Quizzes passed; exam is next

Michigan State poses a much greater challenge than the Panthers have faced this season.

One team is 4-0. The other team is 2-2.  Cakewalk, right?

Of course not.  Because that 2-2 team is Michigan State, and their two losses are to fellow national elite programs North Carolina and Duke.  They’re the rulers of the Big Ten, the team whose last year outside the NCAA Tournament was 1997.

So how do the Michigan State Spartans stack up this season?  The team has obviously faced better competition than Milwaukee has, with decent results.

Familiar face, new jersey - take advantage of Wood's weak perimeter defense to get open shots.

Michigan State is ranked 25th in the nation in rebounding with 42.6 boards per contest.  The team has been held to just 40.4% shooting on the season, 250th in the nation.

But what is it that makes this Michigan State team a tough draw for Milwaukee?

Speed, speed and speed.  The Spartans have a familiar face to Panther fans, Brandon Wood, in the starting lineup, ready to run the court with anyone in the country.  Tomorrow, Wood gets to see a team that ended his conference tournament last year.

If the Panthers are to win, they need to do two things – they need to get back in transition and they need to stop MSU from getting second-chance points.  These two pieces, in addition to the obvious effective shooting, will put the Panthers in position to win the game.

Michigan State is not the best shooting team in the country.  They lost games against North Carolina and Duke because they missed many open looks and forced several bad shots.  They won the other two games by playing the offensive boards hard, creating those second-chance opportunities.  If the Panthers can play the defensive glass hard and force their will on the Spartans down low, they can limit those second-chance opportunities and maybe, just maybe, control the flow of the game.

Tomorrow would be a good day for McCallum to keep up his great shooting.

The other part of beating the Spartans is to get back in transition.  Because they’re a marginal shooting team, the Spartans try to create better shot opportunities by getting defensive rebounds and making quick outlet passes to score fast.  Being able to put the defense on their heels right away is what gets Michigan State better looks.  If the Panthers can’t play the offensive glass strong and/or shoot the ball well enough to win, the day could be a long one.

Defensively, Michigan State is as big and physical as they are on offense.  They give up shots, but take defensive rebounding very seriously as it’s a big part of their transition offense.  Milwaukee can get open looks by taking advantage of their perimeter defense (see: Brandon Wood guarding Kaylon Williams, 2011 Horizon Semifinals) and making open looks when they get them.

If Milwaukee can do those three things – get back on transition D, limit second-chance points and shoot effectively – they will have a great shot to win the game.

Go Panthers!

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Horizon League Power Rankings (February 22 – 28)

The Horizon League holds steady in the conference RPI ranks remaining ahead of the Missouri Valley Conference for 11th this week.

In descending order…

10. UIC (Overall Record: 6-23, Conference Record: 2-16, RPI: 288)

Recent Results: Lost to Valparaiso 79-65

The season is drawing to a close for the Flames.  A couple bright lights on a dim season:  Senior F Paul Carter – Finished on the all-newcomer team averaging 14.6 points and 8 rebounds per game.  Senior G Robo Kreps – Would have received consideration for the all-conference third team (if one rightfully existed) averaging 16 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 2.9 assists per game.  Next year will be a fresh start for coach Howard Moore.  It’s time for Moore to put his stamp on this program.  Projected conference tournament finish: Lose in the first round; no postseason

Up Next: Tuesday at Cleveland State (22-7)

9. Youngstown State (7-20, 2-16, 291)

Recent Results: Lost to Green Bay 71-60, Lost to Milwaukee 94-87 (OT)

The Penguins came within inches of ruining Milwaukee’s season, but like so many games before, they came up just short.  Youngstown State finished with just one player receiving any conference accolades.  Sophomore F Damian Eargle – Averaging 11 PPG, 5.9 RPG and 3 blocks per game, Eargle had the best season of any Penguin and finished as a member of the all-newcomer team.  Eargle could have also made a strong case for the All-Defensive team.  Projected Finish: Lose in the first round; no postseason

Up Next: Tuesday at Valparaiso (19-10)

