3. Green Bay
4. Wright State
7. Cleveland State
8. Illinois Chicago
9. Youngstown State
10. Northern Kentucky
Player of the Year: Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Coach of the Year: Bryce Drew, Valparaiso
Newcomer of the Year: Dikembe Dixson, UIC
G – Kahlil Felder, Oakland
G – Darien Walker, Valparaiso
F – Matt Tiby, Milwaukee
F – Paris Bass, Detroit
G/F - Jordan Fouse, Green Bay
G – JT Yoho, Wright State
G – Carrington Love, Green Bay
G – Tevonn Walker, Valparaiso
F – Bobby Hain, Youngstown State
F - Vashil Fernandez, Valparaiso
G – JT Yoho, Wright State
G – Akeem Springs, Milwaukee
G – Austin Arians, Milwaukee
F – Jalen Hayes, Oakland
F - Anton Wilson, Detroit
Valpo peaked my curiosity last year by ruining at least 3 of my wagers, betting on Youngstown State, Milwaukee & Wright State on separate occasions (“smart money”). After opening conference play with an OT loss on the road at Oakland, the Crusaders ran through this league last year, finishing 13-3, earning them a 13 seed in the dance. If it wasn’t for a few poorly executed possessions late, they may have knocked off the mighty Maryland Terps, whom many have slotted as the number 1 team this year.
With the strong finish to last year, the Valpo faithful are incredibly bullish on their outlook for 2016, and for many valid reasons. The most obvious of these is the return of the super-skilled, versatile big Alec Peters. At 6’9 Peters was absurdly efficient as a sophomore, particularly from deep, draining 47% of his 165 3-ball attempts. On paper, you would call him a “stretch 4”, but he is incredibly comfortable putting the ball on the deck, and scoring in a variety of ways with both hands near the basket. His 100 FT attempts (of which he 85%) and 200 2-point attempts proves he is not complacent to stand 25 feet away and chuck. A big reason for Valpo’s success is their depth inside, which allows Peters to avoid fall trouble by sticking him on smaller 4’s or bigger 3’s (only 2.5 fouls per game last year) defensively.
The focal point of this interior depth is the Jamacian, shot-blocking monster Vashil Fernandez. Bryce Drew got a godsend from the NCAA, when they decided to grant Fernandez one additional year of eligibility, after he switched schools late in high-school. Regardless of how the hell that happened, the 6’10, 250 Fernandez brings back his Inspector Gadget arms that were responsible for the 6th best block rate in the country a year ago, earning him Horizon defensive player of the year honors. Along with Fernandez, Drew brings back three other versatile defensive wings in E Victor Nickerson, Jubril Adekoya & David Skara. Nickerson, a former Charlotte transfer, and Skara, a rising sophomore from Croatia, both split time at the 3 last year, giving Valpo a frontline of 6’10, 6’9, 6’8 for a significant portion of games. The 6’8 Nickerson’s length resembles that of Fernandez, but he actually plays a point-forward role on the offensive end, evidenced by dishing out the second most assists on the team a year ago. Like Nickerson, Skara impressed Drew on the defensive end last year, and found himself playing just under 20 minutes a game as a freshman, which is impressive for how deep this roster is. It’s clear Drew likes the rising sophomores’ intangibles, as he has no glaring offensive skill. Adekoya provides similar value as Skara, but did not take much of a leap in his second year, after starting a good portion of Valpo’s games as a freshman.
