- Matt Cox
Player of the Year: Drew McDonald, Sr., Northern Kentucky
Coach of the Year: Steve McClain, UIC
Newcomer of the Year: Camron Justice, R Jr., IUPUI
Freshman of the Year: Antoine Davis, Detroit Mercy
1. Wright St.
Key Returners: Loudon Love, Mark Hughes, Jaylon Hall, Cole Gentry, Parker Ernsthausen
Key Losses: Grant Benzinger, Justin Mitchell, Everett Winchester (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Billy Wampler (Drake transfer), Skyelar Potter, Malachi Smith, Grant Basile
Outlook: Wright State made a living by winning ugly last year, leaning on a stymieing defense to consistently outlast opponents in physical, drag-out rock fights. After hoisting a healthy amount of threes two years ago, a reconfigured roster (specifically, the graduation of high volume 3-point gunners Mark Alstork and Steven Davis) transformed the Raiders into a more balanced inside-out scoring attack. Head coach Scott Nagy quickly realized he had a special weapon in mega-mushroom sized Loudon Love, a 6’10 275 pound force in the paint who few teams could counter inside. This injection of interior muscle enabled the Raiders to supplement a typically perimeter-oriented offense with ‘bully ball’ in the paint, which consistently wore down smaller, weaker Horizon frontlines.
Per Synergy, the lion’s share of Wright State’s offensive possessions last year ran through either post-up touches or through pick-n-roll action. So, with Benzinger’s ball handling and shooting precision now gone, I’d expect Nagy to feed the beast (Love) early and often on the low block. With Love’s interior gravity likely to draw a ton of defensive attention, Mark Hughes and Cole Gentry must mature into more assertive scorers this season on the outside. Hughes and Gentry were both the epitome of ‘solid’ last year, but had the luxury of being able to defer to Benzinger and Love offensively. They’ll continue to co-direct Nagy’s motion offense, but must provide an additional scoring punch to replenish some of Benzinger’s production.
Rounding out the rest of the rotation will be a pair of promising wings in rising sophomore Jaylon Hall and Drake transfer Billy Wampler. As a freshmen, Hall immediately earned the trust of Nagy as he became an instant-offense weapon off-the-pine – though, becoming more efficient will be a high priority as he may slide into the starting rotation. Wampler already has a highly productive season engraved on his college resume from his 2016-17 campaign at Drake. He started 16 of 31 contests for his former school back in 2017 and carries a reputation as a lights-out shooter. Much like his new teammate Love, Wampler possesses a chiseled frame at 6’6 220 pounds, which should make him a fungible asset on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Bottom Line: Over the past two seasons, no one has notched more victories in the Horizon than Wright State, further proof that the Nagy hire in 2016 was a savvy move by the athletic department. With Benzinger graduating – undeniably the Raiders’ most skilled offensive player last season – Wright State remains highly leveraged on the defensive side of the ball, but the formidable frontline duo of Love and 6’11 Parker Ernsthausen is a sturdy foundation to rely on. Hughes and Gentry are defensive pests themselves and give Nagy a pair of trustworthy offensive ‘co-captains’ to pilot the offense from the perimeter. Love and Hall now enter the precious freshman to sophomore improvement window and with the spark Wampler could provide as a money shooter on the wing, an offensive leap should be in the cards this year. There isn’t much separation between Wright State and their top-2 challengers (UIC and Northern Kentucky), but I’m betting on the Raiders to win that three horse race by a nose.
2. Illinois Chicago
Key Returners: Godwin Boahen, Tarkus Ferguson, Marcus Ottey, Jordan Blount, Dominique Matthews
Key Losses: Dikembe Dixson, Tai Odiase
Key Newcomers: Jamie Ahale, Rob Howard Jr.
Outlook: Had Dikembe Dixson chose to return to school (and perhaps if Tai Odiase had one more year of eligibility), many would have the Flames penciled in as the Horizon frontrunner in 2019 – it helps that the league has slowly faded into oblivion over the last few years, but a frontline that features two NBA-caliber talents in Dixson and Odiase would’ve made Steve McClain’s squad a force to be reckoned with. That said, as gifted as Dixson was, his sophomore season was marred by poor shooting and inconsistent finishing around the rim – just refer to his effective field goal percentage, which sank to 43% for the year.
