For a year at least, the Horizon League harkened back to some glory years, and we’re not talking about 2010 and 2011.
Butler’s back-to-back NCAA title game appearances those years are remembered most recently, and because of their relatively current nature are what most will instantaneously cite as the high water mark of the Horizon. This past season didn’t have that-or even an NCAA Tournament win for that matter-but it was reminiscent of a time when the league was one of the more consistently entertaining ones in the country, as well as capable of more than occasional national noise.
The Horizon in 2015-16 looked quite a bit like the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in the late 1980s, and a reason for that is because the Horizon is the MCC, the former name of this group until adopting its current moniker in 2001. Another, though, is because the MCC of the late 80s was full of collegiate stars and scoring. Butler, Detroit, Evansville, Loyola (Ill.), Saint Louis and Xavier made up the core of the league then, and literally all six schools had players near the top of NCAA statistics. Anthony Bonner, Scott Haffner, Alfredrick Hughes, Byron Larkin, Chad Tucker, Archie Tullos are just a few of the names who to this day rank among their schools all-time statistical leaders.
Fast forward to this past year, when the Horizon was again packed with standout performances. In particular, Oakland’s Kahlil Felder and Valparaiso’s Alec Peters were legitimate stars of national stature. Felder was the No. 4 scorer and No. 1 assist man in the country. The 5-9 guard was so good that he ranked tied for 13th in the nation in double-doubles-a statistic normally dominated by frontcourters amassing points and rebounds. Peters, meanwhile, was the indisputable go-to man and nightly 20-and-10 threat for a Crusaders team that dominated the Horizon and won 30 games.
Yet they were hardly the only players with consistently eye-opening individual lines. Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Jordan Johnson and Illinois-Chicago’s Tai Odiase ranked second in the nation in assists and blocks, respectively-yet also second in their conference. Johnson was just behind Felder in helpers, while affable Valpo senior center Vashil Fernandez was tops in the country in blocks per game.
Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Carrington Love was third in steals. Youngstown State’s Matt Donlan was fourth in three-point shooting percentage. Oakland’s Max Hooper was fifth in the country in three-pointers made (and eighth in three-point percentage). Detroit’s Anton Wilson was seventh in free throw percentage. Pick a national statistical category, and there probably was a Horizon League player near the top of it.
One reason for that is because, in the first year of rule changes and a shorter shot clock, few leagues picked up the pace more than the Horizon. League teams scooted to an average of 75.5 points per game, fourth-highest in the country, and an increase of seven points per game from the previous year. Three teams ranked in the top eight in the nation in scoring, led by Oakland in first with 86.4 points per game.
The regular season was mainly about Valparaiso and Oakland, with the Crusaders winning the conference title and building an at-large worthy resume, while Felder brought the Golden Grizzlies national recognition on his way to All-America honors. In the end, though, it was Green Bay breaking through to win the Horizon tourney and making its first NCAA appearance in 20 years. Valpo, meanwhile, advanced to the NIT final, which was one more blast back to the past for the league, as it was the deepest NIT run by a league team since Saint Louis was a two-time runner-up in 1989 and 1990.
Some things changed, some stayed the same for the Horizon League tournament. Two updates were the addition of a 10th team once again as Northern Kentucky filled the spot left vacant by Loyola two years ago, plus the movement to a single neutral site for the first time in 23 years as Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena hosted the event.
Unchanged this year was the difficulty top seeds have continued to face since the league in 2002 went to its awkward, multi-forked bracket format where top seeds are given byes into the semifinals. An arrangement that is supposed to aid the best teams has hurt as much as helped, with No. 1 seeds now winning the title just six times over the last 12 years after Valparaiso was stunned by No. 4 UW-Green Bay 99-92 in overtime in the semifinals. No. 2 seed Oakland also was upended by No. 3 Wright State 59-55, resulting in a title game featuring two teams going for their fourth wins in four days, while the two teams that needed to win just two games for a title did not win even one.
Green Bay was in control of the final from the opening minutes, beating Wright State 78-69. Jordan Fouse was named the tournament MVP and all five Phoenix starters scored in double figures. The Raiders, meanwhile, shot just 37.5% and leading scorer J.T. Yoho shot just 2-for-17 from the field.
