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Horizon Preview

November 11, 2002 Conference Notes No Comments

Horizon League Preview

by John Casper, Jr.

The Horizon League has done everything it can to be recognized as a premiere mid-major conference.

Over the past several season, this oft-overlooked conference has done anything and everything to make a name for itself. It changed its name from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference two seasons ago to the Horizon so others wouldn’t confuse it with the Mid-American Conference or the Mid-Continent Conference. Now, Horizon Commissioner Jon LeCrone has decided to change the format of the league tournament. Instead of playing the championship game at a neutral site, the host city should have a vested interest in the game.

While the format change will not go into full effect until the 2004-05 season, gradual changes will begin immediately. Since the league promised Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Butler would host the tournament in 2003 and 2004, respectively, those schools will still host should they finish among the top three during their respective years as scheduled host. If either school finishes in fourth place or below during the respective years in which they are scheduled to host, then they will need to advance to the second round in order to maintain hosting rights.

Under the tournament’s “pure” format, which will begin in 2004-05, the event would begin on a Tuesday with three first round games matching teams seeded four through nine with the fourth, fifth and sixth seeded teams hosting their respective contests. Friday and Saturday games will feature the second and semifinal rounds to be played at the site of the regular season champion. Should that No. 1 seed advance to the championship game, it will continue to serve as host. If the No. 1 seed is upset, then the championship game moves to the site of the highest remaining seed.

Sound confusing? For the most part it is. But it guarantees that the host city for the championship game will actually have an interest in the game, not like last season when Illinois-Chicago beat Loyola in a thrilling overtime game seen by thousands of empty seats at the Cleveland Convocation Center.

“The reason we did it was that we had a really great (championship) game last year, but there was nobody there to watch it,” LeCrone said. “There might have been a lot of interest in Chicago for that game, but there wasn’t much interest in Cleveland.

“We have to accept that’s the way our league is. Instead of letting everybody host, it’s time to take the championship game to the home court.”

Although that means that UWM and Butler might be missing out on hosting the league tournament, both coaches were for the idea.

“It’s a great thing and was absolutely the right thing for the conference to do,” UWM coach Bruce Pearl said. “It was a needed change.”

Not only should the change put more people in the seats at the championship game, it will also guarantee the Butler debacle of last year won’t happen. Arguably the best team not to make the NCAA tournament last season, the Bulldogs were upset by No. 8-seed UWGB in the quarterfinals of the league tournament. The result – Butler was sent to the NIT.

This year’s conference should have a Wisconsin feel to it, with Pearl pointing the Panthers in the right direction and former Marquette assistant Tod Kowalczyk taking over the reins at Wisconsin Green-Bay. Here is how this year should shape up:

1. Wisconsin-Milwaukee (16-13, 11-5, T-2nd)

The Panthers begin and end with senior swingman Clay Tucker, who led the team in nearly every statistical category last season and should do the same this season. Ronnie Jones and Jason Frederick join Tucker in the backcourt to form one of the most explosive scoring trios in the country. Any one of them has the ability to drop 20 points on any night. Another addition to the group – Colorado transfer Jose Winston – will give UWM an even more explosive look off the bench.

Down low, the Panthers are hurting. Offseason injuries to James Wright and Adrian Tigert will definitely hurt the Panthers in the post. Justin Lettenberger and Nathan Mielke will have to shoulder the load. With that lack of a post game, expect Pearl to push up the tempo even more, trying to create scoring opportunities for his talented guards.

Early season tests on the road at Wisconsin and Georgia might not be the last time UWM has a chance to knock-off some big name schools. Although the program has never reached a postseason tournament outside of its conference, this should be the year. Playing in the first ESPN Bracket Buster Saturday will help with exposure, but look for UWM to really make noise come March.

2. Loyola (17-13, 9-7 T-4th)

It’s hard for one player to carry a team, but Loyola’s David Bailey will have to do just that this season. Bailey only stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 150 pounds, but the senior will be expected to carry the load for the Ramblers this season. Bailey should be the league player of the year this season.

Vasilis Tsimprliaridis will pose more problems for not only the opposing teams’ public address announcer, but their perimeter defense as well. Tsimprliaridis got out of the gates quickly last season and should do the same this season.

Down low, the Ramblers are in need of scoring, and senior forward David Minnifield will be the top option but replacing graduating senior Ryan Blankson’s 10 rebounds a game will be a challenge.

Loyola came within seconds of reaching the NCAA tournament last season, and Bailey could lead them back to the league championship game again this season. If Bailey can get the penetration he needs and if Tsimprliaridis can knock down the 3-ball, this team should be tough to beat.