While most of the frontcourt provides value on the defensive end, the guards bring the scoring punch for the Crusaders. They return a trio of proven, talented guards, including a pair of Walkers (unrelated Darien & Tevonn) and rising senior Darius Carter. Both Darien and Tevonn will hold down the starting backcourt, each of which started 30 or more games a year ago, playing close to 70% of all minutes. Darien may be the most underrated player in the league, and an absolute beast. Not many know he led Chicago’s notorious Simeon high to back-to-back state titles in his final years. At 6’3, 215, his frame allows him to be a terrific defensive rebounder & on-ball defender at the 2-spot. He also proved last year to be an efficient shooter, hitting 37% of his 144 trey attempts. The Canadian born Walker # 2, Tevonn Walker, was just as good from deep as a freshman, also knocking in 37% of his 71 attempts. Despite his long-range efficiency, Tevonn actually prefers to drive-it, and shot over twice as many 2’s and 3’s, and got to the line over 100 times. As he makes the leap to a sophomore, I’m interested to see the balance of usage between him and Darien, both of which must be mindful of the true scoring threat on this team with Peters playing next to them. The final perimeter option is another terrific senior guard off the bench in Keith Carter. Though Carter only played 18 minutes a game last year, the Crusaders are noticeably more effective offensively with him in the lineup running the point. He is the only proven passer on this roster, outside of the turnover-prone Nickerson. Carter provides Drew flexibility to mix and match between offensive and defensive lineups, and can easily sit Carter for Nickerson, Skara or Adekoya when he’s in need of a big stop late in games.
Bottom Line: This Crusader team has had my attention for the better part of a year now, and I’m quite surprised they have not received significant votes for top 25 consideration. This will be a team I target to bet on early in the season, before the masses realize what a versatile, deep and talented roster this really is, led by an exceptional basketball mind in Bryce Drew.
Greg Kampe has himself a darling maestro point guard at his disposal in Kahlil Felder. No one is relied upon to do more for his team (18 points a game & 7 assists per game) , and no one spends less time on the bench (# 1 in minutes played in the nation). He is built like a NFL corner, (5’9 180) and uses his strength to draw contact as well as anyone the country, getting to the line 224 times last year, where he knocked down a cool 83% of those. This James Harden-esque approach to efficiency is what drives his excellent 108 O-Rating, and masks his mediocre 46/34 percent splits from 2 & 3-land.
Felder isn’t the only player Kampe loves churning minutes out of, as two of the other leading scorers from last year, Dante Williams & Corey Petros, each played 90% of available minutes. With this core graduating, Kampe will look to new faces from Iowa State (“Transfer U”) & Texas for immediate contribution. Sherron Dorsey-Walker & Percy Gibson arrive off of disappointing showings in their brief exposure fighting for playing time at Iowa State. Gibson lost his clock to the small-ball, up-tempo style of ball that the Mayor Hoiberg loved to play, watching more versatile bigs (Dusty Hogue, Georges Niang & Melvin Ejim) dominate minutes at 4 & 5. The same story goes for Dorsey-Walker, who had to sit and enjoy DeAndre Kane and Monte Morris control the perimeter minutes. Longhorn transfer Martez Walker’s had different motives for his departure, which were primarily a series of arrests and academic mishaps at Texas.
Particularly for Dorsey-Walker and Walker, Kampe had the inside track to the inside track needed to snag these dudes. He recruited both Walker and Dorsey-Walker in high-school, where both actually played with Felder at Detroit’s Pershing high-school. While Felder has enjoyed the most prominent success in college, it was actually Dorsey-Walker who was a Michigan Mr. Basketball finalist in 2012, and was touted as the most talented of the three coming out. My main point is that I’m not sure how Kampe doesn’t start all 3 of these guys, and I can’t think of another precedent of 3 high-school teammates playing together on the same team, after two began their D1 experience at another school.
Given the chemistry and familiarity, meshing the lineup will not be an issue with the transfer newcomers, but the question remains how they will fit with the other solid pieces returning. The key others include Max Hooper, Jalen Hayes & Tommie McCune. Rising sophomore Hayes is the youngest, but most proven of the three. Playing 58% of all minutes last year, Hayes posted a solid 105 O-Rating as a freshman, doing many things solid, but nothing spectacular. Hayes and McCune both make their pay on the defensive side, and McCune is the most consistent rebounder returning on the roster. After a poor sophomore year, McCune found a more efficient stroke from deep last year (up to 33% from 16%), but it will be his rebounding and rim protection that Kampe needs more. The other upperclassmen, Max Hooper, defines the mold of “floor-spacer, shooter”, turning the ball over an absurd 2% of the time, and making 38% of his bombs (of which 95% were assisted).
