- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Dikembe Dixson, So., UIC
Coach of the Year: Greg Kampe, Oakland
Newcomer of the Year: Kendrick Nunn, R Sr., Oakland
Freshman of the Year: PJ Pipes, Fr., Green Bay
Key Returners: Martez Walker, Jalen Hayes, Nick Daniels, Brailen Neely
Key Losses: Sherron Dorsey-Walker, Isaiah Brock
Key Newcomers: Kendrick Nunn, Julius Palmer
***NOTE: Isaiah Brock has decided to come back to school. His addition makes Oakland an overwhelming favorite.***
Postseason Projection: 12-13 Seed
Outlook: Greg Kampe has been the head honcho up in Oakland, Michigan since 1984, back when the Grizzlies were a Division II program in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference. Kampe is a Michigan sports Hall of Famer and one of the best coaches in the Horizon, a league that Oakland has slowly climbed the ladder of since joining in 2013. OU earned the top seed in the Horizon League postseason tournament last year before being unceremoniously bounced by Youngstown State, a team they went 2-0 against during the regular season with an average margin of victory of 26.5 points per game. Go figure. Now, armed with three returning starters and an impact transfer, Oakland looks to avenge last season’s defeat with a trip to the Big Dance, which would be the 4th in the program’s Division I history.
Oakland’s offense is all about scoring in transition and pushing the tempo. Last season, the Grizzlies ranked in the top 40 of percentage of shot attempts in transition, yet finished at only the 213th best rate in the country, a stat that, along with so-so point guard play and a lack of outside shooting, led to pedestrian overall offensive efficiency. Likewise, on defense, Kampe’s teams look to speed the opposing squad up and force quick shots. The Grizzlies did an excellent job last season running shooters off the three-point line, funneling offensive foes into the paint where the likes of Isaiah Brock waited to slap away shot attempts. OU ranked 31st in the country last year in FG% defense at the rim and 40th in limiting three-point field goal attempts. Those kind of numbers will vault a team up the national (and conference) defensive rankings.
The transition-focused up-and-down style of play isn’t likely to change this season, but OU will have an added weapon that will unlock all sorts of scoring potential – Kendrick Nunn. Nunn was kicked off the Illini basketball team in 2015-16 due to a misdemeanor battery charge following a domestic violence arrest. Assuming off-the-court issues are resolved, Nunn figures to be a godsend to an Oakland team that severely lacked outside shooting competence in 2016-17. Graduated playmaker Sherron Dorsey-Walker was OU’s most voluminous (and accurate) three-point shooter; Nunn should fill that void and then some. During his junior season at Illinois, Nunn connected on 39.1% of his 192 three-point attempts and proved he had the athleticism and playmaking ability to be an effective scorer in other areas of the court. Not only is Nunn perhaps the most influential newcomer in the Horizon this season, he could also fight for an All-Conference spot in March.
The two most decorated returners on the squad are Martez Walker and Jalen Hayes, a pair of All-Conference performers last season that look to continue their Horizon League dominance. Walker is an explosive athlete that eats in transition. He doesn’t have the prettiest stroke from deep, but he’s so good at blowing by defenders and getting to the rim that it hardly matters. Walker was the catalyst that started the Oakland transition attack, and on defense he was one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders, earning All-Defensive Team honors. Hayes is a long lefty post man with great rebounding prowess and excellent paint / post-up presence. The 6’7” big man can also step out a little to hit from mid-range or even beyond the arc. He’ll likely see more time at the five spot this season without Brock in the fold, meaning we could be in for an even faster Oakland attack on offense.
Walker and Hayes were instrumental to the OU offense last season. The offensive efficiency numbers are stark in comparison when both or one of the two sat on the bench (per Hoop Lens):
As I’ve alluded to a few times, breakout star Isaiah Brock, the 25-year old freshman Army vet, will not be coming back this season. Brock was a revelation for the Grizzlies on the glass and, more importantly, on the defensive end where he swatted shots at the 2nd highest rate in the conference. His contributions will be sorely missed and will force returning big men Brad Brechting and Xavier Hill-Mais and JUCO transfer Julius Palmer to come along quickly.
Point guard play was an issue for Oakland last season. SDW handled most of the ball handling duties, but it was more out of necessity than willingness. With Stevie Clark also gone, OU will turn to Brailen Neely for its ball handling needs, a 5’10” sophomore that proved to be a capable distributor but one who turned the rock over at a high rate and shot poor percentages from the field. Oakland is thin at the PG spot behind Neely; a guy like Nunn or Walker may be forced to take on more ball handling duties. Aside from Neely, Nick Daniels should also be a factor in the backcourt rotation as a spot-up shooter off the pine.
Bottom Line: Oakland is certainly the favorite to win the Horizon this season and get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since winning the Summit Tournament in 2011. Talent-wise, no other team in the league can match the triumvirate of Hayes, Walker, and Nunn. Point guard play and rim protection raises question marks for this squad, however, and leaves a small spot of vulnerability on an otherwise juggernaut of a mid-major.