Looking strictly at the offensive end of the floor, a case could be made that Dixson’s absence could be a blessing in disguise in 2019. Though Dixson had a lot to do with his teammates success last year as the focal point of opposing defenses’ scouting reports, all of his shots will now be allocated to an efficient scoring perimeter triumvirate of Tarkus Ferguson, Marcus Ottey and Godwin Boahen. It all came together for the scintillating sophomore trio last year – Ferguson led the league in assists for the 2nd straight season, Ottey’s 15 PPG scoring average was tops throughout Horizon play and Boahen took home 6th man of the year honors. Oh, Boahen and Ottey also finished with the leagues two top 3-point FG% - Ottey: 46% and Boahen: 51% (!!!). I haven’t even mentioned Dominique Matthews, another proven scoring threat and overqualified 4th option in Steve McClain’s full-throttle offense.
With this collection of guards all back in action this season, the Flames’ will go as their backcourt goes, which will be a minor shift from last year with Dixson and Odiase driving the bus. You could argue the loss of Dixson and Odiase will gut the Flames of two plus defenders, but the advanced on / off numbers indicate UIC may be just fine without their services. Beware of the small sample size, but the Flames actually held opponents to 0.93 points per possession when both Dixson or Odiase were on the bench, compared to 0.99 PPP when either one or both were on the floor:
While Odiase’s suffocating shot-blocking will be impossible to replicate, Jordan Blount is an elite two-way rebounder who can be effective at the 5 in a ‘super small ball’ lineup or at the 4 alongside either Rob Howard or Michael Diggins in a more standard lineup. Diggins’ is still raw at this stage of his career, but he’s a high-flyer with the physical package to grow into an intimidating rim protector. Howard’s the more advanced offensive player whose range comfortably extends beyond the 3-point line – he could create matchup conundrums for opposing forwards playing alongside Blount as an inverted forward at the 5.
From a macro, stylistic perspective, most basketball statisticians would approve of the Flames’ defensive design. McClain clearly places a premium on running shooters off the 3-point line, which forces opponents to score from less efficient spots on the floor inside the arc. Expect McClain to stay true to his roots with that approach this year, even without an elite eraser like Odiase altering and rejecting shots at the rim. The team rebounding needs to improve demonstrably, but when the Flames do secure a missed or blocked shot, it’s off to the races going to the other way.
UIC has consistently played at one of the fastest tempos in the country over the past few years. Now, with Dixson’s may slightly (emphasis on slightly) slow down the offensive speed to a more controlled paced this season. This could actually be a positive, given that the Flames scored at an inefficient rate of .953 points per possession on all transition possessions last year.
Bottom Line: The DNA of the Flames’ roster is slowly evolving towards the new-aged, ‘pace-and-space’ type of basketball McClain wants to instill at UIC. His rebuilding project appears to be right on schedule now entering year 4 and with an explosive backcourt ready to take the next step forward, the Flames may be bringing some Horizon hardware back to Chicago next March.
3. Northern Kentucky
Key Returners: Drew McDonald, Jalen Tate, Tyler Sharpe, Dantez Walton
Key Losses: Lavonte Holland, Carson Williams (transfer), Jordan Garnett, Mason Faulkner
Key Newcomers: Silas Adheke (JUCO), Zaynah Robinson (Norfolk St. grad transfer), Paul Djoko, Trevon Faulkner, Bryant Mocaby, Adrian Nelson
Outlook: After making the leap to Division 1 back in 2011, it took Northern Kentucky just 6 years to punch their ticket to the Big Dance, a feat some longer tenured D1 schools have yet to achieve in their entire program’s history (*cough* Army, William & Mary *cough*). Last season was supposed to be a special encore with seemingly every one of importance back from that strong 2016-17 campaign – and after edging out Wright St. for the Horizon regular season title, the Norse had a clear path to defend their conference tournament crown and punch their ticket to the dance for the 2nd year in a row.
