankings!

In descending order…

Duke stuffs Butler's upset bid...

 

10. UIC (Record: 3-5, RPI: 241)

Recent Results: Lost to Valparaiso 68-66, Lost to Akron 54-52

Hard to move up these power rankings if you can’t win.  The best thing to say about UIC’s two losses this past week is that they were fighting to the end in both.  It took overtime for Valpo to outlast Robo Kreps and the Flames on Thursday, and they lost the lead with less than 20 seconds to go against Akron on Saturday.

Up Next: Saturday at Illinois State (6-2)

9. Youngstown State (4-3, 208)

Recent Results: Lost to Milwaukee 76-67, Lost to Green Bay 74-59

The Penguins had been off to their best start since 2000.  All was well in Eastern Ohio; that is at least until they made their first conference road trip to Wisconsin. Devonte Maymon certainly was able to talk the talk in his “homecoming”, but Milwaukee and Green Bay did a little more of the walking.  The good news is they’ll get a couple weeks off of conference play to iron out their shortcomings.

Up Next: Saturday at Robert Morris (3-4)

8. Wright State (2-5, 195)

Recent Results: Lost to Cincinnati 76-69, Lost to Detroit 78-69

The Raiders are in the midst of a tough non-conference schedule that doesn’t get much easier this week.  Losses to Cincinnati and Detroit were expected, but still, disheartening.  Coach Billy Donlon NEEDS to get more physical post play from his “big” men if the Raiders hope to finish close to .500 in conference play.  Being 342nd in rebounding in the nation isn’t going to get you very far in this league…

Up Next: Wednesday vs. Air Force (5-1)

7. Milwaukee (4-5, 166)

Recent Results: Beat Youngstown State 76-67, Lost to Cleveland State 82-59

The Panthers are really struggling to find their identity right now.  They’ve been the most inconsistent team in the Horizon League so far.  One game they’re outlasting Youngstown State behind clutch free throws and sound decision making.  The next they’re giving up with 30 minutes left in the game.  If Coach Rob Jeter can’t turn this talented enigma into a more consistent competitor, then he will likely feel a significant amount of heat from donors wondering if their money is being well spent.  Still, after 9 games into the season, the Panthers have a lot of time to turn it around.

Up Next: Wednesday at Wisconsin

6. Green Bay (3-4, 98)

Recent Results: Lost to Cleveland State 83-75, Beat Youngstown State 74-59

See Panthers, Milwaukee.  The Phoenix haven’t been able to put together back to back wins so far this season.  If they can get the Rahmon Fletcher that showed up against Youngstown State in very game, it won’t be long before that happens.  When Fletcher can stay out of foul trouble, he’s as good a point guard as there is in the Horizon League.  But he’s no good to Green Bay when his butt is on the bench.

Up Next: Wednesday vs. Duquesne (3-3)

5. Detroit (4-4, 183)

Recent Results: Lost to Akron 77-69, Beat Wright State 78-69

The Titans have shown flashes of brilliance early on in the season, but it’s taking them awhile to get used to playing together.  They’ve been able to score in bunches at time with the help of dominant rebounding margins, and Eli Holman has been an Horizon League Player of the Year candidate since day one.  However, Coach Ray McCallum needs his guards to pick and choose their spots.  When one is having an off-day shooting, their shots need to be limited.  Chase Simon can’t be taking 23 and 26 shots, as he did against Mississippi State and Albany, and only making 8.  But, once this team gets into midseason form, they have a chance to make some noise in March.

Up Next: Wednesday at Western Michigan

4. Loyola (7-2, 182)

Recent Results: Lost to Butler 65-63, Lost to Valparaiso 66-56

The Ramblers played their hearts out against the Nored-less Butler Bulldogs, but they came up empty.  Three days later, they couldn’t answer an 11-0 run by Valpo and suffered their second loss in a row.  This type of behavior has become a trend for Loyola dating back to last year.  They’ve done really well against non-conference opponents but struggled mightily against conference foes.  If Chicago Now writer John Templon’s early efficiency margins are any indication, Loyola’s conference struggles won’t end soon.