2. Northern Kentucky
Key Returners: Lavone Holland II, Drew McDonald, Carson Williams, Mason Faulkner, Jordan Garnett
Key Losses: Cole Murray
Key Newcomers: Chris Vogt, Paul Djoko
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: John Brannen completely flipped the script on the Northern Kentucky basketball program last season, leading his squad to a 24-11 (12-6) record, nearly doubling the Norse’s previous Division I win total high of 13. NKU made the NCAA Tournament last season in its first year of eligibility since moving up from Division II, a feat accomplished thanks to an excellent offensive attack that relied on the outstanding shooting of nearly every player on the roster. This season, the Norse figure to be right at the top of the Horizon League standings once again with the return of four starters and addition of two impact freshmen.
NKU applies a spaced out approach on offense featuring four (and sometimes five) players on the perimeter around one man inside. The Norse utilize pick-n-rolls, basket cuts, and ball penetration to force help from opposite side defenders in an effort to open up shooters from behind the arc. Three-point shooting is the most important aspect of the NKU attack; offensive rebounding is second. Despite their inferior size, the Norse were one of the better rebounding teams in the country, with two or three players crashing the glass on every shot attempt. Because of this, NKU was liable to getting torched in transition, but most of the time the aggressive style of play worked in its favor.
While they lose Cole Murray, a guy that shot 40.9% from three on 235 attempts, the Norse have plenty of shooting returning to the fold. Lavonne Holland cashed 37.2% of his trey attempts last season and will return as the Norse’s lead ball handler (along with sophomore Mason Faulkner). The guard had a drastic improvement last season from his 2015-16 campaign, raising his offensive rating from a poor 88.2 to a respectable 102.9. Holland improved his shooting from a .426/.370/.568 slash to .481/.372/.652 and significantly lowered his turnover rate. Holland’s ability to create and get to the rack in addition to his sharpshooting makes him a valuable asset to this Norse squad.
Drew McDonald is perhaps the most important returning player for NKU, a wide bodied forward/center standing 6’7” and weighing in at 250 pounds. McDonald’s shooting ability (38.2% from three) allows him to play on the perimeter in the Norse’s spaced attack, but his girth and rebounding presence also allows him to step inside and play the “one-in” role – the junior was dangerous in the post and diving into the lane rolling off the PnR. Carson Williams will start alongside McDonald in the frontcourt; the sophomore shot 60% from the field during his rookie campaign and a stupid 84.8% at the rim. Like McDonald, Williams is an undersized post presence at 6’5” 230 lbs., but he’s one of the nation’s best at getting to the free throw line where he converts at a 70% clip.
Brannen has a stable of wings he can start alongside the three aforementioned returners. Jeff Garrett, Jordan Garnett, and Jalen Tate all have starting experience. Garrett was slowly moved out of the rotation as the season moved on due to inefficiency (.438/.182/.462), but the 6’6” junior has potential as a rebounder and versatile defensive presence. Garnett is more guard-oriented, an excellent shooter (.507/.419/.825) on low usage and a plus defender on the other end. Tate started the first eight games of the 2016-17 campaign before succumbing to a season ending injury; a medical redshirt has allowed him to keep his freshman status. Tate is a capable passer and scorer from all three levels on the floor. Yet another 6’5” wing, Dantez Walton, could see floor time as well in his second season in Highland Heights.
Two freshman, Paul Djoko and Chris Vogt, also have an opportunity to impact the Norse lineup. Djoko is a combo guard out of France, a smooth ball handler and an excellent finisher in the lane for his size. He’ll provide a competent backup option for Holland and Faulkner off the pine. Vogt gives NKU something it sorely lacked last season – size. The 7-footer is a 3-star prospect out of Mayfield, Kentucky. The big man projects as a decent inside scorer and excellent rim protector on defense – during his senior season in high school, Vogt blocked 190 shots (a state record) and recorded a ridiculous 17 blocks in one game.
Bottom Line: The Norse should once again have one of the most potent offenses in the Horizon. Defensively, NKU had issues last season. The Norse were effective in running shooters off the three-point line, but a lack of rim protection inside offered little resistance once offensive players penetrated the outer shell. Brannen mixes in zone looks often, including a 2-3/3-2 matchup zone designed to throw opposing teams off their rhythm, which may be used more liberally than in years past to counteract the sometimes porous man-to-man look. An improvement in defense would likely lead to a Horizon League title and a chance at a repeat bid to the Big Dance.
Key Returners: Dikembe Dixson, Tarkus Ferguson, Dominique Matthews, Tai Odiase, Marcus Ottey, Godwin Boahen
Key Losses: KJ Santos, Kyle Guice
Key Newcomers: Naradain James, Ralph Bissainthe
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: The Flames were the youngest team in the country last season, relying on a stable of underclassmen to improve upon a dreadful 2015-16 in which they went 5-25 (3-15). On top of that, stud wing Dikembe Dixson went down with an ACL tear in the team’s 10th game of the season. So when Steve McClain’s group finished the 2016-17 season 17-19 (7-11), it turned a few heads and put the Horizon League on notice for the upcoming year. Now with the return of Dixson as well as nearly every major piece of last year’s rotation, the Flames look to be a legitimate contender for the conference crown.