8. Loyola (16-14, 7-11, 195)

Recent Results: Beat Valparaiso 68-48, Lost to Butler 63-56

The Ramblers were able to squeak out one more conference win in a dismal conference season.   The Ramblers finished with one player in the conversation for any conference accolades.  Senior G Geoff McCammon – On his way to earning the Horizon League’s Sixth Man of the Year award, McCammon averaged 14.5 PPG and 3 RPG while averaging 43.2% from beyond the arc (and ironically leading the team with 30.9 minutes per game).   One could make the case that sophomore F Ben Averkamp was a third team performer.    Projected Finish: Lose in the first round; no postseason

Up Next: Tuesday at Detroit (15-15)

7. Green Bay (13-17, 8-10, 164)

Recent Results: Beat Youngstown State 71-60, Lost to Cleveland State 64-57

A big round of applause is deserved for senior G Rahmon Fletcher who ends his career as one of the greatest Phoenix of all time.  The diminutive point guard finished the year as a member of the all-conference second team averaging 16 PPG and 3 APG.  Fletcher should have a nice long career overseas.  Also finishing with postseason accolades is freshman C Alec Brown.  Named to the all-newcomer team, Brown finished the season with 10 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 2.1 BPG.  Projected Finish: Lose in the first round; no postseason

Up Next: Tuesday at Wright State (16-13)

6. Detroit (15-15, 10-8, 146)

Recent Results: Beat Wright State 77-67

A nice win to end an unsuccessful regular season for the Titans, but they’ll have a lot of work to do if they wish to reach the NCAA tournament.  Still, in all of their mediocrity, they pulled in a bunch of postseason awards.  Freshman G Ray McCallum Jr. was named the Newcomer of the Year in the Horizon League as well as to the all-newcomer team and all-conference second team.  It’s a pretty impressive haul, but it left some people wondering if it was well deserved, or if it was just a product of being a McDonald’s All-American.  Junior F/C Eli Holman also pulled in honors as a member of the all-conference second team and the all-defensive team.  Again, some question whether Holman was truly worthy of the second team.    Projected Finish: Lose in the second round; no postseason

Up Next: Tuesday vs. Loyola (16-14)

5. Wright State (16-13, 10-8, 128)

Recent Results: Lost to Cleveland State 74-72, Beat Hofstra 82-56

The Raiders slipped in their last game of the year and will now take on the Green Bay Phoenix in the first round.  One man that should will them to victory is first team all-conference senior G Vaughn Duggins.  Duggins truly had an outstanding season averaging 18 PPG and 3.8 RPG.  His backcourt mate N’Gai Evans earned second team all-conference with 14.2 PPG, 4 RPG, and 3.3 APG.    Projected Finish: Lose in the second round; no postseason

Up Next: Friday vs. Detroit (14-15)

4. Valparaiso (19-10, 12-6, 71)

Recent Results: Lost to Loyola 68-48, Beat UIC 79-65

Valpo faltered down the stretch, losing 3 of their last 4 and squandering an opportunity for a first round bye.  Still, the Crusaders had a successful season with Junior G Brandon Wood leading the way as a first-team all-conference player.   A case could have been made for Ryan Broekhoff to be included on the second-team, but he’d have to settle for consideration for the third-team.  The Crusaders would have had a much better season had Cory Johnson not regressed so much in his senior year.  Projected Finish: Lose in the Semifinals; CBI/CIT

Up Next: Tuesday vs. Youngstown State (7-20)

3. Cleveland State (22-7, 13-5, 37)

Recent Results: Lost to Milwaukee 87-83, Beat Green Bay 64-57

The Vikings blew a huge opportunity that now puts them behind the eight ball.  Losing to Milwaukee at home dropped them to third in the pecking order, and quite possibly ruined what was a fantastic season.  Senior G Norris Cole, who is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s best point guard, is 2011’s Horizon League Player of the Year.  He also placed on the all-defensive team as the Defensive Player of the Year.  Clearly, Cole is a special player that should find a place on an NBA bench.  Also receiving postseason honors is junior G Trevon Harmon who is a member of the all-defensive team.  Projected Finish: Lose in the Semifinals; NIT

Up Next: Tuesday vs. UIC (6-23)

Matt Howard gave his blood, sweat, and tears to the Butler program. Bulldog fans should be proud.