Up Next: Wednesday vs. SIU-Edwardsville

3. Valparaiso (4-2, 31)

Recent Results: Beat UIC 68-66, Beat Loyola 66-56

After an injury-riddled start to the season, Coach Homer Drew has his guys playing good basketball as we get into December.  Two early conference victories has to be a good feeling for senior F Cory Johnson.  The Duluth, MN native has led his team to 4 straight victories behind very efficient shooting.  The Crusaders have a great shot at winning 4 of their next 5 games before returning to conference play against Butler.

Up Next: Tuesday vs. Purdue (#18, 7-1)

2. Butler (3-3, 37)

Recent Results: Beat Loyola 65-63, Lost to Duke 82-70

The Bulldogs were without their point guard Ronald Nored earlier in the week due to a concussion he suffered in the win over Siena, but it didn’t matter as Butler outlasted Loyola in Chicago.  Three days later, the Bulldogs would have their chance at revenge as they traveled to East Rutherford, NJ to face the Duke Blue Devils.  It wasn’t meant to be however, as Duke defeated the Bulldogs 82-70.  This week reminded us how mentally tough Coach Brad Stevens’ players are.  I would expect nothing less than a Horizon League final game for Butler.

Norris Cole is focused on the NCAA Tournament. Do you dare doubt him?

Up Next: Thursday at Xavier (5-2)

1. Cleveland State (9-0, 17)

Recent Results: Beat Green Bay 83-75, Beat Milwaukee 82-59

The Horizon League’s visibility (thanks largely to Butler) and the Vikings outstanding play has put them at #31 in the AP Top 25 and #33 in the ESPN/Coaches Poll.  Also, Cleveland State is #1 in CollegeInsider.com’s Mid Major Top 25 poll ahead of the likes of Gonzaga, Old Dominion, St. Mary’s and Butler.   Norris Cole has been the biggest reason why Cleveland State has been so dominant, and he is the early favorite for the Horizon League’s POY.  Expect a nationally ranked and undefeated Cleveland State team to travel to West Virginia on December 18th to give the Mountaineers all they can handle…

Up Next: Tuesday vs. West Virginia Tech

Defending the double-bye

Milwaukee benefited from the home atmosphere of the Cell and the double-bye format, turning it into a Sweet 16 appearance.

When Valparaiso finished its first year in the Horizon League, the 2007-08 season saw top seeded Butler smash runner-up Cleveland State at Hinkle Fieldhouse on its way to a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the fourth consecutive year a Horizon League team ended up winning at least one game on the national stage.

Meanwhile, two other tournaments were held in the midwest by comparable conferences: the MAC tournament was won by regular season champion Kent State, and the Summit was won by Oral Roberts.  All three conference regular season champions went on to win their tournament championships, with all three pulling in the NCAA’s automatic bid to the post season tournament.

Butler won in the first round before bowing out in a heavily contested game against Tennessee, but Kent State and Oral Roberts were both blown out in the first round.  What happened?  Well, truth be told, Butler was a better team than the schools in Ohio and Oklahoma.  And that’s the point.

Butler's easier road to the tournament was a small price to pay for a Horizon League National Runner-up

In 2003, the Horizon League adopted a new tournament format.  The top two seeds would receive a bye all the way to the semi-finals of the Horizon League Tournament.  The following year, the regular season champion hosted the tournament from the quarterfinals on, with Milwaukee being the host for four years in a row through 2006.  The idea behind the scheme was simple:

Get the best teams in the conference into the NCAA tournament.

It’s quite simple, really.  The NCAA selection committee has long ignored the cries of Horizon League fans that our schools are good enough for multiple at-large selections.  Hell, despite having 14 tournament victories since adopting the new format, the Horizon League has seen only three at-large teams, Butler every time.

The respect that conferences get in the nation is derived from performance in the NCAA Tournament.  If you want victories in the NCAA Tournament, you better have your best teams in the dance.  If you want your best teams in the dance, stack the deck in their favor.  This has been particularly useful for the conference in the last several years.

In 2004 and 2005, Milwaukee had the ace in the hole and nearly lost it both years, doing so in 2004 to UIC.  The Panthers were not selected for an at-large bid that season, and UIC promptly exited the tournament in the first round.

