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2016-17 Horizon League Post-Mortem

June 12, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The 2016-17 season continued a run of a bumpy couple of years for the Horizon League, with more than its share of changes and challenges.

The Horizon was already due for something of a transition season after a recent rash of coaching changes. Four league schools changed coaches after the 2015-16 season, coming on the heels of three more doing so the year before. Add in two more (Cleveland State and Youngstown State) with new coaches after this most recent silly season, and the chaos has been so ridiculous that Illinois-Chicago’s Steve McClain is the second-longest tenured coach in the league. McClain just completed his second season with the Flames.

Still, the news in 2016-17 wasn’t all bad. Four Horizon teams won at least 20 games, three of them 24 or more. Two made it to the NIT, including an at-large bid for Valparaiso, and Oakland went to Clemson and knocked off the ACC Tigers. Northern Kentucky was a great story, rising from an afterthought to one of the league’s best teams. Wright State was better than expected in Scott Nagy’s first year, and the Horizon even made a modest improvement of one spot in the conference RPI (to 17th, per CBSSports.com).

It could have been even better. Valparaiso in particular appeared poised to contend for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth after a good non-conference performance. The Crusaders won the MGM Grand Main Event by defeating Alabama and BYU, then followed that up with a win over Rhode Island, taking advantage of the rare chance to host a ranked team.

Even after getting walloped by Kentucky, Valpo was still 7-2, but the season changed soon after. Senior starter Jubril Adekoya was suspended for the team’s Dec. 10 game at Missouri State due to what was regularly (and mysteriously) termed an ‘academic matter.’ He never played for the team again. Later, All-American candidate Alec Peters suffered a foot injury in February, and after attempting to play on it he was later diagnosed with a stress fracture and shut down for the season just before the conference tournament.

Valpo wasn’t the only team to have a key injury. UIC lost hotshot sophomore Dikembe Dixson in a mid-December win at DePaul, putting a damper on what was otherwise a big win over a city foe for the Flames. The bigger problem for the league, though, has been keeping good players after the season, as the Horizon absolutely has been affected by the epidemic of transferring in the sport.

Cleveland State has been a poster example of how badly a program can get killed by top players transferring ‘up’ (and then the rest of the team’s top players seeing it and thinking they should transfer too), and it finally cost Gary Waters his job. Wisconsin-Milwaukee lost three starters to transfer following the firing of Rob Jeter. Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wright State have already been affected by it this off-season. Somehow the league is going to have to at least slow the loss of talent, or at least hope the transfer fad wanes and more players again get back to putting some worth in teammates and enjoying what they currently have.

The Horizon also gained some maybe unwanted publicity when the madness at its Motor City Madness conference tournament became perhaps a little too much. The top three seeds all were eliminated in the quarterfinals, leaving three teams seeded sixth or lower in the semifinals, including the tourney’s ninth and 10th seeds. The results were somewhat frustrating, coming as they did a year after some cited the tourney’s previous double-bye format as being not an advantage but a disadvantage for the league’s top two teams.

Northern Kentucky eventually emerged for its first Horizon title and NCAA Division I tourney berth, but a 15 seed gave the Norse little chance of advancement. Thus marked the sixth straight season of the Horizon being a one-bid league going one-and-done in the NCAAs.

Final Standings

Horizon Overall
Oakland 14-4 25-9
Valparaiso 14-4 24-9
Wisconsin-Green Bay 12-6 18-14
Northern Kentucky 12-6 24-11
Wright State 11-7 20-12
Illinois-Chicago 7-11 17-19
Detroit Mercy 6-12 8-23
Cleveland State 5-13 9-22
Youngstown State 5-13 13-21
Wisconsin-Milwaukee 4-14 11-24

Conference Tournament
The Horizon League tournament was played in Detroit again, a venue that has potential even as a more central location (Chicago?) might benefit the league as a whole.

It’s hard to overstate just how bizarre the 2017 Horizon tourney was. The No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds all were eliminated in the quarterfinals. The semifinals included teams seeded 4, 6, 9 and 10. Higher-seeded teams won just three of nine games.

It started in the first round, when ninth-seeded Youngstown State (84-69 over No. 8 Cleveland State) and 10 seed UW-Milwaukee (85-60 blowout winners over No. 7 Detroit Mercy) both won, but really gained steam in earnest in the quarterfinals. Youngstown State stunned top seed Oakland 81-80, as Jordan Kaufman scored the winning layup as time expired, and depleted second-seeded Valparaiso was then edged by Milwaukee 43-41 in a grinder. That would’ve seemed to open a path for defending champion UW-Green Bay to repeat, except the Phoenix also were dumped 79-70 by No. 6 UIC.

The one team holding steady in the wind was No. 4 seed Northern Kentucky. The Norse were literally the only team to win as a better seed over all five days. NKU defeated Wright State 82-77 in an entertaining 4/5 game, then held off Youngstown State 84-74 in the semifinals. Milwaukee continued to wreak havoc on the bracket, though, upending UIC 74-68 to advance to the final with just an 11-23 overall record.