At a high level, Steve McClain teams are all about speed, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Offensively, UIC looks to score in transition, particularly pushing the pace off the defensive glass. Defensively, the Flames look to run their opponents off the three-point line, forcing them to take shots inside the arc where shot blocker extraordinaire Tai Odiase lurks.
In the half court, UIC’s offense goes through Dikembe Dixson, one of the most talented players in the country and a likely frontrunner for Horizon League Player of the Year. Dixson averaged over 20ppg as a freshman two seasons ago and looked to be on pace to repeat that performance as a sophomore before succumbing to injury in December. Dixson’s strength is attacking the rim where he draws contact at a high rate, but the 6’7” wing can also shoot the long ball. Efficiency-wise, Dixson was brutal as a freshman, but that was primarily due to the extreme load he had to carry on offense. Dixson will have plenty more support this season.
When Dixson was out with injury, the Flames moved to more of a 4-out, 1-in attack on offense that focused on floor spacing to allow drive and kicks. UIC actually played pretty well without Dixson on the floor, and even put up better efficiency numbers in 2015-16 when he sat (though that was an incredibly small sample size), but I’ll wager on the Flames being better this season with Dixson in the lineup versus an extreme Ewing theory scenario.
Lining up with Dixson in the frontcourt will be Tai Odiase, a powerful 5-man poised for a big season in his senior year. Odiase ranked in the top ten in the Horizon in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, while also leading the conference in block rate (25th nationally). His glass eating prowess helps keep possessions alive on the offensive end, and his rim protecting ability is the key to the Flames’ defensive philosophy.
The backcourt features a rotation of four sophomores: Godwin Boahen, Dominique Matthews, Tarkus Ferguson, and Marcus Ottey. Ferguson and Boahen handle point guard duties; both players proved to be capable of distributing the ball and running the offense, but turnovers were a major concern – UIC ranked 340th nationally in turnover rate. Ferguson gives McClain another playmaking option outside of Dixson; the 6’4” guard shot .449/.349/.779 from the field while proving to be an asset on the defensive end. Boahen and Matthews are the best shooters on the squad, nailing 45.3% and 36.9% of their deep ball attempts last season, respectively. Ottey should be one of the better bench contributors in the conference this season, a guard that can come off the pine and provide instant offense with his slashing ability.
McClain went deep into his bench last season and should play about 8 guys regularly this year. Clint Robinson was a serviceable backup to Odiase last year, posting insanely high rebounding rates of 18.4% (offensive) and 18.0% (defensive) while also protecting the basket. Aside from him, McClain brings in JUCO transfer Naradain James, a talented wing that can shoot and create his own shot. Freshman Ralph Bissainthe should also contribute as a wing slasher and versatile defender.
Bottom Line: UIC has one of the most talented rosters in the Horizon and arguably the best player. The Dixson / Odiase combo gives the Flames the best frontcourt in the conference, while the young backcourt can put up buckets in a hurry. This squad can hang with just about anyone in the country, but they’re still very young and liable to lose some head scratchers. Turnovers need to improve for the Flames to truly be a heavyweight contender.
Key Returners: Jaleel Hogan, Corey Allen, Josh McFolley
Key Losses: Chris Jenkins, Jarod Williams
Key Newcomers: Kameron Chatman, Roschon Prince, Jermaine Jackson Jr., Tariiq Jones, Jack Ballantyne
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Bacari Alexander had a rough go during his first season in charge at Detroit Mercy. The Titans were an exciting bunch to watch, playing at the 18th fastest tempo in the country, but defensive woes led to an ugly 8-23 overall record and a 302nd ranking per KenPom, the lowest in the Horizon. Alexander, a former John Beilein assistant at Michigan, showed plenty of potential in his first year at the helm despite the disappointing record, improving his growing team’s fortunes by implementing a full court pressure defense. With three key pieces returning and an influx of one of the best 2017 classes in the Horizon, Detroit suddenly looks like a legit conference contender.
Alexander received some great news this offseason when stud forward Jaleel Hogan decided to flip-flop on his decision to transfer to UAB and return to Detroit. Hogan, a 2nd Team All-Horizon performer, was the Titans’ life force inside, racking up offensive boards at the 2nd best rate in the conference and scoring 1.348ppp on offensive putbacks – an excellent number per Synergy. The 6’7” 260 lb. senior is an absolute load inside, shooting 68.5% at the rim. On defense, Hogan was one of Detroit’s very few consistent contributors, turning in the 8th best Horizon block rate. His decision to come back takes this squad from the bottom half to the top.
Detroit’s offense relies heavily on transition, an area its athletic, quick guards can beat opponents in a hurry. Corey Allen and Josh McFolley form one of the best backcourt duos in the conference, each pouring in about 14 points per contest last season. Allen is the reigning Horizon League Freshman of the Year, a dynamic, well-built 2-guard with a deadly jumper. Allen shot 43.8% from downtown last season but only 42.5% inside the arc due to poor finishing and questionable shot selection. He figures to be more controlled in his second collegiate season. McFolley runs the point; he was a steady ball handler for the Titans last season while shooting .478/.363/.810 from the floor. Senior guard DeShawndre Beck and 3-star freshman Jermaine Jackson, Jr. will provide plenty of support backing up the two starters. Jackson, all of 5’10”, could be a future star in the Horizon.
