Early, Early, Early Horizon League Predictions

Over at the Valpo message board, fans of three schools (Valpo, Butler, Milwaukee) have begun discussing the Horizon League’s status from top to bottom.  Instead of just diving into the fray myself, why not drive up traffic to PantherU.  Unabashed self-promotion!

The general consensus, with few dissenters around the conference, is that Butler is the class of the Horizon League.  Losing Gordon Hayward is no small subtraction, but I tend to agree that Khyle Marshall and the rest of the recruiting class will at least partly recover the talent of Hayward and graduates Avery Jukes and Willie Veasley.

So, let’s change things up a bit.  Here’s my predictions, bottom to top.

Things aren't looking so hot for Slocum and the Penguins, who sit in the cellar on our early rankings

10. Youngstown State – On the day that Butler wrapped up the Horizon League season by drubbing Wright State, I had YSU pegged as the eighth place team in 2010-11, before the Chicago schools.  But the departure of multiple players, including Vance Cooksey, puts them firmly in the conference basement, a place the Penguins are getting far too familiar with.

9. UIC – Easily the most dysfunctional program this side of YSU, Tracy Dildy (head coach-in-waiting) and current head Jimmy Collins went out and took advantage of Paul Carter’s situation.  The former Minnesota standout needed to play close to home, and the Flames were willing to oblige.  UIC could climb as high as seventh based on the talent of Carter, so long as Zavion Neely matures and gains consistency from the floor and Robo Kreps takes the leadership role that he, by default, owns.

8. Loyola – The Ramblers seem to be a team that, at least from my place, has decent talent and a sub-par game coach.  Jim Whitesell took Loyola to a 20-victory season just a couple years ago, but since Blake Schilb graduated has only had marginal success.  Last season’s hot start proved to be a red herring, as soft competition padded the Ramblers’ record while other teams got better taking on stiffer competition.  Loyola does have a trio of returning guards that are decent (Geoff McCammon, Terrance Hill, Courtney Stanley) but they added no significant pieces.  Flavien Davis, the one touted commit the Ramblers had, was a no-show when the Ramblers released their 2010-11 roster last week.

7. Green Bay – As much as I’d like to rate them higher, I just don’t see a team that plans to start Clayton Heuer finishing higher than this in the Horizon League.  Much like Wright State, their post presence is unproven.  Unlike Wright State, they have legitimate size, led by seven-footer Alec Brown.  I’m a Horizon League fan that has been around for some time, so I have memories of 6’11” and taller players in the conference.  Apart from Scott Vandermeer from UIC, there’s not a whole lot of talent historically in the Horizon League.  Teams seem to get by with shorter, stronger post players that maybe didn’t get into big conferences because of height or other reasons.  Green Bay is ahead of the bottom three for the obvious fact that they have proven returning talent that is better than those in Chicago or Youngstown.  The pmck may have been exaggerating when he said that Rahmon Fletcher was the best point guard in mid-major basketball, but the Phoenix general is at the very least the third-best returning point guard in the conference.  Add in Bryquis Perine and some other talent, and this may be the greatest seventh place team in Horizon League history.  The departure of pmck may be a detriment or a boon, but we won’t know until Brian Wardle gets into game action.  If he is as good a head coach as he is a community recruiter, they might be even higher on the list.

6. Wright State – Believe me, it just feels weird to call the 2nd-place team from a year ago no better than sixth, but I don’t feel the Raiders are there at this point.  Having just added a wing forward, they might be still in the market, but as they stand there just isn’t enough size to justify a higher finish.  Every team ahead of WSU has the big bodies to dominate the glass.  Vaughan Duggins should be all-conference in what seems like his 19th season in uniform, and N’Gai Evans is pure talent that few teams have.  But Evans can be erratic.  Until the Raiders emerge with a post presence, I won’t budge on moving them up, same with a rookie head coach.

Brandon Wood led the Crusaders in 2009-10. Can Valpo get to the promised land?

5. Valparaiso – There’s no doubt about it, Cory Johnson and Brandon Wood are the real deal.  Homer Drew’s staff did a wonderful job recruiting those guys to take over the team right away, and they benefitted greatly.  Their post situation is stronger than WSU and GB, but it’s not a very strong point as the players they are touting are complete question marks.  The addition of Jay Harris as a freshman guard will ensure they have pieces in the future, but we don’t know what they can do yet.  Wood and Johnson will need a legitimate third heat to move higher.  That player could be on the roster now, I do not know.  But none of us will until the season starts.

Norris Cole looks to power the Vikings toward a second Horizon League Title

4. Cleveland State – I’ve seen all the recruiting rankings and I hear all about the talent that the Vikings have, but like Valpo and other teams, I just can’t be sold on them until the season starts.  Cleveland State happens to be this year’s wild card; the Vikings are predicted by a wide variety of people to be as good as 2nd or as bad as 7th.  That’s a wide difference, people.  And let’s not forget, this year the top 7 teams in the Horizon League are as strong as they have ever been, so seventh-place isn’t exactly a death sentence.  So, I cut the middle-man and figured I’d put CSU here based on returning talent and a little bit of the incoming team.  Norris Cole is the best returning guard and can kill a team (as Milwaukee fans learned last season).  Jeremy Montgomery doesn’t wow anyone, but he’s at least steady in his skill.  Gary Waters is one of the best coaches in the conference, so we can bet that he will have them ready to play.