Well, that was the plan at least – until Cleveland State, a bottom-feeder for much of the season, stunned the Norse in the opening round of the Horizon championship and slammed the door shut on any chance of a repeat visit to college basketball’s most coveted stage.
Drew McDonald will have a major – and I mean MAJOR – say in how well the Norse transition to a world without Lavonte Holland and Carson Williams this year, among other big blows this summer. If it weren’t for Kendrick Nunn’s recurring scoring outbursts at Oakland, Williams would’ve likely secured Player of the Year honors. While he’s already renowned as an elite glass-cleaner, McDonald’s an offensive triple-threat who can drive, shoot and pass as well as anyone in the league, which makes him a near-impossible cover at 6’7 250 pounds. There’s few valid player comps in college basketball today, but his unorthodox style and innate craftiness has shades of Luke Harangody’s game from Notre Dame back in the late 2000’s (though, McDonald skews more towards the perimeter than ‘the Gody’).
Without a proven playmaker like Holland, a lot is riding on transfer import Zaynah Robinson to step in to the lead guard spot. Robinson was highly productive at Norfolk State (albeit, against poor MEAC competition), but missed all of last year due to injury. Even if Robinson is fully healthy and consistently in the lineup, I’d expect to see McDonald take on an ultra-high usage role as both a scorer and facilitator in the half-court offense. He’s a good, not great passer, but he’ll draw a ton of defensive attention this year with so few proven returners back to occupy off-ball defenders.
There’s a myriad of options in the backcourt for Brannen to work with this season, which should help keep fresh bodies on the floor needed to sustain the up-tempo offensive attack. Tyler Sharpe, Jalen Tate and Dantez Walton were steady complementary pieces last season, and Brannen will now inject four new reinforcements to the perimeter depth chart – but it’s the fifth and most experienced newcomer, JUCO transfer Silas Adheke, who owns the biggest responsibility this season.
Chris Vogt is the only other player left that stands taller than 6’7, precisely why Brannen had to bolster the interior with a bouncy, long athlete like Adheke to plug in the middle. Vogt entered college with lofty expectations as a 3-star recruit coming out of high school, but he’s failed to make a dent in the primary rotation thus far. Unless Vogt breaks out of his shell this year, Adheke may be Brannen’s best bet to hold down the fort inside.
Bottom Line: With a decorated senior core now moving on to greener pastures, Brannen will face a mighty tall task keeping the Norse in the national conversation when discussing the A-list mid-majors. That said, NKU will certainly benefit from a depleted talent pool across the Horizon, which keep them propped up near the top of the Horizon League standings once again in 2019.
4. Green Bay
Key Returners: Sandy Cohen III, Kam Hankerson, PJ Pipes, Manny Patterson, TJ Parnham
Key Losses: Khalil Small, David Jesperson
Key Newcomers: JayQuan McCloud (JUCO), Jevon Smith (JUCO), Josh McNair (JUCO), Shanquan Hemphill (JUCO), Cody Schwartz (San Jose State transfer)
Outlook: Since Linc Darner replaced Brian Wardle in 2015, the Phoenix have been hellbent on playing in the fast lane. In many ways, Darner’s style at Green Bay (referred to as ‘RP40’) closely resembles Greg Kampe’s at Oakland. Both put pressure on opponents by relentlessly attacking in transition and by exploiting mismatch opportunities through isolation sets when the defense is set in the half-court. The ‘secret sauce’ for success in this system is, well, far from a secret – you need high-caliber individual playmakers who can consistently score and create in 1-v-1 situations.
