If you’re looking for a potential surprise team when Horizon League conference games kick off, look no further than Illinois Chicago.
It should be said that it’s still unlikely for anyone except Detroit Mercy to unseat Butler as conference champion (and for more on the Bulldog juggernaut, keep reading), but the Flames have established themselves as an entertaining, talented team and one that will bear watching throughout the season.
Hot off a solid performance in the Las Vegas Classic, the Flames have another tough tournament ahead on Dec. 28 and 29, when they meet Hofstra in the first round of the USF Holiday Classic. Winning that game will likely earn a date with South Florida, which has been one of the surprise teams in the nation so far this year.
UIC opened the season with wins against Indiana State and Evansville, a pair of tough Missouri Valley Conference teams, then in Las Vegas, the Flames bounced back from a narrow loss to Purdue to defeat Texas A & M and Southwest Missouri State to earn a spot in the third-place game, where they almost beat a tough Mississippi State team.
All this from a team picked by the media in the preseason to finish sixth in the conference. One of the reasons for the quick improvement has been balanced scoring, giving opposing defenses no one to focus on. In fact, the Flames might have the most balanced scoring in all the nation.
Check out the scoring averages of the five starters (as of Dec. 21) – Thor Solverson (10.4), Jonathan Schneiderman (10.1), Cedric Banks (10.0), Jordan Kardos (9.4) and Cory Little (6.4). In addition, sixth man Armond Williams is averaging 8.9 points per game.
The rapid maturation of sophomores Banks and Martell Bailey – much hyped recruits from a year ago – means the Horizon’s Big Two of Butler and Detroit had better be looking over their shoulders and not next season either.
Fast start?: Wright State has had as successful a non-conference slate as anyone except Butler, but the first three league games will go a long way toward determining how good the Raiders can be this year.
WSU posted an impressive 7-3 mark in the non-conference including blowout wins in its last three contests against Oakland, Santa Clara and Prairie View by an average of 23 points per game.
But the Horizon schedule maker didn’t treat the Raiders very kindly, drawing four straight road contests, including Butler in the conference opener on Jan. 2 and Detroit Mercy on Jan. 12.
Will the polls call?: Butler continued its non-conference dominance with a 75-66 win over then-No. 21 Ball State on the road to run its record to 11-0. With only a contest against Samford remaining, the Bulldogs will likely head into the conference schedule undefeated – but will it be as a member of the Top 25?
Butler has slowly been creeping up the “Also Receiving Votes” list, but it’s a toss-up as to whether it’ll crack the list. Regardless, they’ve made a strong case to the NCAA Tournament selection committee and should be an at-large selection to the tournament with four conference losses or less if they stumble in the conference tournament.
The Bulldogs losing less than four games during the conference season? A lead pipe cinch.
Home streak continues: After running down a fairly competitive non-conference home schedule, Detroit Mercy now has the second longest home winning streak in the nation at 35. That streak is going to be tested mightily with its next home contest – Jan. 10 against Butler.
The Titans don’t even have the longest streak in Michigan, however, as Michigan State has 53 straight home wins.
Big win for newcomer: Youngstown State has had and will likely continue to have troubles in its first Horizon League season, but the Penguins (2-6) posted as big a win as any team in the conference on Dec. 15 after upsetting defending Mid-American Conference champion Kent State.
The win, YSU’s first in 41 years against the Golden Flashes, came as the Penguins rallied from a 17-point second half deficit, the first time in six years they were able to come back from such a large deficit and win.