Bottom Line: It is interesting that the Grizz actually climbed 40 spots higher in the KenPom master rankings last year, compared to the previous year, when they had Felder, skilled big Corey Petros & sniper Travis Baden. Similar to Wright State, the Raiders glaring Achilles heel is on the defensive end. Kampe’s zone was gashed from all over the floor and even though teams rained from 3 against the Grizz, it was their 344th ranked block rate (aka complete last of interior presence), that resulted in the 308th best defense in the country. Though there are good perimeter defenders on this roster, they must find someone and I mean anyone who can block a shot here and there. Not a single player ranked in the top 500 in block rate, so the only hope may be incoming freshman 6’11 Brad Bretching, who seems to be the most competent of the froshies. It’s hard to imagine finishing sub-300 in defense 3-years in a row, and the upside & talent offensively makes me think the Grizzles are a lock for a top-3 finish in the league.
3. Green Bay
Man were the Phoenix gashed this offseason, both from an on-court talent and sideline-leader perspective. Watching Keifer Sykes play courtside at UIC last year (I wouldn’t call the security detail at UIC Pavilion elite by any means) made me appreciate why at 5’2 (not really) he got legitimate looks in the second round of the draft. Their defensive athleticism, anchored by him, beast Anthony McKinnie, and slightly-bigger beast Greg Mays, was uber-formidable. The discipline of rotation and commitment by all 5 guys was clearly led, both vocally and tactically by Brian Wardle, who now finds himself in a head coaching position in the middle of Illinois (Illinois State).
Green Bay followed the Missouri approach to coaching hires, bringing in D2 title winner Linc Darner from Florida Southern. He is known for playing a Billy Donavon, trapping press style, and from the makeup of this roster, it feels like an outstanding fit.
Returning for the Packers Phoenix are a few superb talents that should keep this squad at the top end of the conference standings. Most notable of this bunch is now 4-year starter Jordan Fouse, who is the poster-child for an all-around player. At 6’7 220, he posted elite rebounding figures at a freshman (top 200 in both OReb & DReb rate), but actually saw that number decline each in each of the last two years, because the glass cleaning was taken care of by Mays and McKinnie. This gives me confidence that even with the departure of those 2, rebounding will not be an issue, as Fouse should resume a lead-role on the boards. His defensive responsibilities don’t end with rebounding, as Fouse also led the team in steals, and blocks last year. Offensively, he does not wow you with any particular skill, but his leaping ability and solid touch make him super-efficient in the paint area, scoring in multiple ways in the post, and off screening action. Oh, and he is also the leading assister on the squad.
The other two locks to start are Carrington Love & Kenneth Lowe. Lowe is a mammoth at 6’8 235, and should be embarrassed if he is outrebounded this year by Fouse. He is of no threat on the offensive end (attempted only 85 shots), and he is ineffective shooting anywhere outside 4 feet. He is especially poor from 15 feet out, in the middle of the floor, perpendicular to the backboard, when the clock is stopped and no one is guarding him. Lowe drained 14/43 free throws last year, so even Deandre Jordan has the right to troll him. Carrington Love was the fifth starter last year, and got no attention for a super balanced and complete team. He looked incredibly solid against UIC, and I’m curious to see how effective he is running the true point this year, now that he no longer will have to watch Chief Keef dominate the ball.
The huge question marks are the contributions that will come from JuCo dudes Charles Cooper & Jamar Hurdle, along with freshman twins Anthony & Avery Brown (extremely related). Cooper was only a 2-star recruit coming out of high-school, but put up 19 a game at Kaskaskia a year ago. Hurdle is actually the more talented kid, who at 6’7 has noticeably rangy arms and is an outstanding athlete. Most of his documentation is of absurd dunks in high school, but did post over 2 blocks a game a year ago, making me think rim protection will be his immediate impact.
