OK, it’s time for some midseason awards. Without further ado…
Player of the Year: Before the conference season started, Butler’s Thomas Jackson looked like a stone cold lock to win player of the year honors, but no one has been as impressive or meant as much to his team as Loyola Chicago’s David Bailey.
Bailey is far and away the Horizon’s leader in scoring with 21.8 points per game, but he’s also an effective floor leader for the Ramblers. About the only part of his game where he could use some work is handling the ball a little better. His 75 turnovers lead the league.
Surprise of the Year: Other than Butler losing three of its first five conference games, I’d have to go with the rapid improvement of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Loyola Chicago. Both teams bounced back from so-so non-conference results and have overtaken preseason favorites Butler and Detroit.
Loyola has come back to earth after its 6-0 start by getting waxed by Butler, but will be a factor for the rest of the season. UWM played probably the toughest non-conference schedule in the league and it has paid off with several hard-fought wins.
You’ll hear from Butler and Detroit in the postseason tournament, but the strong play of some other clubs, including Wright State and Illinois Chicago, means the conference tournament is going to be more wide open than anyone expected.
Coach of the Year: This is a pretty wide open race, but it looks to come down to a couple of first-year coaches – Butler’s Todd Lickliter and Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Bruce Pearl.
My vote right now goes to Pearl, because he’s done more with less, but if Butler runs the table in their remaining conference games, as they’re capable of doing, Lickliter will probably take the honors.
Freshman of the Year: This award is usually a double-edged sword, since the team’s that give freshmen the most playing time are typically the one’s that struggle the most. Also, since most Horizon teams don’t lose underclassmen to the NBA Draft, there’s less playing time for talented freshmen.
However, Youngstown State’s Doug Underwood has scored 11.8 points per game for an ever-improving Penguins team and should be the cornerstone of YSU’s plans to build a competitive team in the league.
Upset of the Year: It would be tempting to note Butler’s win over Indiana in the Hoosier Classic, but I believe Youngstown State’s win over Kent State was even more shocking. Kent State is one of the 40 best teams in the country also and overmatches Youngstown at almost every position. That upset alone helps make Youngstown inaugural season in the Horizon a successful one.
Disappointment of the Year: It was no secret that it is a rebuilding year at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Two freshman have started most of the team’s games, but the Phoenix have been almost non-competitive, losing all but one of their conference games by more than nine points. It’s a stark contrast to a program which put fear into major schools only a half-decade ago.
Story of the Year: The continuing success of Detroit at Calihan Hall, where it now holds the nation’s longest home-winning streak at 38 games. The Titans are the last team in college basketball to have not lost a home game in this new century – their last loss was against Butler in January of 1999. BYU holds the nation’s second longest streak at 30 games.
Projected NCAA Tournament teams: Butler. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs not winning the conference tournament. If they don’t, they’ll have a 50-50 chance of getting an at-large bid if they win the rest of their regular season games.
Projected NIT teams: Butler is a lock if they don’t make the Big Dance. Perhaps Detroit if they finish the season strong.