Khalil Small flourished as the lead guard last year, but his departure means former Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen will now run the show this season. Cohen’s a high-octane scorer who will put up big time numbers as the undisputed alpha offensively, but Darner has a few other competent pieces to flank Cohen on the perimeter. Kameron Hankerson turned more than a few heads with his 36-point explosion against Detroit in the Horizon league tournament last March, proving he can go bananas on any given night. 2nd-team NJCAA All-American JayQuan McCloud enters the mix after tearing up the JUCO circuit and rising sophomore PJ Pipes is a prime breakout candidate as well (highlights below):
As promising as that crop of perimeter talent is, the reality is that the Phoenix regressed on both sides of the ball last season, in large part due to a depleted front court after Kareem Kanter and Kenneth Lowe’s poorly timed departures. Having to replace Kanter and Lowe in the same offseason was near-Armageddon for a roster severely lacking depth up front, which explains why the Phoenix were bullied on the boards. Last year, David Jesperson was the only guy standing 6’8 or taller who clocked significant playing time and even he profiles as a leaner stretch-4. On paper, this should’ve paid major dividends on the other end of the floor with Jesperson pulling rim protectors out of the lane and Cohen able to feast on opposing 4s. But as the hand played out, the offense looked far better on paper than in reality and the Phoenix became to appreciate how much Lowe and Kanter’s combined offensive rebounding dominance meant to the team’s overall offensive efficiency.
Darner has brought his patented pressing scheme to Green Bay, but it’s not a frantic, turnover-focused press like what you’ll see at West Virginia under Bob Huggins. While generating steals is still a point of emphasis, the press is most effective as a mechanism to delay opponents from getting into their offensive sets. Darner does has some length on the perimeter to disrupt crosscourt and over-the-top passing lanes – new addition Josh McNair should be an asset in this regard – but last year’s group failed to gel cohesively as a unit. The Phoenix weren’t abysmal defensively, but nowhere near as stout as the 2016-17 group. As is the case with many pressing teams, throwing out multi-positional athletes who can cover a lot of ground sometimes comes at the expense of size in the middle.
And even with all the new additions, there still appears to be a major void at the 5-spot. The challenge with a pressing style of defense is that it requires a rare mold of big than can be mobile enough to cover ground out in space, but still have the size and length to compete on the glass. Perhaps 6’8 San Jose State transfer Cody Schwartz is the solution here, but nothing about his per minute production indicates he’ll transform into a reliable rebounder. I’m cautiously optimistic that either Manny Patterson (started 19 games last year before going down with a shoulder injury) or Shanquan “Tank” Hemphill (super skinny, but blessed with insane hops) could accept this challenge, but we’ll see if the broader rebounding woes linger this season.
Bottom Line: Even with a veteran playmaker in Khalil Small leading the way, last season wound up being a choppy transition year after losing some key players last summer. A strong group of newcomers should boost the Phoenix up a notch or two in the league standings, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Darner loses two of his most precise long range sharpshooters (Small and Jesperson) from a team that lived and died by the 3-ball. Still there’s enough depth and roster options for Darner to find the right mixture of lineup rotations needed to push the Phoenix over the .500 mark this year.
5. Cleveland St.
Key Returners: Tyree Appleby, Stefan Kenic
Key Losses: Kenny Carpenter, Bobby Word, Anthony Wright, Jamarcus Hairston
Key Newcomers: Rashad Williams, Seth Millner, Jalaam Hill
Outlook: Newly appointed head coach Dennis Felton took the expected lumps for much of the 2017-18 campaign, before playing spoiler in the Horizon tournament. The Vikings ultimately ran out of gas against Wright St. in the title game, but Felton should be quick to point to those two victories over two of the league's top dogs in Northern Kentucky and Oakland as reasons to be bullish about what the 2019 season holds.
Even more encouraging is the fact that two of his top performers, Tyree Appleby and Stefan Kenic, now enter their improvement launching pad window as rising sophomores. Appleby was in a unique spot last year as a freshman tasked with leading an upperclassmen-heavy supporting cast. He fell into a perfect situation at Cleveland State with Felton implementing a pick-n-roll heavy offense, which gave Appleby full autonomy to thrive as the Vikings’ offensive catalyst. Per synergy, Cleveland State’s offensive possessions ended with PnR action roughly 25% of the time, the 7thhighest rate in the country. It’s clear Felton took a page out of the NBA playbook from his brief stint as Director of Pro Player personnel for the Spurs from 2010-2013 as the Vikes attempted more 3s than any team in the conference.