Bottom Line: Fouse has a real shot to lead his team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, which would be mind-blowing, but the complete face lift in defensive identity will be an adjustment for the older guys. The JuCo dudes seem underappreciated, and will fit in nicely with the set-in-stone proven guys already on the roster. This may be the most athletic team in the conference, rivaling Valpo and Detroit for that honor. It’s hard to find other players in the Horizon with more “chops” then Fouse and Carrington. There is no way Green Bay falls outside of the top-5 in the standings, so I will formally slot them at number 3 for my official prediction.
4. Wright State
I am confused why so many preseason predictions are quick to dismiss Wright State as a top-half team in this league. I’ll admit penciling in Oakland and Green Bay to those slots feels like the safe play, but when you breakdown Wright State’s roster construction this year, the RAIDERS are my pick to finish 4th in the horizon.
The injury to JT Yoho midway through last year cannot be understated enough, as Wright State struggled mightily to figure out their offensive pecking order without him on the floor. Yoho may be the craftiest scorer in the conference, especially from midrange and around the rim, and was averaging 16 a game before he went down. Though his efficiency last year regressed from his sophomore campaign, he proved two years ago to be efficient from all over the floor, draining 37% of his 110 shots from 3. Not to mention, his thick 6’6 frame make him an effective rebounder and capable defender against taller 4s. I really can’t describe his style much better, than he just knows how to get buckets, and may even be worthy of a Georges Neang comparison if that doesn’t offend anyone too much.
Yoho will lead the scoring charge with fellow senior and New Zealand native Michael Karena. At 6’10 270, Karena came out of nowhere to be the alpha in Yohos absence, converting on 55% of his 220 2-point attempts. He is a prototypical low-block operator, but somehow shot only 70 free throws, converting on only 50% of those trips. He also was an ineffective defensive rebounder, but much more potent on the offensive glass, which is even more perplexing given his massive build. And for a team that ranked 340th in OReb%, Karena appears to be the only one interested in crashing offensive misses.
The final 2 of the 4 returning starters are Joe Thommasson and Grant Bezinger. As a freshman, Bezinger proved to be a gem in his freshman year out of Cincinnati, and was efficient from everywhere, but especially from range. He exploded for a 31-point scoring outburst against Oakland last year, raining in 9 threes, proving he is capable of getting white-hot at any time. His elite range shouldn’t surprise anyone this year, but he’s capable of scoring in other ways, converting on 52% of his 70 2-point attempts. Thommasson should get exclusive rights to the point guard position, with the graduation of Chrishawn Hopkins. The other “JT” posted a solid 106 O-rating, converting an exceptional 55% from inside the arc, and also facilitated effectively (22% rate vs. 19% TO rate). His athleticism will be critical when the Raiders match up against other explosive guards in the Horizon, including Paris Bass & Kahlil Felder.
Bottom Line: The Raiders struggles a year ago defensively were largely due to an inability to force turnovers, dropping from 30th to 160th in the nation. The departure of defensive nuisance Reggie Arceneaux played a big part in this, but it was the 290th ranked offense that really caused the Raiders free fall to a second-to-last place finish. With the top 4 scorers returning, I think Wright State has the right pieces to compete at the top of this league, and should see a massive improvement on the offensive end. The limitation of athletes on the perimeter will hold back the Raiders on the other end, but I’d be shocked if they finished below 250th again in defense this year.
Big-fat shout out to Tony Meier, ex-player for the Milwaukee U Panthers and lifetime member of the DJ Dimes team (yes Tony, I got my tux fitted). While he is tearing up Greece professional basketball, the deflected step-brother of neighboring Marquette University has been hovering in the middle of the pack in the Horizon for the last 5 or so years. Head man Rob Jeter returns a group that finished 9-7 last year, but finished the season 9-4, after dropping their first 3 conference matches in early January. They will sorely miss primary ball handler and play maker Steve McWhorter, who played 90% of his team’s minutes and posted an outstanding 32% assist rate.
