Wisconsin-Green Bay has waited a long time to get back to the level of its NCAA Division I glory years of the 1990’s, but the Phoenix did so in a big way in 2013-14.
UW-Green Bay dominated the Horizon League for its first conference title since 1996, when it was on a run of four NCAA tourney bids in six years and back when the Horizon was still known as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. The Phoenix put together a sparkling 24-5 regular season record and was the class of the conference with a 14-2 league mark.
UWGB did it with style, too. It featured one of the better one-two punches in the country in athletic 5-11 guard Keifer Sykes and versatile 7-0 center Alec Brown. Sykes, the conference Player of the Year, averaged over 20 ppg and made highlight reels all season with his explosive leaping ability, while Brown was equally adept shooting the three or blocking shots. There was more, though. The Phoenix was easily the most athletic team in the Horizon and one of the more entertaining teams to watch anywhere. Green Bay and Wright State put on their own version of Phi Slamma Jamma in a Jan. 17 game on ESPNU, combining for 11 dunks, eight by the Phoenix in their 79-69 win.
The Phoenix was the Horizon’s best hope nationally and an NCAA Tournament at-large level team when healthy, but lingering injuries late to both Sykes and Brown cost the Phoenix an NCAA bid. Wisconsin-Milwaukee heated up in the Horizon tourney to upset UWGB and went on to win the automatic bid, but the Panthers received a 15 seed and correspondingly tough assignment in the NCAAs. UWM hung tough most of its game against Villanova until the Wildcats pulled away late for a 73-53 win.
As great as it was for UW-Green Bay, one still has to consider last year a missed opportunity, for the Phoenix and the Horizon League as a group. Overall, the Horizon continued to search for an identity after the loss of Butler a couple years ago. Detroit and Valparaiso had carried the league’s torch the past couple years, but both were down after significant graduation losses. Cleveland State was back near the top of the league after rebuilding the year before. Injuries helped prevent Wright State from fulfilling its promise. Illinois-Chicago took major steps backward after looking to be on the move. Youngstown State and Oakland both had senior star power but were up and down.
The question now is if UW-Green Bay can stay at the top of the conference, or if the Phoenix will fall back to the pack like Valpo and Detroit the year before. The former could indicate a program on the verge of becoming that flagship the Horizon needs. The latter could create an even more balanced league, but also may signify a continuation of the gentle slide of a conference to the middle of the D-I landscape that the HL hopes to stop.
UW-Green Bay dominated the regular season, but nagging injuries and a hot opponent from down I-43 bit the Phoenix in the conference tournament. Sykes was just not the same after injuring an ankle early in the game, and No. 5 seed UW-Milwaukee stunned UWGB 73-66 in overtime in the tournament semifinals, avenging two earlier losses to the conference regular season champions.
UW-Milwaukee became one of the better stories of all of the conference tournaments. The Panthers needed a win at Detroit in their final regular season game just to gain the privilege of hosting their first round game, but UWM accomplished that and then got red-hot in the Horizon tourney and was clearly the best team in the tournament.
The Panthers defeated No. 8 seed Detroit in the first round 83-73, eliminated defending tourney champion No. 5 Valparaiso 74-67, and then won at UWGB to get to the championship game. The higher-seeded team hosts the Horizon final, so UWM hit the road for Dayton, Ohio, to face No. 3 seed Wright State, and once again the hostile road crowd did not faze the Panthers a lick. Milwaukee led from start to finish, taking an early 15-point lead and never letting the Raiders get closer than four the rest of the way in a 69-63 win.
Cleveland State and Wright State both could spend much time wondering what might have been. Wright State hosted the tournament final but could not capitalize and lost in the final for the second straight year. Cleveland State was the two seed in the tourney and would’ve benefited from Green Bay’s loss and hosted the tourney championship, but was knocked off by Wright State 68-63 in the semifinals.
The tourney also marked the end of the careers of two prolific offensive players who met in a first round game. Oakland shooter extraordinaire Travis Bader and Youngstown State’s terrific Kendrick Perry met up in a 6 vs. 9 game, and the duo combined for 74 points. The Penguins led by 10 with three minutes left in regulation, but the Golden Grizzlies rallied to force the game into overtime, and Bader scored 7 of his 39 points in the extra session in Oakland’s 96-92 win. The Golden Grizzlies would be Wright State 73-57 in the next round.