Northern Kentucky finally ended the Panthers’ Cinderella run, though, never trailing in the second half but not putting the game away until hitting three of four free throws in the final 28 seconds for a 59-53 win. Lavone Holland scored 20 points and was named the tourney’s MVP, and NKU earned its first NCAA Division I tourney berth after making 12 trips to the Division II tournament.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Alec Peters, F, Sr., Valparaiso
Defensive Player of the Year: Tai Odiase, F, Jr., Illinois-Chicago
Freshman of the Year: Corey Allen, G, Detroit Mercy
Sixth Man of the Year:
Warren Jones, G, Sr., Wisconsin-Green Bay
Coach of the Year: John Brannen, Northern Kentucky

All-Conference Team
Mark Alstork, G, Jr., Wright State
Jalen Hayes, F, Jr., Oakland
Drew McDonald, F, So., Northern Kentucky
Cameron Morse, G, Jr., Youngstown State
Alec Peters, F, Sr., Valparaiso

Season Highlights

  • Alec Peters finished his Valparaiso career as the school’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, field goals and free throws made. He finished his senior season by being named a third team NABC All-American.
  • Northern Kentucky was one of the most improved teams in the country, going from nine wins to 24 and reaching its first NCAA Tournament. UIC also took a big jump from five wins to 17.
  • UIC’s Tai Odiase ranked fifth in NCAA Division I with 2.9 blocked shots per game.
  • Five Horizon teams played in the postseason. Oakland won a game in the NIT, and UIC won twice in the College Basketball Invitational before falling in the semifinals. Northern Kentucky (NCAA), Valparaiso (NIT) and Green Bay (CBI) all lost in their tourney debuts.

What we expected, and it happened: We essentially pegged four of the top five schools, seeing Valpo and Oakland as favorites and UW-Green Bay and Wright State also among the top four. Only Northern Kentucky spoiled that.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Honestly, we thought the league would be better than it was, after an exciting 2015-16 season filled with individual stars and one player after another ranking among the national NCAA leaders. All the changes clearly have taken a toll on Horizon schools, though.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Northern Kentucky’s emergence. Us and pretty much anyone else in the country following the league. It was expected the Norse would need significant time to build a contender in the Horizon, but their budding so quickly is a stunning story, and a great one.

Teams on the rise: Illinois-Chicago, Northern Kentucky, Wright State. Several others could be mentioned here too (Detroit, UW-Milwaukee). That’s in part because many Horizon members have nowhere to go but up, but it’s also a sign that it appears a lot of league schools have made prudent coaching hires. NKU showed last year that it certainly has a promising future in the Horizon, while UIC will be a hot pick to have a big season next year with the return of Dikembe Dixson. Wright State’s hire of Scott Nagy was a stroke of genius, and he should have the Raiders as a perennial contender in this league soon-if that hasn’t happened already.

Team on the decline: Cleveland State. The Vikings faded the last two years, costing Gary Waters his job. It’s hard to imagine the Vikings falling much further than they have, but almost every other Horizon team has a bit more of a headstart on their own rebuilding than CSU does.

2017-18 Horizon Outlook
It’s going to get better for the Horizon soon. Even with the departure of Valparaiso to the Missouri Valley, the league has too many programs capable of better than they’ve shown of late.

The loss of Valpo is a blow. At the same time, it’s possible the Crusaders were due to come back to the pack anyway. Plus, while the Horizon may not be as strong at the very top, there’s reasonable hope that it will be better collectively.

Northern Kentucky, Oakland and UIC will likely be favorites, and on paper could put together an excellent three-way battle. NKU arrived several years ahead of schedule last year, and a still-young team led by versatile big man Drew McDonald has room for growth. UIC has amassed a stable of athletes including Dixson plus shot-blocking Tai Odiase and will be a chic pick by many, but the Flames still must get better. Oakland still has Jalen Hayes and Martez Walker and is positioned to be the Horizon’s new flagship program, though the Golden Grizzlies are still looking for their first NCAA Tournament berth from the league even as they’ve had success in the Vegas 16 and NIT the last two years.

Where the Horizon could really make some strides is from the middle to the back. Everything Scott Nagy has done as a coach, including his first year at Wright State, suggests the Raiders are going to be a tough out. LaVall Jordan clearly has Milwaukee on the right track, and Bacari Alexander has recruited well at Detroit. (Late note: since this was written Jordan has taken the head coaching job at Butler.) Linc Darner also will have almost entirely his recruits now at Green Bay and will have his team flying up and down the court again, even as the Phoenix deal with significant roster turnover. Cleveland State appears to be in a full rebuild, but Youngstown State will be a wild card, with super sniper Cameron Morse back for one more year and some intriguing offensive talent around him. If the Penguins can tighten up defensively at all under new coach Jerrod Calhoun, they’ll quickly become a team few want to play.

With so many programs still in building mode, it’s going to require some patience-by fans and participating players. The league is better than it has seemed the past couple years, and it’s also better than being just a stop-off point for players looking to annually offer themselves up to the highest bidder or poacher. The next year or two should bear that out.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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