Kenic emerged as perfect pick-n-pop stretch forward in his first season in Cleveland as a frequent recipient of Appleby’s dish-outs. The 6’9 Serbian knocked down 38% of his triples last year, but was somewhat exposed as a the primary interior presence defensively and still has a long way to go in becoming a consistent contributor on the glass. This is where DePaul transfer Algevon Eichelberger must assert himself this season, who projects to be a nice pairing with Kenic as a paint-patrolling big body in the middle. Over the Vikings summer tour to Italy, Felton started the Kenic / Eichelberger duo at the 4 and 5 spots respectively, along with two promising freshmen in Rashad Williams and Seth Millner. I’m speculating Felton was underwhelmed with what he got from veteran returners Kasheem Thomas and Dontel Highsmith last season, and may now be positioning the young, prolific scoring tandem of Williams and Millner to slide into starring roles right away. Williams is an enticing in-state product from Detroit who should augment Appleby’s scoring, shooting and facilitating in the backcourt, while Millner and JUCO addition Jaalam Hill have the versatility at 6’7 to restore the defensive and rebounding contributions of Kenny Carpenter, Bobby Word and Anthony Wright.
Bottom Line: Felton will trot out one of the younger lineups in the Horizon next year with Appleby, Kenic and Eichelberger as “experienced” sophomores asked to lead a promising freshman class. Appleby’s nearly impossible to keep out the lane and will be a nightmare to cover once he hones in a more consistent 3-point shot. He’ll now be a marked man on opposing scouting reports, which will put the onus on a young roster to knock down open shots when teams send waves of defenders at the sophomore standout. Of last year’s conference doormats, the Vikings youth and talent pool make them the best bet to skyrocket up the standings, but I still think Felton is one year away from making major noise in the Horizon.
Key Returners: Evan Hall, DJ McCall, Nick Rogers, Jaylen Minnett
Key Losses: TJ Henderson, Aaron Brennan, Ron Patterson
Key Newcomers: Camron Justice (Vanderbilt transfer)
Outlook: IUPUI was in many ways ahead of the curve when the athletic department pegged Jason Gardner as their choice to replace Todd Howard back in 2014. Since, we’ve seen a slew of other mid to low-major programs follow suit with prominent, ‘big name’ coaching hires with the intent of making an even bigger splash on the recruiting trail. The former Arizona and Indianapolis high school standout did get a quick crash course on D1 coaching during brief stints as an assistant with Loyola and Memphis before taking over as the IUPUI head honcho – but it was Gardner’s local connections deeply embedded in the Indiana region that made him a prime target for a program looking for a jolt of excitement.
But despite being located in a hotbed of talent, Gardner just hasn’t gotten much of anything going since returning to his hometown. He has lured in a few high-profile recruits (Ron Patterson is the obvious example), but the win-loss record has teeter-tottered around .500 over the past four seasons. Even with a premier talent like Patterson headlining a fairly seasoned returning roster, IUPUI’s inaugural season in the Horizon was an offensive catastrophe. The Jaguars ranked dead last in the Horizon in both turnover rate in effective field goal percentage, which culminated in a putrid .98 points per possession team efficiency rate throughout league play.
A lack of a steady presence at point guard fueled this disaster, so Gardner will need Nick Rogers to tighten up the screws as he now likely steps in to the primary lead ball handler role. It would also help if Evan Hall, a hyper-active worker at 6’7, could learn how to finish inside – now entering his senior campaign, Hall’s offensive development has been stalled for the past two years and his free-throw shooting continues to be downright inexcusable (he’s a career 33% FT shooter!!!). The only two contributors back from last year who could be mentioned in the same sentence as the word “efficient” are rising sophomore guard Jaylen Minnett and senior wing DJ McCall.
Ahhh, but a beacon of light does exist in Vanderbilt transfer Camron Justice, who now reunites with his former high school teammate (Evan Hall) in hopes of reinvigorating a meddling program back to relevance. Justice was stuck behind a loaded Vandy backcourt at his first collegiate stop, but his talent and prep school pedigree – former top-100 ranked prospect and winner of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball award in high-school – are why many feel he could be the savior for IUPUI basketball. 4-star recruits don’t just grow on trees in the Horizon, so it’s a safe bet he’ll put up big time numbers for a team in dire need of some offensive firepower.