Coincidence?  Of course not.  The conference regular season champion has gone to the championship game every year since the new format’s inception, and except for 2004, that team has made it to the NCAA Tournament.  In lesser conferences, regular season champs are left on the chopping block because they lose early in the conference tournament.  The No. 1 seed in the Horizon League, however, faces its stiffest test before the title game against, at the absolute best, the #4 seed.  By doing so, it gives the champ as much of a free reign as possible on their side of the bracket, setting the stage for a nationally-televised championship game on the #1 seed’s home floor.

Is it unbeatable?  No, of course not.  Ask Gary Waters and Cleveland State if it is impossible.  But to win on the champ’s home court, you can’t be a flash in the pan, and CSU followed that up with their biggest victory in 20 years, over Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

The MAC and Summit regular season champions begin play in the quarterfinals on a neutral site; in the MAC, the champion has the same benefits as the 2, 3, and 4 seeds.  The Summit cuts out the bottom two teams and plays a straight up eight-team tournament.

By taking away the natural home court advantage, the best teams in the MAC and Summit lose a major advantage to neutral ground.  By also making the amount of games equal, the MAC and Summit champs have to run the same gauntlet as everybody else; if the No. 8 seed in the Summit gets hot at the end of the year, they’re just as dangerous as the No. 1 seed.

After proving worthy in the 2008 title game, the Vikings bitch slapped Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament.

This leads to a much higher possibility of the automatic qualifier for the MAC and Summit to be a team other than the conference champion.  The reason is this: your best teams should be good enough to get in on an at-large basis, so by getting in other teams, you multiply your chances of a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

Except there are problems.  For one, the teams at the top of the MAC and Summit are good.  Great teams come out of the tops of those conferences.  However, poor RPI in comparison to high-major and better mid-major conferences mean that the NCAA Selection Committee will look elsewhere for it’s at-large teams in most cases.  Even if the best teams were to receive at-large bids, the fact that they lost their conference tournaments means that they will undoubtedly be seeded lower than had they won, a fact that didn’t escape Oakland with the No. 52 RPI as it was getting pounded by 3-seed Pittsburgh.

The Horizon League understood this, and fixed the problem.  Now, if a team is good enough to go win on the champ’s home floor with the No. 1 seed only playing one game to the challenger’s three in one week, you know that team is the real deal.  Wake Forest knows it for sure.

Mark Lazerus of the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune wrote a couple years ago that the Horizon League should change its format.  He was wrong on that, and the conference’s performance in the NCAA Tournament is proof of it.  The best team in the conference has made the NCAA Tournament seven of eight years since the format change, and the lone year also coincides with the only time the conference didn’t come away with a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

So good luck, and may we see you all at the 2011 Horizon League Championship game at the U.S. Cellular Arena. ;)

The Interview: Shelby Moats

It’s often the case when Horizon League schools run up against each other on the recruiting trail; many of the teams play similar styles, the geography ties us together, and we tend to like the same players. For Milwaukee, it’s often Green Bay and Loyola that we find ourselves in deep battles with on the recruiting trail. Against Butler? Not often, but that changed in the case of Shelby Moats, who recently picked up a scholarship offer from Butler in addition to his two from Milwaukee and Green Bay.  I had a chance to talk to Shelby about the recruiting process.

Jimmy Lemke: I understand that your family travels extensively during the summers. How have those experiences been for you?

Moats has a myriad of scholarship offers to choose from.

Shelby Moats: They have been great experiences for me. I am able to see different schools with lots of different things to offer. When I actually see a school I am able to observe first hand the things I like and don’t like about the school. The trips will be very beneficial for me when it comes time to make a decision on where I’m going to college.

JL: You spent this summer playing with the Minnesota Pump N Run; are you learning anything from your AAU experience?

SM: Absolutely. I learn how to compete against the best players in the nation. Not only do I get to play against them but a lot of them are on my team, meaning I have to practice against the best too.

JL: After a recent event, you picked up a myriad of scholarship offers from schools across the country, including Butler. Does the point in time when schools offer you a scholarship factor into your decision? What I mean is, if a school knew they wanted you to play for them early on and offered a scholarship awhile ago, is that an advantage for schools that are just making their offers now?