3. Detroit (18-12, 11-5, T-2nd)

Willie Green, a senior shooting guard, will carry this team after being hampered by a foot injury last season. Forward Terrell Riggs provides a solid low-post presence that should give the Titans a 1-2 punch on offense.

JC transfer Rulon Harris will be expected to contribute major minutes right away, and this could be the weak area for the Titans – especially on defense. Coach Perry Watson and his teams have been known for great defense, but that area might be a little short this year.

4. Butler (25-5, 12-4, 1st)

After the team’s most successful senior class graduated last season, including league MVP Ryan Hainje. Joel Cornette can play the No. 4 or No. 5 position will have to carry most of the scoring burden for the Bulldogs, as will guards Darrell Archey and Brandon Miller. An unforeseen factor this season may be the Grunst brothers – Andy and Ben. Both were redshirted their freshman season, and although Ben has been at Butler for two more seasons, expect Andy to play more of a role on the team this season.

After years of looking down on the Horizon from the top, Butler will have the experience of fighting in the middle. Postseason tournaments are not out of the question, but don’t expect anything like last season’s 25-5 record.

5. Wisconsin-Green Bay (9-21, 4-21, 8th)

The only thing keeping the Phoenix from a spot amongst the league’s elite is a tumultuous offseason. Julian Swartz, a transfer from Wisconsin, and Maurice Wade, a recruit from Milwaukee Vincent high school, are both off the team. Swartz left for personal reasons, as he suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. Wade was kicked off by new coach Tod Kowalczyk for skipping nearly all of his summer classes and workout drills.

Even with the departures of Swartz and Wade, the team should still be tough to beat.

The league’s most underrated center, Greg Babcock, returns along with post player Mike King, who missed much of last season with a back injury. A question mark on the team is the backcourt, but incoming frosh Terry Parker Jr. and transfer Marshall Williams could form one of the league’s top backcourts, second only to UWM. However, Williams hasn’t played Division I basketball in nearly two seasons after leaving North Carolina State. The guard wanted to transfer to Marquette, but instead wound up at Vincennes in Indiana for a year. If his knee can keep up and he can get back into playing shape, expect big things out of Williams.

6. Illinois-Chicago (20-13, 8-8, 6th)

The Flames shocked everyone in the Horizon League by winning the tournament championship, and they have the tools to maybe do the same again. Cedrick Banks is a great post player, but at 6-foot-2 is severely lacking in the height department. Martell Bailey, brother of David Bailey, is a true point guard but doesn’t have the scoring capability of his brother.

The bottom line is that teams with any post presence at all can dominate the Flames down low, forcing Bailey to have near-flawless performances at the point. While they have nearly everyone returning from last season, the rest of the league has become remarkably improved in their weak areas. The Flames could pull off a repeat performance of last season, but teams like UWM and Detroit can wear them down.

7. Wright State (17-11, 9-7, T-4th)

The key to the Raiders’ offense is the post play. Seth Doliboa and Thomas Hope will be counted on for combined totals of 30 points and 15 rebounds a game. The major weakness for Wright State is the outside shooting. Gone is Cain Doliboa who led the nation in 3-point percentage. Finding someone to replace a scorer like that is a tough task for anyone, much less a struggling mid-major. Expect the Raiders to play its perimeter game by committee, with JC transfer Trent Vaughn shouldering most of the load.

8. Cleveland State (12-16, 6-10, 7th)

When Cleveland State found success last year, it was due largely in part to wings Theo Dixon and Jamaal Harris, both of whom graduated. Offense will be a big question mark for the Vikings this season.

On defense, senior forwards Andre Williams and Tahric Gosley, center Pape Badiane and JC transfer Amadou Koundoul will make it difficult for teams to score inside.

The main attraction for Cleveland State continues to be its coach, Rollie Massimino, who will struggle again this season trying to duplicate the magic from his 1985 national championship at Villanova.

9. Youngstown State (5-23, 2-14, 9th)

In its second year in the Horizon, don’t expect much from Youngstown State. The team is young, with only one senior on the roster and two JC transfers expected to contribute right away. The one senior, however, is the point guard – Marlon Williamson. Williamson is not the most talented player on the floor, but he is the most experienced, and that can’t hurt the Penguins.

The bottom line is that this team is too inexperienced and not talented enough to compete with the Detroits, the Butlers and the UWMs of this league. Expect another 20-loss season as the punching bag of the Horizon.

All Horizon-League Team:
David Bailey, Loyola
Clay Tucker, UWM
Joel Cornette, Butler
Greg Babcock, UWGB
Willie Green, Detroit

Most Valuable Player:
Clay Tucker, UWM

Newcomer of the Year:
Marshall Williams, UWGB

Coach on the Hot Seat:
Rollie Massimino, Cleveland State. Sure, its great to have a big name at the school, but when is he going to start winning?


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