Bottom Line: After Matt O’Leary graduated (and after Ron Patterson’s jump shot inexplicably abandoned him), Gardner witnessed a once potent 3-point shooting team transform into a collection of brick layers last year. With Minnett – the Jags most consistent long-range shooter – expected to see his role increase, Gardner is banking on a Minnett / Justice led backcourt to replenish the perimeter shooting void this season. With Marcus Burk and Jamil Jackson waiting in the wings to join the rotation in 2019-20, there’s reason to be optimistic about the not so distant future – but as for the here and now, Justice is the only ray of hope for the Jags to make any measurable improvement in the Horizon League standings this year.
Key Returners: Brailen Neely, James Beck, Xavier Hill-Mais, Brad Brechting
Key Losses: Kendrick Nunn, Jalen Hayes, Martez Walker, Nick Daniels, Isaiah Brock
Key Newcomers: Kamari Newman (George Mason transfer),Jordan Nobles (EMU grad transfer), Kenny Pittman, Tray Maddox, Braden Norris, Babatunde Sowunmi
Outlook:The formula to basketball success isn’t overly complicated – everyone knows that talent is a significant variable in the equation, but last year’s Oakland team is proof that talent is far from the only variable. Kendrick Nunn, Jalen Hayes and Martez Walker could’ve all started on a lot of high-major conference teams, precisely why many felt Oakland had a chance to run circles around the Horizon. Interestingly enough, Nunn, Hayes and Walker each had outstanding individual seasons by both counting statistics and advanced statistics barometers – but at the end of the day, head coach Greg Kampe found himself lodged in the middle of the conference standings, five games behind league champion Northern Kentucky.
And after an anticlimactic finish to the 2017-18 campaign, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for a turnaround in 2019. Along with Nunn, Hayes and Walker, interior force Isaiah Brock and shifty point guard Nick Daniels will also be MIA from the Grizzlies’ roster – that means a handful of former benchwarmers and redshirts will now be thrown into the fire.
The most impactful returner is probably Brailen Neely, an electric, but erratic, jitterbug who will most likely become the full-time point guard. His decision-making must improve and improve quickly before Kampe can fully trust him to run the offense, especially after posting a sky-high 34% turnover rate last year. Neely will get some backcourt help with the addition of George Mason transfer Karmari Newman, who now returns to his old stomping grounds in Detroit. Newman was a scoring machine in the Detroit Public School league, but couldn’t make a name for himself at George Mason behind a deep stable of guards. That won’t be an issue whatsoever this year as Newman should have the flashing green light to shoot whenever he feels like it.
Jordan Nobles is the other notable newcomer who will also be seeking his fair share of shots after deferring to some more experienced forwards at Eastern Michigan. Nobles was hyper-efficient offensively in limited action last season as a spot-up shooter, but the defensive end is where he showcases his enviable leaping ability. His block rate took a mysterious dip last season, but the 6’9 grad student can fly as high as anyone in the league.
It’s rare you see guys take redshirts after their freshman year, but that’s precisely the case with both Xavier Hill-Mais and Brad Brechting, both of whom should be thrust into the top-7 of the rotation. For a team severely lacking in size and strength, Brechting should be a nice physical presence to anchor the middle and complement Nobles nicely on the offensive end of the floor. And barring a breakout from any of the four freshman – none of whom enter with a marquee recruiting reputation – the top-7 will likely be rounded out by James Beck and Stan Scott, both of whom received spot starts last season.
Bottom Line: Only Greg Kampe knows what to realistically expect of his team this year, but unless one (or multiple) of the freshmen burst onto the scene, Oakland will likely get lost in the middle of the Horizon League shuffle. As much as I love Kampe, he simply doesn’t run a patented system where you can plug-and-play new faces and expect the offense to keep chuggin’ along seamlessly. Per Synergy, Oakland ranked 10thin the country in isolation possessions last season because the Grizzlies played perpetual 1-v-1 ‘hero ball’ to get buckets consistently. That ‘strategy’ requires top-shelf individual talent and with how badly the roster was gutted this summer, it’s hard to see the Grizzlies sustaining last year’s offensive efficiency. Perhaps Kampe and / or the newcomers will make me look foolish, but I remain skeptic until proven otherwise.