Player of the Year: Keifer Sykes, UW-Green Bay
Freshman of the Year: Kahlil Felder, Oakland
Defensive Player of the Year: Alec Brown, UW-Green Bay
Sixth Man of the Year: Jon Harris, Cleveland State
Coach of the Year: Brian Wardle, UW-Green Bay
Keifer Sykes, Jr., G, UW-Green Bay
Kendrick Perry, Sr., G, Youngstown State
Alec Brown, Sr., C, UW-Green Bay
Travis Bader, Sr., G, Oakland
LaVonte Dority, Sr., G, Valparaiso
- Oakland’s Bader set the NCAA Division I record for career 3-point makes, surpassing none other than Duke’s J.J. Redick. Bader finished his career with 504 trifectas made.
- UW-Green Bay scored a coup in getting to host a pair of BCS programs in Wisconsin and Virginia, and the Phoenix showed they were up to the task in both. Green Bay led Wisconsin much of the way in mid-November before the Badgers rallied late for a 69-66 win despite 32 points from Sykes, but a month later the Phoenix finished the deal against Virginia, with Greg Mays scoring a career-high 24 points in a 75-72 win over the eventual ACC champions.
- Cleveland State went to Rupp Arena in November and had Kentucky on the ropes until the Wildcats rallied late. The Vikings led by 10 with just over seven minutes to play before Kentucky finished the game on a 24-7 run to win 68-61.
- UW-Milwaukee improved from 8-24 in 2012-13 to 21-14 this year, a 13-win improvement.
What we expected, and it happened: The Horizon League continued to struggle to furnish programs that can step up on a national level. UW-Green Bay had its moments and may well have deserved an at-large berth this year, and Cleveland State nearly scored an upset at Kentucky, but overall the league is not where it was not long ago, when it was a borderline top 10 conference. Some of that is because of Butler’s departure a couple years ago, but a number of Horizon members besides Butler have had NCAA at-large-quality teams in the past 10 years. The league is still trying to get back to where it was not long ago as an almost yearly two-bid league.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: While they lost a combined nine of 10 starters from 2012-13, some thought Detroit and Valparaiso were strong enough and the Horizon League as a whole weak enough for both to remain at the top of the conference. Both took significant, if understandable, steps back this season, particularly the Titans.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: UW-Milwaukee winning the Horizon Tournament was one of the bigger surprises in all of the conference tournaments. The Panthers at times this season were a solid, top 100-ish team, but coming into the tournament UWM looked far from even that fairly modest high. Horizon cellar occupant UIC defeated UWM by 22 points in Milwaukee just over a week before the start of the conference tourney.
Team(s) on the rise: Cleveland State. Barring significant summer changes, the Vikings will likely come into 2014-15 as the HL favorites, perhaps in heavy fashion. All five starters should return from a team that finished second in the league this past year.
Team(s) on the decline: UW-Milwaukee. The Panthers already were losing some of their heart and soul from this season’s surprise NCAA Tournament qualifier with Jordan Aaron and Kyle Kelm finishing their careers, and coach Rob Jeter’s job became even tougher when the Panthers were ruled out of the 2015 NCAA tourney for low APR scores.
2014-15 Conference Outlook
Cleveland State and UW-Green Bay both particularly bear keeping an eye on next year. The Vikings will return experience and quality (Bryn Forbes, Trey Lewis, Anton Grady, Charlie Lee) from a team that was a solid second in the Horizon. They’ll be a popular choice to win the league and a team to watch in the non-conference season.
Green Bay loses Brown but returns Sykes and most of the rest of the team. UWGB will still be athletic, and that very well could get them by many of their Horizon brethren, but it will be intriguing to see who can score consistently to support Sykes.
Everyone else at this point looks to be a notch below those two. Valparaiso and Wright State both lose a number of seniors, but it’s hard to imagine either going too far away. Detroit should be improved and could challenge for a top-3 finish. Oakland loses Bader, but Greg Kampe’s teams are always competitive. Wisconsin-Milwaukee is a wild card-the Panthers will return some veterans from their NCAA team, but how will they handle not having the carrot of an NCAA bid? Youngstown State and Illinois-Chicago look to be rebuilding.