3. Milwaukee – I didn’t want to seem a homer, but I really do feel the Panthers are this good.  Coaching?  Every year since his second, Rob Jeter’s team gets better.  People around the conference don’t realize the job Jeter did in his 14-16 season of 2007-08.  In the post?  Anthony Hill is a dominant inside presence, and the Panthers are collectively the tallest team in the conference.  Until you get to the end of the bench, there doesn’t seem to be a player Panther fans cringe when they see the sub coming in.  And that’s the real strength of the Panthers; undeniable depth.  Where teams around the conference have a couple returning guards that were contributors, Milwaukee has Lonnie Boga, Tone Boyle, and Ja’Rob McCallum as solid returning players.  On last year’s fourth-place team, Milwaukee did have the now-graduated Ricky Franklin, but they also missed Boyle to injury all season and started junior Jerard Ajami for the majority of the season.  This year, between those players, Ajami, and newcomers Kaylon Williams and Ryan Allen, Ajami figures to have a serious uphill battle to get minutes on the court.  Williams, who led the Missouri Valley Conference in assists as a freshman for the Evansville Purple Aces, took a year in community college and assumes the role of starting point guard for a Panther team with a plethora of scoring options.  Kyle Kelm and Evan Richard are a pair of the most decorated incoming freshmen that Milwaukee has ever recruited, and Kelm is highly rated as a prospect as well.  Kelm had interest from dozens of high-major programs and offers from schools such as Marquette before breaking his foot his junior year.  Kelm returned to lead Randolph to the Division 4 state title in Wisconsin.  The fact of the matter is that while other teams may have more talented players, no team, including Butler, can reach to the end of the bench like Milwaukee can to come up with serious players.  In February and March, when the season really gets going, the Panthers will benefit from a conditioned, rested team.  Boyle will not need to play 35 minutes a game as he did as a junior in 2008-09.  Don’t take my word for it, look at the Panthers’ 9-2 finish last year, when they were a far tougher opponent for Butler in the Horizon League tournament than Wright State was.  Make no mistake, spoken by a homer or not, the Milwaukee Panthers are going to be a very tough team in 2010-11.

Ray McCallum Jr. will be the young floor general for his dad's Titans this season

2. Detroit – Where Milwaukee has depth, Detroit has talent.  Amazing talent.  Ray McCallum Jr. is just one recruiting coup that papa Ray pulled off for the Titans.  Eli Holman may be the strongest post player in the Horizon League with the biggest pro upside.  Chase Simon is, plainly said, a scorer.  This season, Chase Simon will return as the Titans leading scorer, and then you give him a parent-coached point guard that was 11th-best overall recruit in the country?  Yikes.  Simons might average 20 this season.  Still, they’re not quite over the top; Woody Payne is far less a loss than is Xavier Keeling.  Keeling would have been the perfect third guard in this year’s Titan lineup, but left when it came out that Ray Jr. was coming.  Keeling does like playing with the ball in his hands, but is a decent spot-up shooter and would have put Detroit near the top.  Coach McCallum has a very talented team, but they’re not terribly deep and historically are very streaky.  They were robbed at Calihan Hall last year against Butler, but the fact of the matter is that while they can play with anyone, they are too inconsistent to put over the top.  Which brings us to…

1. Butler – The Bulldogs are the definition of consistency.  Coach Brad Stevens pulled off a seamless transition from Todd Lickliter’s departure, and it wasn’t just because he was Lickliter’s assistant.  Stevens is a proven winner in his own right, and has a way with young players in recruiting and coaching because he is young himself.  Stevens’ success at Butler certainly played a part in the hirings of Brian Wardle at Green Bay and Billy Donlon at Wright State.  The cultivation of the Butler Way has a similar albeit contrasting effect to that of Hoya Paranoia in the 1980’s.  It’s a cultural phenomenon, something that has taken hold of the city of Indianapolis and the campus of Butler University.  Mid-majors around the country, including us in Milwaukee, weep at the sight of the campus community buying into the basketball team wholesale.  The fact that I have written a full paragraph without mentioning a single player is a real testament to the Bulldogs’ team first mantra.

The departure of Gordon Hayward is no joke; he was a legitimate lottery pick and went in the Top 10 in this year’s draft.  But like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland State, the Bulldogs had a strong recruiting class. Khyle Marshall figures to step into the starting lineup immediately, and a year of learning will only help Andrew Smith become a dominant force in the post for the Dawgs.

I will put out these early, early rankings with the disclaimer that I feel like from 1-7, any team can win on any given night.  Green Bay very well may finish 4th, and Detroit very well may finish 6th.  This is just one man’s opinion of where we stand on July 6th.

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