Outside of McWhorter, the bulk of production returns, including the versatile 6’8 Matt Tiby. Tiby plays like a super poor man’s Luke Harangody, as an undersized big who uses his mobility and craftiness to score on the interior. He is not a true low-block scorer and prefers to hover around 6-8 feet and take spot up mid-range jumpers, which were primarily created by McWhorter a year ago. He also was a decent 3-point shooter, hitting 33% of his 90 attempts, but his most efficient offensive production comes at the line, where he hit 81% of his 144 throws last year. However, his biggest value to the Panthers is on the defensive glass, as he posted single-handedly made this team a top 100 rebounding squad. Besides Tiby, 6’10 rising senior JJ Panoske returns as the only other real contributor over 6’5, and he provides the rim-protection that the less athletic Tiby can’t.
With a solid balance of style on the interior, Jeter also finds himself with a competent perimeter, led by medical-redshirt returnee Austin Arians. At 6’6, Arians started as a sophomore 2-years ago and provided efficient scoring in a limited role, hitting 37% of his 3s, to go along with a 60% clip inside the arc. Milwaukee has taken a ton of 3s as a team the last 2-years, ranking in the top 50 in attempts. With Arians returning as the clear 2nd lead to Tiby, the two of them will take upwards of 300 3s this year. How well they shoot it, along with rising junior Cody Wichmann, who hit 39% of his 100 3-ball last year, will make or break the success for the Panthers.
The other guards of note are ex-high school teammates, Akeem Springs and incoming JuCo transfer Jordan Johsnon. Springs returns after starting last year at the 2, and had I expect he’ll get the call again, next to his old high-school teammate. Jordan Johnson is an underrated JuCO guy, who flirted with All-American honors a year ago. At 5’9, he’ll be one of the more heady players in the conference, and I’d be shocked if Jeter doesn’t hand him the point guard keys right away. Justin Jordan (make sure you read these names carefully) started last year at the 2, next to McWorter, but the return of Arians may push him to the 6th man role. JR Lyle will also get significant minutes off the bench as perhaps the best perimeter defender on the team.
Bottom Line: Robby Jetes has himself a talented & veteran team that on paper meshes together exceptionally well. The blah defensive numbers a year ago I think was due in large part to just bad luck. They did an exceptional job defending the 3-point line, ranking 16th in the nation in 3-point shots allowed, but opponents rained in 39%, which was close to 15th worst in the land. I always look at attempts allowed as the truer measure of perimeter defense, and Jeter consistently extends his pressure to limit long range bombs. If teams cool down this year, I don’t see their defensive metrics from last year declining much at all. With much of the upside on the offensive side, I’m slating Milwaukee for a top 5 finish in the Horizon.
Watching Juwan Howard Jr. play, you’d think he was raised by anyone except his father. While paps made his living in the league doing all the dirty work, “Junior” displayed one of the silkiest jumpers in all of college basketball last year. And while dad looks like a toothpick in the “Fab 5” documentary, little Juwan had a linebacker build at 6’5 236.
Howard was clearly the go-to-guy for Detroit a year ago, but he shared a batman-robin role with rising sophomore and NBA prospect Paris Bass. Bass’s talent makes him an auto-inclusion for the Horizon POTY watch list, standing 6’8, and possessing a rare combination of silky smooth skill and explosion around the rim. His shooting percentages don’t stand out, but 65/48/37 splits from the floor as a freshman are absolutely nothing to sneeze at. The deeper story is that he actually has the potential to see a huge spike in efficiency, given his not-so-efficient shot-selection. Bass took 250 2 pointers (compared to 57 3s) last year, of which over 40% were jump shots. This isn’t a huge issue, unless you make a measly 26% of them, which is exactly what Bass did. He finished at a 70% clip at the rim, and his 37% clip from deep is an immediate sign he needs to choose his scoring spots more wisely. Unlike Howard, Bass is a longer and leaner 187 pounds, and his length/leaping made him the best shot blocker on the team a year ago. This is a huge issue for The Titans, but should not be a huge surprise to head coach Ray McCallum, given that he plays an array of 6’6 – 6’8 “bigs”. For the exception of 6’10 Patrick Ackerman, who prefers swatting arms as much as basketballs, none of these are proven rim protectors, but not because they are poor shot blockers. Detroits egregious 331st ranked 2 point percentage defense usually points to a trash team block-rate, but Detroit actually ranked in the upper half of the country in blocked shots (134th). It is not a lack of swatters, but clearly a lack of defensive discipline, particularly in transition.