Two major transfers should provide an enormous shot in the arm on both ends this season. Long Beach State grad transfer Roschon Prince and Michigan import Kameron Chatman will both compete for starting spots and add even more athleticism to the Titan roster. Prince plays in a similar fashion as Hogan – he likes to bang down low and is a highly active rebounder on both ends of the floor. Playing both Prince and Hogan together would make Detroit a tough squad to out-rebound. Chatman was never really given the chance to shine at Michigan. Now with his former assistant coach at Detroit, the 6’9” wing should be one of the best newcomers in the Horizon. Chatman adds shooting and versatility on the defensive end to the lineup.
Three returning rotation players, Gerald Blackshear, Cole Long, and Malik Eichler will bolster the frontcourt. But, they’ll need to hold off newcomers Tariiq Jones (JUCO), Jack Ballantyne, and Isaiah Jones (redshirt JUCO) for consistent playing time.
It’s easy to see the amount of talent Detroit has on its roster this season and declare the Titans a top three Horizon team. But let’s remember – this was one of the worst defensive teams in the entire country last season; the Titans ranked 331st in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. One factor was the relentless pressure Detroit implemented; while this style of play certainly forced turnovers, teams found it easy to score once getting past the initial pressure. Secondly, Detroit’s break neck style of play often led to leak outs and “matador” style defense. The Titans will need to buckle down on the defensive end in order to challenge for the league crown.
Bottom Line: Detroit is a sexy dark horse pick to win the Horizon this season. Teams like Oakland and Northern Kentucky will have the stability, but Detroit’s talent will allow them to compete with – and beat – any team in the conference. I’d still expect to see Detroit on the wrong end of a blow out or two, but the Titans should achieve an over-.500 conference record and finish in the top half in 2017-18.
5. Wright State
Key Returners: Justin Mitchell, Grant Benzinger
Key Losses: Mark Alstork, Steven Davis, Mike LaTulip
Key Newcomers: James Manns, Jaylon Hall, Cole Gentry
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Scott Nagy’s first season coaching the Wright State Raiders was a successful one, notching a 20-12 (11-7) record while improving his squad’s KenPom preseason ranking of #235 to #164. Nagy came by way of South Dakota State, a school he led to the Big Dance three times during his 11 year tenure. Wright State hasn’t punched a ticket to the NCAA Tournament since the Brad Brownell days back in 2007, and with Mark Alstork and two other major contributors out of the picture, the Raiders may find themselves waiting a bit longer to make it back to the Promised Land.
Nagy pretty much built the SDSU program into a Summit League power – he’s a proven coach that gets the most out of his players. Now with Alstork’s transfer to Illinois, Nagy will look to build his offense around two returning guards in Justin Mitchell and Grant Benzinger.
Here’s a shocking statistic: Wright State scored 0.10 more points per possession when Mark Alstork sat versus when he was on the court (per Hoop Lens). While there’s absolutely no denying his talent, it does say something to the Raiders’ potential gain in efficiency this season with Alstork not there to force his agenda. In contrast, the Raiders were 0.17 points better per possession when Justin Mitchell was on the floor. The natural thought here is that Alstork’s presence drew attention away from Mitchell, but the Raiders were still 0.11ppp better when Mitchell played while Alstork sat. WSU may not be in such dire circumstances as it appears.
Nagy’s offense is of the uptempo variety, one that looks to score in transition and shoot efficient shots. The Raiders were a three-point heavy offense (and shot a very good 37.2% from there), but also focused on getting the ball to the rim where their hardnosed drivers often drew fouls allowing opportunity from the charity stripe. Only 43.7% of Wright State’s field goals came from 2P field goals, suggesting they didn’t settle for pull-ups, and frankly didn’t have much of a post-up presence. With starting big man Steven Davis’s ability to shoot the three-ball, Nagy’s offense often featured four or five bodies out on the perimeter looking to drive, kick, and shoot. The pick-n-roll was also exploited regularly – particularly by Alstork and Mitchell.
WSU’s two returning leading scorers, Mitchell and Benzinger, have complementary games. Mitchell is a slashing wing and doubles as the team’s best rebounder on both ends of the floor (he averaged over 8 boards per game at only 6’4”, 195 lbs.). Benzinger is more of a shooter, knocking down 41.9% of his chances from deep. Mitchell is also the team’s best distributor, a player that can find his teammates in transition and bring the ball up confidently. He isn’t a true point guard, however, and neither was Alstork, which resulted in the Raiders sporting one of the worst turnover rates in the nation, a stat that caused detriment to an otherwise impressive season.
Nagy still doesn’t really have a point guard. Freshman Tyler Mitchell is one by trade, as is Tye Wilburn, but neither seem ready to assume a big role in the rotation. Junior Mark Hughes and freshman Jaylon Hall look like rotation players, but both are off-ball guards. Hall is a guy that could emerge as a dangerous scorer in the Horizon in the next couple years. Cole Gentry, a South Dakota State transfer eligible after the first semester, may be able to plug the point guard hole when he suits up in January.