The early rounds were largely uneventful, with only one game decided by single digits. Wright State (74-43 over 10 seed UIC), Green Bay (65-53 over No. 9 Cleveland State), fifth-seeded UW-Milwaukee (86-69 over 8 seed Northern Kentucky) and 6 seed Detroit (92-79 over No. 7 Youngstown State) all advanced out of the first round, and the Raiders topped Detroit 82-72 while the Phoenix stopped Milwaukee 70-61 in the second round.
Player of the Year: Kahlil Felder, G, Jr., Oakland
Defensive Player of the Year: Vashil Fernandez, C, Sr., Valparaiso
Freshman of the Year: Dikembe Dixson, F, Illinois-Chicago
Sixth Man of the Year: Max Hooper, G, Sr., Oakland
Coach of the Year: Bryce Drew, Valparaiso
Paris Bass, G/F, So., Detroit
Kahlil Felder, G, Jr., Oakland
Carrington Love, G, Sr., Wisconsin-Green Bay
Alec Peters, F, Jr., Valparaiso
Matt Tiby, F, Sr., Wisconsin-Milwaukee
- UW-Green Bay advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years under first-year coach Linc Darner. The Phoenix also led the nation in steals per game and free throw attempts, ranked fourth in both turnovers forced and turnover margin and came in eighth in scoring.
- Valparaiso advanced to the NIT final, easily the school’s best performance ever in the NIT and also the furthest a Horizon League team has advanced in the event since Saint Louis was runner-up two years in a row in 1989 and 1990.
- Oakland appeared in the first Vegas 16 tournament, advancing to the title game in the eight-team event before losing to Old Dominion by a point.
- Oakland’s Felder was named a third team All-American by the Associated Press, National Association of Basketball Coaches and The Sporting News.
What we expected, and it happened: Even while battling through a rash of nagging injuries, Valparaiso was as good as advertised, a top 30 team that should’ve been in the NCAA Tournament. Also, Cleveland State continued to be hammered by college basketball’s transfer epidemic as much as any school in the country, as the Vikings struggled to a 9-23 mark while former stars Bryn Forbes, Anton Grady and Trey Lewis starred for top 25 teams.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Most expected Northern Kentucky to struggle in its new league, and it did-but not as much as Cleveland State and UIC. The Norse’s avoiding the cellar and finishing eighth represented a rather pleasant surprise for a recent Division I addition moving up from the Atlantic Sun.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: We thought Green Bay had enough returning talent to stick around the top half of the conference, but with a new coach playing a dramatically different style, there was no way to know the Phoenix would snap a lengthy NCAA tourney drought.
Team on the rise: Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wright State. The Phoenix lose senior leaders Love and Fouse, but there’s little reason to doubt Linc Darner’s ability to build 20-win teams. The Raiders, meanwhile, hit a grand slam with their hire of Scott Nagy, a fortuitous development after the way former coach Billy Donlon was fired.
Team on the decline: Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Panthers have had an off-season of turmoil almost since the final buzzer of their Horizon tourney loss in March. The team was held out of postseason play by administration, Rob Jeter was fired, and a roster that already was going to be missing departing seniors Matt Tiby and J.J. Panoske lost its remaining three starters to transfer.
2016-17 Horizon League Outlook
The Horizon League was mightily under-appreciated this past year, though some of that was fair (conference RPI of 20). Its near future, though, is like a lame weather forecast, partly to mostly cloudy with a chance of sunshine or thunderstorms. Four of the top six in the final league standings will have new coaches next year, and though the all-conference first team featured just two seniors, just one of the five players on the team will return.
We received some clarity on Memorial Day when Peters announced his decision to return to Valparaiso for his senior year. Peters deserves big-time credit for not selling himself to the highest bidder on the grad transfer market, and Crusaders also instantly are the heavy Horizon favorite and will again challenge to be a top 40 team under first-year coach Matt Lottich. Even with his return, though, Oakland-even without Felder-brings back enough talent to challenge.
Green Bay figures to be in the mix, too, to say nothing of providing supreme entertainment value with its RP40 style, and it would be no surprise if Nagy has Wright State right near the top again too. The top four could be pretty middling…or pretty darn good.
It’s chaos after that, with plenty of room for upward mobility. Maybe it’ll be Gary Waters recovering from two years of unexpected departures and getting Cleveland State back in the first division, UIC building with young talent under Steve McClain, or perhaps Detroit or Milwaukee surprise with new coaches. However the league shakes out, at the bare minimum it figures to be entertaining again.