Rounding out the rest of the roster includes 3-point marksman Anton Wilson, combo-guards Jarod Williams and Matthew Grant, stretch-4, Chris Jenkins and undersized big Jaeel Hogan. As a rising senior Wilson proved he could drain from 3 (39% of his 123 attempts), but also anywhere on the floor, including 54% from 2-land and 85% from the stripe. Jenkins is the only other true shooter on this team, but if he can maintain the 46% clip he posted a year ago, he will solidify himself as the 6th man. Williams and Grant will get the bulk of the minutes at the point and 2-guard slots. Williams got the majority of point minutes last year and his disruption on the defensive end (top 100 steal rate) should ensure he sees plenty of time this year as well. On the other hand, Grant did really nothing of value in his sophomore year, but it’s hard to see the other unproven and inefficient guards on the roster de-throning him at the 2-guard. Finally, Hogan was the leading minute-getter at the 5, mostly because he is the most athletic of the undersized bigs. Jenkins proved to be a better rebounder than Hogan a year ago, and I would not be surprised if he spells Jenkins some at the 5.
Bottom Line: Paris Bass will carry one of the heavier loads in the league on both ends for the Titans, so his health and production will obviously be critical. It’s hard to see the defensive issues I alluded too improving much, but the athletes are not scarce for Ray McCallum. The up and down pace will most certainly be there again this year, so the guards must make better decisions in transition, where they were less than stellar a year ago. D-town sits at the bottom of the top tier of the Horizon. The first mini-cliff in the league hierarchy begins after this sentence.
7. Cleveland State
It is now Friday night of opening day in collegiate hoop, so I formally apologize for any lack of diligence for diehard fans of the bottom-of-the-barrel Horizon teams. The top 6 squads define the cutoff for where the first drop-off in this league is… and it begins with the mighty Vikings of Cleveland State.
If their roster on paper performs to expectations, Cleveland will find themselves in unfamiliar territory in the standings, compared to their recent standards. It’s such a shame to see some of the key pieces bolt for bigger opportunities, including Anton Grady to Wichita State and leading scorer Trey Lewis to Louisville. The Vikes also lose little Charlie Lee, who shot a blistering 49% from deep a year ago.
The pressure will be placed heavily on the lightning-quick backcourt of Andre Yates, Kaza Keane & Terrell Hales. Yates posted a 4% steal rate, good for top 50 in the country, but Hates actually outswiped him last year with a 4.4% clip of his own. These two will spearhead the press, along with point guard Kaza Keane, ex-Illinois State point guard. Keane will resume starting point duties, and is a terrific ball handler and passer in the open floor. The real issue is that these 3 have quite literally 0 shooting or major scoring precedent, which is scary given the Vikes offensive success last year was due to their top 40 3PT% rank in the country. Keneesaw State transfer Myles Hamilton will get in the mix as another pest in the backcourt.
The front court will be anchored by Vinny Zollo, who is a roaming big guy that struggled shooting from deep last year (29%) and MUST rebound this year if the Vikings have any shot to respectable on the defensive end. Aussie Jonathon Janssen seems the most likely of this bunch to provide immediate value, given the noticeable holes up-front.
Bottom Line: Waters should rebuild in a year or two, but this is clearly a transition year, given the unexpected departures of key cogs. The guards are actually formidable, but the teams ahead of the Vikes have more to offer for me to consider anything higher than a 7th place finish.