Up front, the Raiders return Parker Ernsthausen, an uber-efficient center that boasted the best field goal percentage (73.1%) in the Horizon last season. While Ernsthausen appears to be an asset inside, he’s yet to prove to be a competent rebounder or shot blocker. The latter is a real concern for a Raider team that was routinely destroyed at the rim last season against bigger teams with strong postmen. Freshman James Manns could help in the frontcourt, he’s a guy Nagy calls “perfect for (the WSU) system”. Redshirt freshmen Loudon Love and Everett Winchester could also see some court time, though neither is proven by any means.
Bottom Line: Wright State should once again have a potent offense in the Horizon, but a lack of an inside presence and a proven point guard will ultimately hold the Raiders back from true contention. Justin Mitchell is a surefire All-Conference level performer and Nagy is a great coach, but Wright State just doesn’t have all the pieces quite yet.
6. Youngstown State
Key Returners: Cameron Morse, Francisco Santiago, Braun Hartfield
Key Losses: Jorden Kaufman, Matt Donlan, Brett Frantz
Key Newcomers: Alex Wilbourn, Tyree Robinson, Jacob Brown, Noe Anabir, Michael Akuchie, Garrett Covington, Naz Bohannon
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Jerry Slocum’s reign of mediocrity in Youngstown, Ohio has come to an end with the hiring of new coach Jerrod Calhoun. Slocum coached the Penguins from 2005 – 2017 and earned a grand total of zero NCAA Tourney bids. Youngstown State had two overall winning records under Slocum’s regime and only once finished above .500 in the Horizon League. Given these facts it’s no wonder the YSU athletic department turned elsewhere for leadership. Calhoun comes from the Bob Huggins coaching tree, serving under the Hall of Fame coach as a student assistant at Cincinnati and later as a true assistant at West Virginia from 2006-2012. Before YSU, Calhoun led D2 Fairmont State to four NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons. The Penguin faithful hope Calhoun can be a changing influence on the program.
Style-wise, we should expect to see Calhoun implement some sort of Huggins-esque basketball. That means the Penguins will look to get up and down in transition and might even show some full court pressure. YSU was already an uptempo team under Slocum, a team focused on scoring in transition but also one that was often burned in transition. Calhoun has already stated he expects to play 11 guys on a nightly basis, so expect a continuance to the frenetic pace of play at Youngstown this season.
Whatever the style, Youngstown State will rely on its guard experience to bring it to conference glory. With the return of Cameron Morse, Francisco Santiago, and Braun Hartfield, the Penguins have one of the best backcourt tandems in the Horizon. Morse is simply outstanding, ranking second in the Horizon in scoring last season behind Alec Peters. However, the 1st Team All-Conference performer was pretty inefficient last season despite his impressive counting stats. Morse led the conference in usage but only converted shots at a .473/.319./.740 slash, not ideal from your primary playmaker – “volume scorer” is a word that fits Morse well. YSU’s whole attack revolved around Morse, particularly in the pick-n-roll where Morse ranked 13th in the country in possessions ending from the PnR.
To be fair, Morse didn’t have a whole lot of help in the scoring realm, but Francisco Santiago was a source of steadiness in the backcourt, particularly as a distributor in the point guard role. Santiago is a hard-nosed penetrator and has a nice-looking shot from the outside. His scoring and playmaking ability alongside Morse is crucial for the Penguins’ success.
Braun Hartfield plays on the wing and turned in an impressive first season in Youngstown. Hartfield is primarily a slashing wing and finished well to the tune of 50.6% from inside the arc. Returning forward Devin Haygood will line up alongside the aforementioned trio in the frontcourt; Haygood is more of a post presence than Hartfield. He shoots well from the field but is a dreadful free throw shooter when he gets to the line.
Since Calhoun has expressed his intention to play a deep bench, he’ll be relying on a slew of newcomers for production. JUCO imports Alex Wilbourn, Tyree Robinson, and Noe Anabir could all play important frontcourt roles, while freshmen Michael Akuchie, Naz Bohannon, Garrett Covington, and Jacob Brown look to fill the rotation. For the record, I think there’s a real possibility former SEMO guard Jaylen Benton sees court time, but his lack of scholarship gives me pause.
One of Wilbourn or Robinson will start alongside Haywood in the frontcourt. Wilbourn is a tall (7’0”), lengthy post player – a good finisher with potential to grow into a strong rim protector on the other end. Robinson is a big combo forward that prefers to bang inside. He has the handling ability to play on the wing and the size to contribute in the post.
Bohannon is in the same vein as Robinson; he’s a big wing that’s built like Deonte Burton, a guy that prefers to overpower his defender to the cup rather than settle for a jumper. Michael Akuchie has perhaps the most potential of any of the newcomers. Like Robinson and WIlbourn, Akuchie has a shot to start on day one, but I’m not sure what position he’ll fill. With his size, shooting, ball handling ability, and passing, Akuchie could play the 1-4, which will be incredibly valuable to a team starving for versatility.
