It has been just one day short of a month since I wrote one of these notebooks, and I hope you’ll forgive me when you see the new and improved Hoopville site that it’s posted on. In four weeks of Horizon play that feel like forty, some interesting things have transpired in our league, some we might have expected – or should have expected – and some less so. And some still to be decided on the final week of regular season play beginning tonight.
First – as always – there’s Butler. Surprising to this writer, Butler has three losses in conference entering the final weekend of play, worst among which was a 71-67 home loss to uninspiring Loyola on February 15. Still, the Bulldogs are 13-3, one full-game ahead of second-place Wisconsin-Green Bay. With tie-breakers still murky (depending on the results this weekend at other venues), Butler will clinch the first seed with any combination of Butler wins and Green Bay losses this weekend totaling two, and clinch a tie for first with any combination totaling one.
Of course, the key is getting the first seed, the winner of which hosts the quarter and semifinal rounds of the conference tournament (and the final if they’re still playing). However, with double-byes to the conference semis for each of the first two seeds, a two-game lead in the standings plus the tie-breaker over third-place CSU means that Butler has already guaranteed itself a seed no worse than second, and therefore has clinched that coveted double-bye in the conference tourney.
Butler hosts improved Youngstown State tonight at Hinkle, and Cleveland State on Saturday (noon on ESPNU), while Green Bay plays at Detroit tonight, and at Wright State Saturday evening. After sitting in on CSU-Valparaiso tonight, this writer will catch both Butler’s and Green Bay’s Saturday games in person, with a drive from Indy to Dayton easily fitting in-between.
Back to Butler. After starting 10-0 in the league, the Bulldogs brought their gaudy 19-1 record into the Resch Center in Green Bay for a rematch with the Phoenix on February 2. With a full gym, local television audience, and many of us watching that telecast on the Horizon League Network, and focusing more on the double-bye available to the second seed than on overtaking Butler, Green Bay played a nearly perfect game. Led by guards Troy Cotton and Rahmon Fletcher (19 and 13 points respectively, and stellar defense holding Shelvin Mack to 10), and a monster game from senior sixth-man Ryan Tillema (21 points on 5-10 shooting, and 6 rebounds), the Phoenix evened the season series with Butler with a 75-66 win.
Now with a loss in conference, Butler stayed the course, winning its next three, the second a rousing win in a great basketball atmosphere down at Wright State. In that rarified atmosphere, Butler came out shooting the lights out (Zach Hahn was 5-5 in threes in the first half), went up big early, led by 18 at the half, and were never headed, winning by an identical 18-point margin.
Then there was Loyola. The Bulldogs had beaten the Ramblers by 23 in Chicago earlier, and while I was speaking metaphorically, I had suggested earlier this season in another publication that Loyola may not have a Division I player on its roster. Well, after wiping the egg off of my face, I can tell you that in what will be Loyola’s Super Bowl this season, they were led to a shocking 71-67 win by the perimeter play of Justin Cerasoli, later named conference Player of the Week (17 points, 5-8, 2-3, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 turnovers), and by truly remarkable interior play by Jordan Hicks (23 points, 8-16, 3-5, 8 rebounds, and a much better job fighting Matt Howard than Matt’s 30-point production suggests). With Butler’s three starting freshmen – Gordon Hayward, Ronald Nored and Mack – combining for just 21 points and shooting just 6-24 (2-16 from the arc), perhaps February 15 was the night those frosh hit the proverbial wall. That loss was followed three-days later by another, this time at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, by the score of 63-60.
Well, perhaps aided by Stephen Curry’s gimpy ankle, the ship was righted – at least for now – in Saturday’s Bracketbusters win at Davidson, 75-63. Rather then Curry putting on the show everyone expected, the show this day was put on by Butler’s Hayward, who scored 27 on 6-12 shooting, 4-7 from the arc, 11-12 from the line, and grabbed 9 boards. At least one of Butler’s freshmen seems to have come down off that “wall.” And still ranked in the top 25 (with a RPI of 20), unlike everyone else in the Horizon (and everyone in the MAC, and in the Colonial), one would think that if Butler stumbles in the Horizon Tournament, it will still receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. (I guess all those Big East schools are rooting for Butler to win out.)