SM: To be completely honest as long as a school offers it’s good enough for me. I haven’t made many decisions about narrowing down my options so an offer made today is a good as an offer made last month or an offer made tomorrow.

JL: A lot of fans across the country like to speculate as to why players pick certain schools to play for. I know you can’t speak for others, but what are you looking for in the school you end up choosing? What’s the most important thing for you when you’re picking your school?

SM: I would like a combination of good basketball and good accademics. I’m not going to go to a school that compromises either aspect. But honestly the most important thing in choosing a school is the relationship I have with the people at that school. If I’m going to have to be with a coach for four years maybe five I had better like him and his staff or we’re in trouble.

JL: The other day, power forward Cody Zeller narrowed his list of teams to three: Butler, Indiana, and North Carolina. Since you play somewhat similar positions and are both offered scholarships by Butler, will his choice factor into your decision?

SM: Butler has told several people including myself that they would love to have both of us there. But no, if Cody Zeller goes there good for him if he doesn’t best of luck. I don’t care what he does unless he ends up on the same team as me then I’ll start caring. His decision will not affect mine.

JL: You have a pretty big list of schools offering you scholarships. Do you think you’ll be narrowing your choices down like Zeller anytime soon?

SM: Yes. When and who? I’m not sure yet. But I know it will be soon and the list will not be that long.

Butler draws Utah

Butler will play Utah in the Diamond Head Classic’s first round in Honolulu, Hawaii on December 22nd. They will move on to play either Florida State or host Hawai’i in the second round of the tournament. The bracket can be found here.

Catch and Shoot – Tuesday

- Kevin O’Connor’s coverage of the Italy trip begins today.  The SA will undoubtedly complain, claiming he should be spending more time on the media guide.

- Shelvin Mack will be working with Team USA, further fueling the fire that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are bball smitten with the Butler guard.  Maybe after the season he’ll take his talents to South Beach.

Could this be the future home of a doubleheader?

- The Indy Star is reporting about a possible “Big Four” doubleheader at Conseco Fieldhouse including Butler, Indiana, Notre Dame, and Purdue.  Luckily Matt Painter, Mike Brey and Brad Stevens are down-to-earth guys, because there won’t be much room after Tom Crean’s ego and forehead enter the building.  Joking aside, we know the nation is taking Butler seriously, but to know that now Indiana, Purdue, and Notre Dame are also only makes Butler stronger.  The chances of BU being a “flavor of the week” in Indy get noticeably smaller if this Big Four happens.

- Valpo has their opponents set in Cancun: Pioneros de Quintana Roo, Rebotera de Cancun, and bar time. PantherU is offering a big reward for a picture of Homer Drew with a fruity drink complete with umbrella.

- Todd Brown is going Dutch in his professional career.  He will play half the time, with his girlfriend playing the other half of his minutes.  Congrats to the most underrated Horizon League player of the last decade on getting himself a job playing ball. And his girlfriend.

- Meanwhile, Valpo is also going Dutch, with Kevin Van Wijk qualifying to play for three years at VU.  He joins a long list of foreign players to put on the Valpo jersey. I’d love to hear the recruiting pitch. “You can play at North Carolina, you can play at UConn, or you can play at Valpo, it’s all the same thing really.”

- ESPN.com decided it needed to talk about Horizon League basketball outside of Butler, so naturally it continued to hammer the Ray Jr.-Ray Sr. storyline.

- UWMPanthers.com ran a story with coach Jeter saying thanks to all the donors who came out for the golf outing on July 19th.  Hell of a party, I recommend it.

- Kyle Nagel doesn’t work for Wright State, he covers them, but he’s certainly hammering home the company line here when he belittles the impact of big men in the Horizon League.  Where I think Nagel fails is showing the difference between big men and post players.  Hayward wasn’t a post player mostly, but Nagel includes him.  He also doesn’t include the 6’8” Anthony Hill or several other players between 6’4” and 6’9” that are strong, big bodies down in the post in the conference.  Matt Howard is a skilled big man.  Is he 6’9″? No, but he sure as hell is effective. While it’s certainly not necessary to have great post players (Wright State for the last 4 years) to win, it certainly helps.

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