Bottom Line: Calhoun’s system shouldn’t be a huge change for the returning Slocum players (at least offensively). YSU will look to run and attack the rack on offense, while implementing a little more pressure on the defensive end. The key for the Penguins will be defense, particularly in transition where YSU was absolutely brutal at stopping. If the Penguins clean that aspect up, this squad could compete for a top five finish in a league in which they made the tournament semi-finals the year before.
7. Green Bay
Key Returners: Khalil Small
Key Losses: Charles Cooper, Kerem Kanter, Kenneth Lowe, Trevor Anderson, Turner Botz, Warren Jones, Jamar Hurdle
Key Newcomers: Sandy Cohen III, TJ Parham, Manny Patterson, Trevian Bell, PJ Pipes, Will Chevalier, Hunter Crist, Sukhjot Bains
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Not too many programs in the country lost as much as Green Bay lost this offseason. Six Phoenix players graduated and another two transferred leaving third-year coach Linc Darner with a completely different looking team than a year ago. Darner has been successful in his first two seasons in Green Bay, making an NCAA Tournament appearance back in 2016 and boasting a 23-13 overall conference record. This will certainly be his toughest year with the amount of turnover, but Darner’s system allows Green Bay to be competitive on a nightly basis.
Linc Darner brought with him his own style when he came to Green Bay, a style he lovingly dubbed “RP40”, which stands for “relentless pressure for 40 minutes”. Similar to Nolan Richardson/Mike Anderson’s 40 Minutes of Hell, RP40 focuses on full court pressure and making offensive players uncomfortable with the basketball. On the other end, the Phoenix run like hell, ranking 4th last season in highest FGA% in transition and 7th overall in adjusted tempo. The players may be different this year, but the high-pressure style of play isn’t going anywhere.
Khalil Small is the only major contributor returning from last year’s squad (Kameron Hankerson and David Jesperson also return, but they had far less of an impact). Small pretty much embodies the RP40 mindset; he’s a big guard (6’2” 215 lbs.) who excels at defending opponents in the full court and lives in transition where he can attack the rim with reckless abandonment. Small and graduated teammate Kenneth Lowe were both Horizon All-Defensive Team members last season; having Small back in the fold should pay dividends for the young class coming up this year.
Outside of Small, Darner is liable to start and play just about anyone on this roster. Last season, Green Bay played the 21st most bench minutes in the country, a likely consequence of having the 11th oldest team in the nation. During the team’s trip to Puerto Rico this offseason, nearly every player on the team averaged over 12 minutes per game.
Sandy Cohen III will definitely be a factor once he’s eligible to put on the Green Bay uniform. Cohen is a Marquette transfer that is still waiting on word from the NCAA to determine if he will be allowed to play starting second semester. I pegged Cohen as a major breakout candidate last season before he decided to leave Marquette; he’s big wing capable of playing both forward spots, can knock down the three-ball, and defend several positions on the other end. I imagine Hankerson will start in his stead; he’s a lanky wing with “3 and D” potential, a player that should contribute in multiple facets of the game.
Of the five freshmen joining the team this season, I like P.J. Pipes and Manny Patterson to start right away. Pipes should start at the point guard spot next to Smalls (a player that prefers to be off the ball). The 6’2” freshman is a good shooter and is super quick, a necessary asset to have in the RP40 system. Patterson is a very skilled post player who’s able to get position down low and use his footwork to score in the paint. He seems mobile enough to keep up in the hectic system, but Darner will likely use a plethora of forwards throughout every game.
The other three freshmen, Hunter Crist, Trevian Bell, and Will Chevalier, could also eventually carve out roles in the rotation. Crist is a highly skilled combo guard (primarily point guard) that can shoot the ball and possesses excellent court vision allowing him to make deadeye passes to streaking teammates. Bell has the potential to develop into a contributor on both ends of the floor, but still looks like he’ll need some time to adjust to D1 basketball. Chevalier is a stretch forward, able to knock down the perimeter jumper at 6’8”. He can light it up, but it’s unclear if he possesses the defensive fortitude to be a regular contributor.
The two JUCO imports, Sukhjot Bains and TJ Parham, likely see some floor time as well this season. Bains is a shooting wing with a sneaky first step. Parham is a seasoned power forward that originally committed to Army out of high school, the same high school as former Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis. Expect Parham to be in the starting five on day one due to his size and experience.
Bottom Line: Green Bay is a mystery team in terms of personnel this season, but the Linc Darner system is well known at this point. The Phoenix will once again be a pain in the ass to play offense against, they may just struggle a bit out of the gates as they iron out a rotation and perfect their offensive attack.
8. Cleveland State
Key Returners: Kenny Carpenter, Bobby Word, Kasheem Thomas
Key Losses: Rob Edwards, Demonte Flannigan
Key Newcomers: Dontel Highsmith, Stefan Kenic, Deven Stover
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Gary Waters came over from Rutgers back in 2006-07. In Waters’ first season, Cleveland State struggled to a 10-21 (3-13) record. Then from 2007 – 2015, Waters’ Vikings won 20+ games in five of eight seasons (one of those years was 19 wins), and even knocked off Wake Forest as a 13-seed in the 2009 Big Dance. The last two years, though, have been a pile of hot steaming garbage. CSU has won only 9 games in each of the past two seasons, finishing in the bottom three of the Horizon in both years. This led to the firing of Waters and the hire of Dennis Felton, a former head coach at Georgia and Western Kentucky. With Rod Edwards and Demonte Flannigan gone, arguably the Vikings’ most valuable players last season, Cleveland State looks to be in world of trouble once again.