Key Returners: Bryce Barnes, Carson Warren-Newsome, Vance Johnson
Key Losses: Brock Stull, Jeremiah Bell, Bryce Nze, Brett Prahl
Key Newcomers: Jake Wright (Miami OH grad transfer), Amir Allen (JUCO), Will Sessoms (JUCO), Bobby Arthur-Williams (JUCO)
Outlook: The Panthers have been in a weird state of flux the past few seasons, beginning with the coaching turnstile that started with the exodus of Rob Jeter back in 2016.Milwaukee fans must be irked after watching a once promising up-and-comer in LaVall Jordan escape to Butler, but it’s hard to compete with the cache of Big East basketball.His departure paved the way for Pat Baldwin, a longtime D1 assistant, to take his crack at reigniting the Panthers basketball program back to ‘the glory days’ of the Bruce Pearl regime.
After playing essentially 4thfiddle last season, Bryce Barneswill now have to make a lot happen for the Panthers’ offense to tick in 2019. To be frank, Barnes was wildly inefficient for much of last year, so thrusting him into the spotlight doesn’t seem to be proper remedy for his individual development. Incumbent Carson Warren-Newsome and Miami OH transfer Jake Wrightwill need to give Barnes a ton of support on the perimeter and seamlessly step into more featured scoring roles themselves. Warren-Newsome never got into a groove last season, but did show some flashes of upside that indicate he may have another leap of improvement coming. Wright – a career 40% 3-point shooter – will become an immediate target of Horizon scouting reports as a deadly long range sniper. He hasn’t showcased a very diverse game offensively yet, but his elite precision as a stand-still spot-up shooter still makes him a weapon on the wing.
Baldwin didn’t implement any drastic stylistic changes in his first year at the helm last season, rather playing a steady, balanced brand of inside-out basketball. Thus, one of the bigs will need to chip in in the scoring column on a nightly basis to ease the pressure off of a relatively unproven backcourt. Vance Johnson is the lone returner up-front, but Baldwin specifically mentioned 6’8 JUCO transfer Amir Allen and 6’7 freshman Shae Mitchell as two bright spots of the newcomer class.
Bottom Line: Be patient Milwaukee fans – the rebuild will require time. Baldwin is already dealing with some serious roster management headaches after watching his three best players bolt this summer (Brock Stull, Jeremiah Bell and Bryce Nze). There’s no easy solution to replace what this trio brought to the table, so it’s ‘next man up’ as some relatively unproven and inexperienced returners and newcomers will now need to jump-start the momentum Baldwin needs in his 2nd year as the head honcho.
9. Detroit Mercy
Key Returners: Josh McFolley
Key Losses: Kameron Chatman, Jermaine Jackson, Corey Allen, Jaleel Hogan, Corey Allen
Key Newcomers: Jacob Holland (JUCO), Tra’Quan Knight (JUCO), Antoine Davis
Outlook: ‘Operation: Return to National Relevancy’ now enters phase 2 for Mike Davis as he turns up the competition meter from the Madden-equivalent of ‘Rookie’ by leaving the SWAC. By using his established connections on the recruiting trail dating back to his tenure at UAB and IU, Davis made a mockery of the SWAC and simply overwhelmed less fortune programs with superior talent. That model will be put to the test in a tougher Horizon League, but we know the former Indiana head coach is especially adept at pulling in high profile prospects from the grassroots, JUCO and D1 transfer talent domains.
He’s already hit the ground running on the recruiting agenda, starting right in his very own living with his son Antoine Davis. Like father, like son, Davisopted to follow his father to Detroit to help lay the foundation for redirecting a program that fell off the rails under Bacari Alexander. Davis is one of the highest rated recruits in the Horizon, a 3-star prospect who was highly productive on the always competitive EYBL circuit playing for Houston Hoops. Along with defensive demonJosh McFolley, and two highly touted JUCO studs in Jacob Holland and Tra’Quan Knight, Davis will be armed with a formidable set of guards that could be especially dangerous in a 4-out, 1-in lineup.