2. Butler (20-9, 13-5, 45)

Recent Results: Beat Loyola 63-56

The Bulldogs didn’t quite finish where they hoped, but they still have a chance at accomplishing their goal of making it back to the NCAA tournament.  Outgoing senior F Matt Howard has had an outstanding career and caps it off as a member of the all-conference first team as well as the all-defensive team.  Congratulations to him on an outstanding career.  Also, Junior G Shelvin Mack finished on the second-team and Ronald Nored finished on the all-defensive team.  Projected Finish: Win the Horizon League Tournament; NCAA Tournament Auto Bid

Up Next: Saturday vs. UIC/Cleveland State/Green Bay/Wright State (at Milwaukee)

Ryan Allen has been a tremendous spark of the bench for Horizon League COY Rob Jeter.

1. Milwaukee (18-12, 13-5, 98)

Recent Results: Beat Cleveland State 87-83, Beat Youngstown State 94-87 (OT)

What an incredible story these Panthers have to tell.  Finding themselves sitting at seventh place in conference play at a 4-5 record, and just coming off a 60-43 thrashing at the hands of Valpo, the Panthers knew something had to change.  They held a team meeting where everything was laid out on the table.  Nothing was held back.   And the rest?  Well, that’s what we like to call history folks.  Senior F Anthony Hill went on to average 20 PPG, 6.5 RPG and shoot 76.6% at the stripe over this 9-game stretch and earned first team all-conference along the way.  Junior PG Kaylon Williams would go on to average 7.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG (!) and 7.8 APG (!) while earning a spot on the all-newcomer team (and certainly made a case for the second-team).   Junior G/F Ryan Allen was asked to defend the opponent’s best guard in crunch time, and while he didn’t play the minutes necessary to earn a spot on the all-defensive team, he was as important to his team as any other player.  Finally, head coach Rob Jeter improved as a coach so much that he earned the Horizon League Coach of the Year award; a well deserved honor for a guy who put all his faith in his vocal point guard, and had a lot of help from his qualified assistants.  Projected Finish: Lose in the Championship Game; NIT

Up Next: Saturday vs. Youngstown State/Valparaiso/Loyola/Detroit

Horizon League Power Rankings (Week 2)

Following the second full week of the season, the Horizon League is 34-21 against Division I opponents.

Plenty of movement in the rankings this week as will continue to be the case in the early part of the season.

In descending order…

10. UIC (3-3, 190)

Recent Results: Lost to Central Michigan 62-52, Beat Toledo 63-62

I know they have a .500 record so far, but I simply can’t be impressed by the Flames’ two victories over Toledo so far.  Toledo is in the bottom 10 teams in the entire country.  This is a team the Flames are supposed to beat, and with the help of a game-winning Robo Kreps three, fortunately they did.  To be fair, this isn’t the same lowly UIC team from a year ago.

Up Next: Thursday at Valparaiso

9. Milwaukee (Record: 3-4, RPI: 246)

Recent Results: Lost to Western Michigan 67-55, Lost to Marquette 75-72

The Panthers drop to 9th despite performing admirably against cross-town rival Marquette on Saturday.  Losing two home games in a week is never a good thing, especially when one of them comes to the hands of Western Michigan in the form of a blowout.  Even though it still counts in the loss column, their game against Marquette revealed that Ja’Rob McCallum (19 points) is ready to step up.

Up Next: Thursday vs. Youngstown State

8. Wright State (2-3, 201)

Recent Results: Beat Oakland 82-79, Lost to Richmond 71-61, Lost to Southern Illinois 56-50

I’m not yet sure what to make of the Raiders.  Obviously, they’re going to get destroyed in the post all season.  They’re ranked 323rd in the nation in rebounds per game!  The problem with that is they’re only making 40.1% of their shots…  This will become a severe problem this week against Cincinnati and Detroit.  Don’t be surprised to see them fall farther down this list.

Up Next: Wednesday at Cincinnati

7. Green Bay (2-3, 175)

Recent Results: Lost to IUPUI 63-46, Beat North Dakota State 71-69

Yikes!  The Phoenix have had quite the up and down week.  After being destroyed by a pretty pathetic IUPUI team, the Phoenix come back with a nail biter at home against North Dakota State.  This team is going to take its lumps this year if Bryquis Perine can’t find a more consistent shooting stroke (38.2% from the field).

