(Compare to our preseason preview here)
Notable Storylines from the season:
1. Alec Peters Is Out for the Year - Easily the most important storyline entering the Horizon tournament is the absence of Valpo’s Alec Peters. He’s one of the best players in Horizon history (he’s the all-time leader in both points and rebounds, dating to 1992-93), but it was just announced on Wednesday night that he'll miss the rest of the season. We here at 3MW are heartbroken, and offer the best of luck to Alec in his professional endeavors.
2. Ok, So...Who's Gonna Win this Thing? - Without Peters, the whole conference hierarchy is thrown off. Oakland becomes the clear favorite but any of the top 5 teams can now believe with legitimate reason that they're going to cut down the nets. The top half of the bracket looks stacked, with Oakland, Northern Kentucky, and Wright St. all duking it out for a championship appearance.
3. The Penguins Continue to be Allergic to Defense – It’s easy to get tantalized by prolific offenses when previewing the season, and hoo boy, that happened to me with Youngstown State. Jerry Slocum’s squads have played appalling defense for three years running now, and despite the offensive brilliance of Cameron Morse, the Penguins settled near the South Pole of the standings once again. Lesson learned…
4. We the Norse – Northern Kentucky quietly put together a very solid roster, keyed by big man Drew McDonald and point guard Lavone Holland, and their balance may pay dividends in the conference tournament. They just knocked off Valpo (albeit without Peters), but they’ll have a tough task trying to complete the three-game sweep of Wright St. in the quarterfinals.
(Note - the only bracket I could find splits the men's and women's, so that's why it looks goofy)
The entire tournament will be played at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, hence the Motor City Madness moniker. In the past, the league gave the top two teams double-byes to the semifinals, but the format is far more conventional this year. The one quirk is if they’re able to win against the 7-10 seeds, Oakland and Valpo would get an extra day of rest before the semis.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s): Without Peters, this almost assuredly becomes Oakland. Both the Golden Grizz and Valpo split the regular season title and finished with identical 24-7 records overall, but the balance of power appears to have shifted. The Golden Grizz are looking at a likely 14 (they sport a win over Georgia), while Valpo holds nice wins over Alabama, BYU, and Rhode Island and has more of a 13ish resume. You'd have to think the committee would knock them down a seed line sans Peters. Both teams feed off their defenses, though Valpo's is more of the conservative, glass-cleaning variety, compared to Oakland, who wants to speed you up and force you to drive and finish over the effective rim protection duo of Isaiah Brock and Xavier Hill-Mais.
Dark Horse(s): As mentioned, any of the league’s top five squads could be victorious now. NKU had the league’s second-best offense in conference play, and if Cole Murray is cooking from deep, they can play with anyone. Keep an eye on freshman Carson Williams as well, an undersized post monster. Green Bay won last year, and coach Linc Darner’s “RP40” system (Relentless Pressure for 40 Minutes) has a proven track record of success in March (won a D-II national title in 2015). The Phoenix have a ton of depth, and using that to their advantage with the one-day turnarounds could be key. Finally, Wright State has the potential to make a run with former South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy at the helm. The Raiders can light it up from deep, but their lack of a true point guard or real, rim-protecting size can be their downfall.
(7) Detroit defeats (10) Milwaukee
(9) Youngstown St. defeats (8) Cleveland St.
(1) Oakland defeats (9) Youngstown St.
(5) Wright St. defeats (4) Northern Kentucky
(3) Green Bay defeats (6) Illinois-Chicago
(2) Valparaiso defeats (7) Detroit
(5) Wright St. defeats (1) Oakland
(3) Green Bay defeats (2) Valparaiso
(5) Wright St. defeats (3) Green Bay
I have this sneaking suspicion that the winner of the 4/5 matchup will win the tournament. NKU is a really tough matchup for Wright State with the way the Norse can batter you inside, but I'm signing up for the "tough to beat a good team 3x" theory. The Raiders have already beaten the Golden Grizz once, too. On the other side, Green Bay's eyes should have lit up with the Peters news, as they now have a much better chance in the semifinals. The Crusaders will still battle under Matt Lottich, but that's just too much to ask without their star. Wright State probably enters the field as a 15 (maaaybe 14 pending other tournament results, but I don't think Coach Nagy's crew will have enough juice to get a tournament W.