Green Bay followed up its monster win over Butler with a home win over rival Wisconsin-Milwaukee, that second win of the year over the Panthers strengthening its hold on the second seed. At 12-4 and with a one-game lead on charging Cleveland State, the Phoenix also own the tiebreaker against the Vikings, and will lock up the second seed with a win tonight at Detroit (or with a CSU loss at Valpo). Currently at 21-8 overall, one would think the Green Bay folks gave up whatever slim hope they were harboring for an at-large bid when they went oh-for-Ohio on their February trip to Youngstown State and Cleveland State in losing 77-73 to YSU and 83-75 to CSU. The loss at YSU is perhaps the second-biggest upset all year long in the Horizon (second to Loyola over Butler). Having righted the ship at home against Valpo, and then winning the Bracketbusters at Long Beach State 86-75, it is likely the Phoenix will get that double-bye in the tournament, play with a week’s rest on a neutral court next Saturday against a team that had to play Tuesday and Friday, and if they win get another shot at Butler in Hinkle the following Tuesday. Of course, if Butler should be upset at home in Saturday’s semifinal, the Phoenix would host the final on Tuesday night up in frigid Green Bay. Then, while nothing is assured, if Green Bay doesn’t win the conference tourney, one would think they have an excellent chance of going to the NIT.
At last, pre-season favorite Cleveland State figured out how to win; excluding a Bracketbusters loss at Wichita State, the Vikings are on a seven-game win streak. Maybe it was the wakeup call of losing at YSU on January 23, a loss that with hindsight isn’t as bad as first thought. Maybe it’s the return from injury of wing defender and rebounder D’Aundray Brown. Maybe it’s the emergence of fellow sophomore Norris Cole (up to 8th in the league in scoring at 12.6 points per game, but more than that, a better and better defender at the guard position). And maybe it’s the favorable February schedule. But with its more difficult games at home in February, CSU has beaten Detroit at home, Wright State at home (despite Wright State having controlled tempo and outplaying the Vikes for 30 of 40 minutes), UIC away (on a monster 21-point, 7-9, 5-7 performance by freshman guard and Chicago native Jeremy Montgomery), Loyola away, Milwaukee and Green Bay at home, and then survived a struggle with YSU at home, 58-54, despite again being outplayed at home for three-quarters of the game.
Now that the Vikes are winning, just as earlier, the rock remains Player of the Year candidate undersized power-forward senior J’Nathan Bullock, who enters play tonight third in the league in scoring at 15.5 (behind Illinois-Chicago’s Josh Mayo and Green Bay’s Tillema), and fourth in the league in rebounding at 7.0 (behind only UIC’s Scott Vandermeer, YSU’s Sirlester Martin, and Butler’s Howard, and one spot ahead of the Horizon’s version of Duke’s Kyle Singler, Butler’s Hayward.
Behind Green Bay for second by both a full-game and the tiebreaker, CSU would have to sweep Valpo and Butler this weekend, and see Green Bay swept by Detroit and Wright State, to secure the second seed and a tournament double-bye. And while the line in the sand isn’t quite as deep between the third and fourth seeds, both Wright State and Milwaukee are just a game behind CSU. If the Vikes should end up tied with Wright State for third, the tiebreaker will give CSU the third seed. With either Milwaukee or with both Milwaukee and Wright State, Milwaukee would get that third seed. In any case, it is most likely that the Vikings will host a first round tournament game on Tuesday at Wolstein Arena.
Finally, sporting a 20-9 overall record, one might think the preseason favorites would have a shot at NIT if they don’t win the Horizon Tourney. However, their signature win at Syracuse is looking less and less impressive, they lost their other games to major conference opponents (Washington, Kansas State and West Virginia), and worst of all, three of their 20 wins are against sub-Division I opponents. So CSU is really 17-9, with two regular season games to go. Again assuming the Vikes don’t win the league tournament, oddly, while CSU is the only team I can think of saying this about, the Vikes just might benefit by a third seed in the tourney, rather than a second seed. That’s because a third seed at least gives the Vikes a chance at two more Division I wins (not great wins, but wins) in the early rounds of the conference tournament, before facing stiffer competition in the semi- and possibly final. Those two potential wins, a win or wins they get on this Valpo-Butler trip to end the regular season, and potentially a semi-final win in the tourney, could get the Vikes’ D-I win total up to 20 or 21, and give Gary Waters’ group at least a shot at the NIT.