The Vikings were horrendous on offense last season ranking 312th in the country adjusted offensive efficiency and dead last in the Horizon. Shooting was the main reason for this futility, no Viking shot over 34.5% from downtown, and no major contributor shot over 50% from inside the arc. Waters’ offensive attack last season consisted of a spaced floor, often featuring four guys who could (theoretically) shoot it from deep, while Flannigan roamed the paint. Pick-n-roll was a major theme to the offense, as was isolation plays for Edwards, but there didn’t seem to be much flow to the attack – standing and watching became all too common. It’s hard to imagine how this squad scores consistently this year. Kasheem Thomas, a promising sophomore point guard, is a solid ball handler and distributor, but the Vikings relied heavily on Edwards to create shots on the perimeter and Flannigan to produce inside.
Kenny Carpenter is a guy that will need to step up and become a more reliable contributor on offense. The 6’5” wing shot mostly mid-range jumpers last season, a hallmark of inefficient basketball. Bobby Word is a spot-up wing that shot 40.2% from deep on a high volume at Oral Roberts in 2014-15, but managed a measly 32.2% last season. His percentages must improve for defenders to truly respect the spaced floor.
Felton brings in Dontel Highsmith, a graduate transfer from Northern Illinois, to fill the void left by Edwards at the 2-guard spot. Highsmith isn’t nearly the player Edwards was, but he still should be able to be a source of scoring and secondary ball handling. Senior Terrell Hales, a guy that was banished to the bench after starting most of his sophomore year, and freshman Deven Stover, a below-the-rim slashing wing, figure to play a role in the backcourt rotation as well this season.
The Vikings are thin inside, both in a literal and figurative sense. Senior Derek Sloan probably slots into the “5-spot” surrounded by a 4-guard lineup. Sloan actually put up pretty good per-minute rebounding and shot blocking numbers, but at 6’6” will find it difficult to match up with bigger forwards. Anthony Wright, Jamarcus Hairston, and Evan Clayborne will form some sort of depth behind and next to Sloan in the frontcourt. There is hope that Serbian freshman Stefan Kenic can step in and contribute right away. Kenic is well-polished for his age and is able to knock down the perimeter shot while also providing interior defense on the other end. It would not shock me to see Kenic in the starting five this season.
Defense was about the only thing last year’s Viking squad could hang their hats on. CSU ranked 3rd in the Horizon in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks to an ability to force turnovers at a high rate. Waters liked to pick up in man full court, which forced teams to deal with pressure for the length of the floor. When CSU pressed last season, it allowed 0.741ppp, an excellent mark. The defense should still be somewhat strong this season, but Edwards, and especially Flannigan, were major parts of its success.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to see Cleveland State improving much this season, if at all. The loss of two major impact players combined with the lack of major imports doesn’t inspire much hope for the 2017-18 campaign.
Key Returners: Brock Stull, Jeremiah Bell, August Hass, Brett Prahl
Key Losses: Cody Wichmann
Key Newcomers: Carson Warren-Newsome, Vance Johnson
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: It’s been a tumultuous last few years for Milwaukee basketball. After longtime coach Rob Jeter was fired following the close of the 2015-16 season, the UWM AD brought in LaVall Jordan, a former Michigan assistant with burgeoning potential. Jordan’s first (and only) year saw the Panthers achieve an 11-24 (4-14) record and an out-of-nowhere run to the Horizon Tournament championship game. With Chris Holtmann bolting for Ohio State, Butler decided to take a chance on Jordan and lure him away from the confines of Milwaukee. Now with its third coach in as many years, UWM will look to rebuild its program under Pat Baldwin, a former assistant coach at Green Bay, Loyola, Missouri State, and Northwestern.
Baldwin had been an assistant coach since 2002 and until last season with Northwestern, never made an NCAA Tournament (even as a Northwestern player way back when). Considering the schools he’s held positions at over the years, this isn’t an entirely shocking statistic, I just thought it was noteworthy.
With his various experience, it’s difficult to predict what type of style Baldwin will implement at Milwaukee. He was quoted by the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal saying he favored a more uptempo style of play, but would “draw a lot from (his) experience”. Interestingly enough, none of his prior stops featured an uptempo style, in fact all four of his previous schools played at some of the slowest paces in the country. Given Milwaukee’s roster makeup this season, a slow tempo wouldn’t be the worst call in the world, which is exactly what LaVall Jordan implemented in his only season at the helm.
Regardless of style, the Panthers’ offense will likely run through juniors Brock Stull and Jeremiah Bell. The dynamic duo combined to score 51 points against Detroit in the first game of the postseason conference tournament, hinting at the potential damage the two could do in 2017-18. Stull is nothing short of a complete player on offense, able to score from anywhere on the floor and create his own shot. Last season, the 6’4” wing shot an impressive .464/.399/.805 from the field while leading the team in scoring and rebounding. The rebounding stat is important due to Jordan’s affinity for playing four guard lineups last season; having a wing that can board the way Stull can is essential in those types of looks. Bell splits point guard duties with fellow returner August Haas. The 6’0” combo guard didn’t shoot the ball well at all last season, but proved valuable as an isolation and PnR threat.