Knight was a 3rd team NJCAA All-American at Shelton State in Florida where stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 15 PPG, 6 RPG and 5 APG, doing seemingly everything for his team in an efficient manner. Holland was also highly productive at his prior school in New Mexico and poured in 15 a game as well. The question is how will Davis choose to allocate minutes to the two notable returning forwards in Gerald Blackshear and Cole Long.
Bottom Line: Mike Davis’s teams at Texas Southern lived at the charity stripe, and routinely exposed slower, less athletic defenders off-the-dribble, who were forced to foul to prevent easy buckets at the rim. The perimeter core he’s armed with this year looks well-constructed to replicate that slash-heavy style of play into the Horizon. The backcourt quartet of Davis Jr., McFolley, Knight and Holland should be salivating at the level freedom they’ll have under Davis.
That said, question marks still remain on the defensive side of the ball. Bacari Alexander, Davis’ predecessor and a former assistant to John Beilein at Michigan, basically ignored defense during his cup of coffee in Detroit. The Titans were laughably poor at stopping dribble penetration and essentially rolled out a red carpet to the rim whenever they tried to press. Davis has had some up and down defense teams during his tenure at Texas Southern, so the jury is still out as to how well the Titans will guard in 2019 – though, it certainly can’t get much worse than the last two seasons.
10. Youngstown St.
Key Returners: Garrett Covington, Naz Bohannon, Noe Anabir
Key Losses: Cameron Morse, Braun Hartfield, Devin Haygood
Key Newcomers: Devin Morgan (Delaware State transfer), Donel Cathcart, Antwan Maxwell, Kendale Hampton, Olamide Pedersen, Darius Quisenberry, Jelani Simmons, Atiba Taylor
Outlook: We conclude our Horizon coverage with the pride of Youngstown, Ohio, who are now under the direction of former Bob Huggins understudy Jerrod Calhoun. A 2nd to last place finish by no means qualifies as a successful opening season, but it could’ve been far worse had Cameron Morse decided to transfer. Morse leaves Youngstown as one of the most decorated players in program history, which leaves Calhoun with a blank space for the role of “Leader” on the 2018-19 roster. In fact, only four players who made meaningful contributions last season are back this year, which will force Calhoun to mesh together a hodgepodge of newcomers who come from all over.
The perimeter will now be completely overhauled with former Delaware State standout Devin Morgan likely to step in as the offensive maestro. Morgan should integrate fluidly into Calhoun’s pressure-based system that can be succinctly described as “West Virginia Light”. The Penguins never pressed under Jerry Slocum, but Calhoun wasted no time implementing his full-court extended defense in year 1. Youngstown pressed on less than 2% of all defensive possessions in the three years leading up to the 2017-18 campaign, but Calhoun cranked that frequency up to 21% last year. Expect this number to keep rising with Calhoun’s recruits beginning to populate the roster.
However, Calhoun quickly realized he MUST solidify the fortress inside or his version of ‘Press Virginia’ will be destined to fail – look no further than last year’s gaping in hole in the middle as the ‘Guins surrendered the Horizon’s highest effective FG% in league play. Sophomore Naz Bohannon was one of the top two-way glass cleaners in the conference, but he was unfairly tasked with anchoring the interior defense (at 6’6, he’s undersized for the 5 position). Michael Akuchie and Noe Anabir are back to bolster the front court depth, but their production was spotty at best last year and neither will provide the solution Calhoun needs up front.
Bottom Line: With such a large chunk of the roster having little to no Division 1 experience, projecting how the depth chart will shape out by the time conference play rolls around is nearly impossible at this juncture. What we do know is that Calhoun clearly is looking to stamp the program with the DNA of his former mentor at West Virginia, Bob Huggins. While the aforementioned press is the obvious hall mark of Huggins, Calhoun also takes after his former teacher in his love for crashing the offensive glass. Even with the size limitations of last year’s frontcourt, the ‘Guins still posted the highest offensive rebounding rate in the league - but until Calhoun is able to infuse some offensive skill and talent, I’d expect Youngstown to continue to rely on chasing down their own misses to generate some easy points on the offensive end.