Up Next: Thursday vs. Cleveland State

5. Valparaiso (2-2, 61)

Ryan Broekhoff

Stud sophomore Ryan Broekhoff has been a key cog for Valpo early

 

Recent Results: Lost to Ohio 78-75, Beat Northern Colorado 76-61, Beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 68-62

Sophomore G Ryan Broekhoff has been a breakout star for the Crusaders early in the season.  In their loss against Ohio, the Australian sharpshooter tallied 24 points on 9-13 shooting and 7 rebounds.  One point of concern however, has been Brandon Wood‘s dismal shooting.  He had been making up for it with brilliant point guard work until Saturday when he laid an egg against Texas A&M-CC (4 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist).  Once he snaps out of it, the Crusaders will be a well oiled offensive machine.

Up Next: Thursday at UIC

5. Youngstown State (4-1, 149)

Recent Results: Beat Toledo 73-67, Beat St. Francis (PA) 91-63

Break up the Penguins!  Led by senior G Vytas Sulskis, the Penguins have a whole new attitude this year and have been the surprise of the Horizon League early.  Damian Eargle has been a shot-blocking force and is a strong presence down low, while Devonte Maymon has added the scoring punch necessary to see his team in the top 100 of Division I teams in scoring so far this season.  The schedule gets a tad more difficult in the coming weeks.  We’ll see if the Penguins are for real.

SPOILER ALERT: they’re not

Up Next: Thursday at Milwaukee

4. Detroit (3-3, 150)

Recent Results: Beat Albany 84-82, Beat Bowling Green 71-62, Beat Niagara 96-77

It took them a little while, but it looks like the Titans are starting to get it together.  Despite needing 2 overtimes to dispatch of the mediocre Great Danes of Albany, Detroit has been on fire offensively.  Eli Holman has looked like an all conference player, and as a team, the Titans have the 18th most rebounds per game in the country.

Up Next: Wednesday vs. Akron

3. Butler (2-2, 76)

Recent Results: Beat Siena 70-57, Lost to Evansville 71-68

Without Ronald Nored, who could miss up to another week with a concussion, the Bulldogs look a bit lost on offense. Shelvin Mack struggled to get open and was forcing shots (3-13 from the field) that just couldn’t find the bottom of the net.  At this point, Butler looks like it could lose by 30 to defending champion Duke, who they will face in a rematch this week.  This is not the cinderella story of yesteryear.

Up Next: Wednesday at Loyola

2. Loyola (7-0, 69)

Recent Results: Beat Alabama State 74-46, Beat San Francisco 63-62

The Ramblers have taken a similar path to last season in non-conference play.  The question again is, can they continue their dominant play to the conference portion of the schedule?  Last week I mentioned Jordan Hicks’ true shooting percentage.  This week I need to point out G Terrance Hill‘s.  The man has a 70.2% true shooting percentage, which highlights just how efficient he has been from the field.  Eventually, some of these numbers will come back to earth.  Rambler fans are hoping it doesn’t happen until AFTER their upcoming tussle with Butler.

Up Next: Wednesday vs. Butler

Norris Cole

Norris Cole has done it all early for CSU. Will he get help from his teammates in their quest for the Big Dance?

 

1. Cleveland State (8-0, 25)

Recent Results: Beat Akron 64-51, Beat St. Bonaventure 69-51, Beat Robert Morris 58-53

Here you have it.  The Horizon League’s top team after this week.  Norris Cole has officially put this team on his back.  In the last 7 days, Cole has averaged 21.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2 steals per game.  Two key road league games this week will be a true test for the Vikings, but they could legitimately win both if they can get consistent play from Aaron Pogue, and dominating guard play from their trio of sharpshooters Cole, Jeremy Montgomery and Tre Harmon.

Up Next: Thursday at Green Bay

Five Impact Rookie Guards

Ever year, the Horizon League gets bigger.  On the Sweet 16 Panther team in 2005, Adrian Tigert was playing center at 6’7” a majority of his time on the floor.  This season, Tigert might get mugged if he were to go down low with big men like Eli Holman, Anthony Hill, Andy Polka and Andrew Smith.  The players aren’t always taller, but they’re bigger bodies, wider and stronger.

The fact of the matter is, however, that the Horizon League has always been a guard-dominated league.  I’ve made the argument that this may be the best collective back court in the history of the conference, and I stand behind that.  Not only is the returning guard corp very strong, but newcomers entering the conference are also of very high quality.  Let’s take a look at five rookie guards that will make an impact in the Horizon League.