The remaining backcourt rotation players include returning role pieces Jeremy Johnson and Bryce Barnes and freshman Carson Warren-Newsome. Johnson was a nice addition to the lineup last year, a versatile wing with the ability to shoot and drive. Barnes proved he could shoot, knocking down 45% of his three-point attempts, but his ball handling must improve to be relied upon as a competent backup PG. Warren-Newsome comes in possessing NBA-plus range on his jump shot and a willingness to shoot the ball from literally anywhere and at anytime. CWN has good athleticism and should be an instant offense type of guy off the pine in his first season.
Up front, Baldwin will turn to returning big men Brett Prahl and Bryce Nze for most of the minutes at the five spot. The two forwards seldom played on the floor at the same time last season, as both possess similar games, one that revolves around scoring in the post. Offensively, the two were dead even from an efficiency standpoint – Prahl is a better scorer, but Nze is a far better rebounder (he ranked 4th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage). Defensively, Prahl has the edge as well, leading the team in block rate by a significant margin. Prahl’s twin Alex Prahl might play a role this season given the lack of depth, but he won’t be a significant contributor. One guy that could be, however, is JUCO transfer Vance Johnson, a powerful athlete and physical specimen capable of starting on day one.
Bottom Line: Time will tell if the Pat Baldwin hire was a success. Given the timing of the Jordan move, Baldwin seems to be a pretty good hire given his experience. Growing pains are inevitable, and Baldwin is without two of Jordan’s original 2017 recruits, but Milwaukee seems to be on the path back to conference relevancy in the next few years.
Key Returners: Ron Patterson, DJ McCall, Aaron Brennan, Evan Hall
Key Losses: Darell Combs, Matt O’Leary, Kellon Thomas
Key Newcomers: Maurice Kirby, Nick Rogers, Jaylen Minnett
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: IUPUI is the new kid on the block in the Horizon. After Wichita State left the Missouri Valley for the friendly confines of the AAC, Valpo decided to part ways from the Horizon, leaving a vacancy for a tenth team. After several attractive candidates arose, the league selected IUPUI, a college in desperate need of a name change. I’ll be honest, I don’t think this addition was the best choice, but the Jaguars are well-coached by up-and-coming head man Jason Gardner (a former Arizona PG) and could develop into a league contender down the road.
With the losses of dual point guards Darell Combs and Kellon Thomas, the Jaguars aren’t likely to repeat their 14-18 performance. Factor in that the Horizon offers a small step up in competition from the Summit (speaking in generalities), and it’s hard to see IUPUI finishing outside the bottom three.
Gardner runs a good system, both offensively and defensively. On offense, IUPUI is going to look to space the opposing team across the floor, allowing plenty of room for its knockdown shooters to punish the nets from deep. Last season, IUPUI started five guys that could pull from deep, but Matt O’Leary’s graduation will eat into this skillset a bit. The offense will rely on Ron Patterson and DJ McCall to create from the wing positions, while TJ Henderson looks to slide into the point guard role. Patterson was very much a spot-up shooter last season, relying on the playmaking chops of Thomas and Combs to feed him open looks; the senior leader will need to develop his penetration game this year. McCall, too, will need to assert himself on offense, more so via the drive due to his shaky shooting stroke.
Alec Brennan, a senior 4-man, will be a key piece to the offense. He shot 45% from deep last season on low volume; expect his three-point attempts to skyrocket this season as Evan Hall steps into the lineup next to him. Hall is a banger on the inside, an undersized center that outworks his opponent for position. The two bigs rarely shared the floor last season, but when they did, IUPUI sparkled on both ends of the court (per Hoop Lens):
Two transfers, Nick Rogers (Toledo) and Maurice Kirby (Loyola) promise to be major factors in the rotation this year. Rogers will serve in a backup point guard role while Kirby will provide size up front, something IUPUI sorely lacked last season. Freshman Jaylen Minnett could also play a huge role. I’m a big fan of this kid; he’s a super talented point guard that can shoot, pass, and create. Minnett could easily start for this squad on day one and could develop into a Horizon stud in the near future.
Defensively, Gardner will likely maintain his pressure man-to-man style, one that results in the creation of turnovers via the steal. Combs and Thomas were both very weak defenders, but McCall and Henderson can hold their own on the perimeter. Henderson is the best stealer on the roster while McCall is capable of guarding 1-3. The Jaguars struggled mightily guarding the interior last season, a consequence of their lack of height and athleticism in the frontcourt. Kirby’s presence should help this aspect, as should Hall earning more playing time.
Bottom Line: It’ll be interesting to see how IUPUI performs in its first Horizon season. Jason Gardner seems to be a great coach in the making, but don’t expect the Jags to finish in the top-half of the standings in their inaugural year. A lack of a go-to scorer and defensive prowess will be tough to overcome.