Having earlier lost Vaughn Duggins for the season, and more recently John David Gardner, Wright State has played the second half of its season without two of its best and toughest players. Junior swingman Todd Brown from Canton-McKinley High School has emerged as the team’s best player, leading the team in scoring and second in rebounding with 11.3 points (17th in the league) and five boards. But where Brad Brownell’s no-name group has excelled is at the defensive end, reminding this writer of Bob Knight’s early teams at IU with tenacious yet disciplined half-court man-to man defense, holding opponents to 56.1 points per game, second in the country entering bracket-buster weekend. Shockingly given their personnel, the Raiders enter the final regular season weekend 16-12, 10-6 in conference, tied with Milwaukee in fourth place, with a shot at the third seed, and guaranteed to host a home game on Tuesday night. And I wouldn’t want to be Green Bay coming to Dayton to end the regular season on Saturday evening, particularly if somehow, the Phoenix still need a win to finish second.
Tied with Wright State, Milwaukee visits WSU tonight, a win guaranteeing the Panthers a finish no worse than fourth, and the tiebreaker for third if they gain a game on CSU. The story of February for the Panthers (now 10-6 in conference, 15-12 overall) has been former reserve and junior college transfer forward James Eayers, 6-7 and listed at a svelte 340, but who knows how big he really is. And he’s more of a perimeter than a post-player! Showing a quick first step, great hands, and a wonderfully soft touch, Eayers has carried the Panthers through February, including 15 points (5-11, 4-8) in the Panthers’ huge home win over Butler, and is now averaging 11 points, shooting 42 percent, and 34 percent from behind the arc.
Beginning with its home win over CSU on national television in a packed gymnasium, Jerry Slocum’s YSU Penguins have had a truly spectacular month, at 6-4 overall and 5-3 in conference. At a school that may be as hard to recruit for as there is in the conference (just ask Youngstown native D’Aundray Brown of CSU), Slocum has put the 7-9 Penguins in position to clinch the 6th seed and a Tuesday home game with a win either tonight against Butler, or Saturday at Valpo. If YSU goes oh-for-Indiana, they will still host Tuesday if UIC beats Loyola Friday night (YSU has the tiebreaker over UIC), but would fall to 7th and travel on Tuesday if Loyola beats UIC. For the Penguins, leading scoring junior two-guard Kelvin Bright has lacked consistency and is now Slocum’s sixth man; his 11.8 points per game are still 14th in the league. Fellow junior DeAndre Mays has shown consistency and leadership at the point, averaging 11 points, nearly 4 assists, and sporting an assist/turnover ratio of about 1.5. After dominating CSU at home, junior forward Sirlester Martin has improved at both ends, and is averaging 9.5 points and 8 boards (now second in the league in rebounding). And European sophomore Vytas Sulskis has come back from a mid-season benching better than before, as his minutes and scoring are back up (averaging 10 points), and he dominated the last three quarters of last week’s 4-point loss at CSU at the offensive end. And while media aren’t supposed to have favorites, I guess there’s a piece of me that hopes YSU holds on for 6th this weekend, earning one more home game.
After a monster non-conference season with wins at Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, UIC has fallen victim to tougher defense in conference on preseason Player-of-the-Year Josh Mayo. Box and 1′s, opponents’ best defenders, not helping off of Mayo, all have taken their toll, and the league’s leading scorer is down to 17 points per game, barely 1/10th of a point ahead of Green Bay’s Tillema. The best job on Mayo was done by Wright State in late January, mostly by guard Will Graham, who held Mayo scoreless for most of the game, and in the end to 6 late and meaningless points in a 57-31 win over the Flames. UIC did return the favor at home on February 18th, besting the Raiders 77-66 in overtime, though Mayo again found rough sledding against WSU, scoring just 13 on 4-15 shooting. The Flames visit Loyola to end the regular season on Friday night on national television, airtime on ESPNU at 9 pm eastern.
While Loyola, Valpo and Detroit haven’t fared as well, each had its moment in February. For Loyola, it was that stunning upset at Butler on February 15th. For Valpo, it was a great comeback win at home over favored Akron in the bracket-buster this past Saturday, 74-66. In a balanced attack, all five Valpo starters and sixth man De’Andre Haskins scored in double figures, and back in form, center Urule Igbavboa did what he does best, leading both teams in rebounds with 8. Having pushed Butler to the brink in Hinkle on January 10th (having a chance to tie before losing by 4), Detroit was the last Horizon team to get a win in conference play. But they finally got one, and on the road no less, besting Youngstown State in overtime on January 31, 68-64. Leading scorer Tom Kennedy led the way that night with 24 points on 9-15 shooting. Two games later Ray McCallum’s Titans got one for the home fans, besting Valpo 56-55 on a last-second free throw by Woody Payne.