Flame-nation begins a new era in Chicago, bringing in “fiery” (pun city) Steve McClain as the head man. McClain was slam-dunk hire for a team that has had such little hope and even less success over the past decade. He brings a Bruce Pearl-esque marketing aura to the program, coming over from Tommy Crean’s staff at IU. He has 6 years of head coaching experience on his resume, back in the mid 00s at Wyoming, where he enjoyed moderate success. One of the reasons Crean brought him over, in my opinion, was his experience playing up-and-down ball at Wyoming, which was rare in the normally plodding big 10. Looking at his last 3-years at Wyoming, his teams finished 64th, 58th and 56th respectively in pace. You’d have to think the flames are going to play much faster this year, but the question is how efficient the increased tempo will be.
The primary returning vets are seniors Paris Burns & Jake Wiegand. I watched both of these Cats play courtside (humble brag) against Green Bay, both legitimately impressed me, playing Keifer Sykes and Green Bay toe-to-toe for ~ 30 minutes. Burns is a 5’11 shifty point-guard who plays an excellent floor game. He posted an elite 31% assist rate last year, and did so without turning it over. While Burns will anchor the perimeter, Wiegand will be the primary presence inside. He was an excellent rebounder a year ago (top 250 in both OReb% and Dreb%), and him, along with rising sophomore Tai Odiase, are the only two true post players on the roster. I suspect the starting 2-guard spot will go to either Markese McGuire or Gabe Snider, but my money will be on McGuire, who was the Flames best shooter a year ago, hitting 35% of his 57 bombs.
I’m sure McClain will work in a ton of freshman throughout the year, but the most prominent (and most likely to start right away) are Dominique Matthews and Dikebe Dixson, both of whom are 3 star recruits.
Bottom Line: Depending on which mix of seniority and freshman McClain decides to roll with, I think the Flames will have a lot of value in the Vegas world. McClain has a terrific pedigree amongst basketball minds, and I expect the freshman to develop quickly. With just enough experience in the right places, I think UIC holds a lot more upside than the 8th place finish I’m projecting here. I just need to see the babies play more, before I’m prepared to be any more optimistic.
9. Youngstown State
The 3rd tier of the Horizon begins an atmospheric layer below the second, and its threshold is here. The boys of Youngstown had a downright disappointing year in 2015, relative to their mild expectations, winning only two conference games. The good news for Penguin nation is that it’s a whole new team this year! All major production from a team that ranked 279th in kenpom a year ago, and 338th in defense, graduated or ditched for other destinations.
The lone bright spot for the Pens is returning senior center Bobby Hain. Hain shot 55% from the floor last year, much of which was off simple mid-range jumpers created from guard penetration. I just don’t know what guards will be playing that role this year, with no proven point on the roster whatsoever.
The Penguins will duke it out with new Horizon member Northern Kentucky, for the worst team in this league. The only thing remotely entertaining about this group is their fast pace, so maybe I’ll track their totals throughout the year. Do not expect to hear much more about these dudes, unless some of the freshman display some early promise
10. Northern Kentucky
Perhaps the sneakiest best mascot in all of hoops the NORSE enter the Horizon from the Sun Belt in only their 4th year in division 1 hoops. They actually look very similar to their fellow cellar-dweller Youngstown State on paper. Both of which were incredibly mediocre offensively, but just disastrous on the other end (Norse were 303rd ). Youngstown actually did beat the mighty Norse last year by 4 at home, so you better believe I have the revenge spot on Thursday, January14th circled, highlighted and pinned on my calendar, when the Pens travel to Highland Heights, KY.
Unfortunately, the Norse will have to defend their turf without their do-everything point guard in Tayler Persons, who transferred to Ball State this offseason. The only other bright spots will come from the 3 returning starters in slashing machine Jalen Billups (70% from 2), and competent shooters Tyler White and Todd Johnson, each of whom hit ~ 37% of their combined 300 attempts.
With no apparent post presence of any kind, I do not see how the Norse get any better defensively, especially when the perimeter defenders are primarily the same as last year. And these same perimeter guys, who are noticeable better on the offensive side, have no point guard to find them open looks or get them in to any sort of offense. I’ll be tracking the race for last between these guys and Youngstown closely… maybe…