Calliste is the Pepperoni Pizza Combo guard

Jason Calliste sat on the bench last season while he watched the Detroit Titans rattle off 20 wins, challenge Butler in two games, and ultimately finish seventh in the Horizon League.  Calliste averaged 24 points and 11 assists as a senior at the Quality Education Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Growing up in Canada, Calliste honed his skills as a guard by taking thousands of shots and working on passing skills.  Calliste, more than any of the newcomers, embodies the “combo” guard (How appropriate, I just polished off a bag of pepperoni pizza combos). Calliste can run the fast break and a set half-court offense, which should allow Titans coach Ray McCallum Sr. the opportunity to give Ray McCallum Jr. a rest running the point.

McCallum comes into the conference with much fan fare

Ray McCallum Jr. is coming into the league with easily the most fan fare.  While he’s an incoming freshman and not an established college guard like Kaylon Williams, McCallum comes in with quite possibly the most fan fare of any player of Horizon League history.  Fans of the conference will remember the attention Butler got when Gordon Hayward turned down big-time schools for his chance with the Bulldogs, but McCallum’s hype far outstrips even that.  The fact of the matter is that McCallum wouldn’t even have thought of Detroit had his father not been the coach there, and with that comes expectations for him to blow away competition.  His ability to run the point is proven, and he can score from anywhere on the court.  Pairing him with Calliste will more than make up for the departure of Xavier Keeling and graduation of Woody Payne, and making Chase Simon, Detroit’s leading returning scorer, effectively a third heat.

Jay Harris joins an already high-powered Valpo offense.

While Ray Jr. is coming into Detroit as a highly regarded recruit, another top 150 player settled in down a state in Indiana.  Jay Harris is one of the highest-rated players to come into coach Homer Drew’s Valparaiso team in a long time, but many outside of northwest Indiana don’t even know it because Harris was outshined by the commitment of Ray Jr.  Starring for Oswego East in Illinois, Harris averaged a rocking 28.7 points per game for his senior season.

The intriguing thing about Harris is that he is such a high-scoring guard, and he’ll be entering the highest-powered offense in the Horizon League.  There’s not a lot of space to throw the ball along, with Cory Johnson among league leaders in scoring and Brandon Wood atop the list.  If there’s anything you should take to the bank, it is that the Crusaders walk into the 2010-11 season as the odds on favorites to score the most points, and Harris is a big part of that.

Hopkins, flying into a hoop near you.

Butler fans don’t have to go too far to find the home of incoming guard recruit Chrishawn Hopkins, who is a native of the city and attended Manual High School.  Hopkins struggles with defense, and will benefit from the Bulldog coaching staff’s defensive mentality.  If Hopkins can reduce his turnovers, Shelvin Mack will pass the torch to him whenever Mack finally heads to the NBA.  Hopkins will, however, be thrown into the mix early in his college career, and likely will be a part of the Butler rotation.  He’s extremely athletic, can play above the rim, shoots very well from three-point land (42%) and is a numbers junkie; he averaged three blocks and three steals his senior season to go along with 26 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.  He won’t be shouldering the whole load while a freshman, but it’s good for Butler fans to know they have great scoring coming to campus to offset Gordon Hayward’s departure.

Butler fans will remember Williams, who only played 19 minutes in this blowout loss at Hinkle.

The problem with all of these incoming recruits is that we don’t know how they’ll react to the college game.  Many players turn out to be busts because they can’t adjust to the speed of the game, or the complexity.  The difference with the last player on our list is we know he’s ready for the big show.  Kaylon Williams, who transferred into Milwaukee this season, spent last year at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa.  The year before that, he teamed up with James Haarsma (sitting out this year at MKE) on the Evansville Aces.  Williams led the Aces and the Missouri Valley Conference with 4.87 assists per game as a freshman before transferring.  He’s a distributor, plain and simple.  The Panthers have lacked a true point guard since Chris Hill graduated in 2006, a four-year span that saw the Panthers led by shooting guards converted to point guards.  Williams has size at 6’4” 185, something that will benefit him on the defensive end against guards in the Horizon League that tend to be strong.

One of the biggest benefits Williams brings to the Panthers is consistency.  The point guard only hit above 10 assists twice at Evansville, but only had one game in which he did not record an assist, a one-point loss at Wichita State where Williams pulled in seven rebounds and shot four of six from the field.

With the way guard play has already been in the Horizon League, and the players added here, suffice to say that the collective back court in the conference could rival any high-major conference.  And that means one thing: we have a really exciting season ahead.