Conference Tournament Preview: Horizon League

Photo: Press-Gazette Media
Photo: Press-Gazette Media
Photo: Press-Gazette Media

The Horizon League Tournament is set to begin tonight with three first round games: Detroit at Milwaukee, Youngstown State at Oakland, and UIC at Valparaiso. The winners of these three games advance to the second round Friday in Green Bay.

Green Bay, which hosts the second round and semifinals (and finals if it wins in the semis), is the heavy favorite. The Phoenix are one of the nation’s top mid-majors and will be a popular Cinderella pick if they reach the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Here is a team-by-team preview of the Horizon League Tournament with predictions for how far each team will advance.

 

1. Green Bay

Green Bay was the first Division I team to clinch a regular season conference title this season.

The Phoenix have arguably the Horizon League’s two best players in junior Keifer Sykes and junior Alec Brown.

Sykes, a 5’11” point guard has been virtually unstoppable. He is averaging 20.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists. Even though he stands shy of six feet, he can be a triple-double threat.

And he can also get way, way up and finish at the rim, like this.

At 7-1, Brown is an NBA prospect. He can play inside and out, making him a nightmare for any mid-major program, and even for high-major schools. The senior is averaging 15.8 points and 3.3 blocks while shooting 44.1% from beyond the arc.

The Phoenix are not only a two-man show, though, with Greg Mays, Carrington Love, Vincent Garrett and Jordan Fouse supporting the pair of stars.

Green Bay gets the benefit of playing at home as the regular season champion and No. 1 seed. The Phoenix receive a bye to the semifinals and could play any of four teams there: No. 4 Valparaiso, No. 5 Milwaukee, No. 8 Detroit or No. 9 UIC.

The Phoenix should not have much trouble reaching the championship game, which they would also host. They will be a strong favorite but could receive some trouble there if they face Cleveland State or Valparaiso.

Projected finish: Champion (Projected No. 12 seed in NCAA Tournament)

 

2. Cleveland State

Aside from Green Bay, Cleveland State is the hottest team in the Horizon League. The Vikings enter the tournament with 10 wins in their last 11 games. The only loss in that stretch came to — you guessed it — Green Bay.

The Vikings don’t have a single player on their roster as good as Sykes or Brown, but their starting five still makes them a possible NCAA Tournament upset pick if they find a way to take the Horizon League’s bid.

Sophomore guard Bryn Forbes leads Cleveland State with 15.7 points per game and he is a deadeye shooter at 41.9% on 3-pointers.

Fellow sophomore guard Trey Lewis averages 13.3 points and 3.4 assists per game.

Junior guard Charlie Lee leads the Vikings with  4.0 dimes per game and he averages just shy of 10 points per game.

Up front, the Vikings have a potential All-Horizon League first teamer in sophomore Anton Grady alongside senior Jon Harris.

Cleveland State will draw either Wright State, Oakland or Youngstown State in the semifinals. The Vikings split the season series with Wright State and Youngstown State but swept Oakland.

Projected finish: Runner-up

 

3. Wright State

Wright State had high hopes to start the 2013-14 season and was a disappointment for the season’s first three months. Then in February, the Raiders flipped the switch. They enter the conference tournament with four straight wins.

Wright State prides itself on depth. No Raider plays more than 26.2 minutes per game, and eight log at least 12.2.

Senior forward AJ Pacher leads Wright State with 10.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. But just about anyone head coach Billy Donlon plays is capable of making an impact.

Senior forward Jerran Young won The Catch and Shoot’s Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year award with 1.1 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.

Projected finish: Second round

 

4. Valparaiso

Valparaiso lost a ton from last year’s conference champions, and it took a little while for the new group to find its way. The Crusaders worked their way within reach of the conference title by mid-February but then lost three of their last four games.

The Crusaders face a favorable path to the semifinals. They host UIC, against which they played three flawless halves, in Tuesday’s first-round game. Unless Detroit upsets Milwaukee, the Crusaders draw the Panthers in the second round, another team they beat handily twice.

Watching the Horizon League’s stream of Valparaiso’s tournament games is worth it. The Crusaders have a pair of dynamic players in senior LaVonte Dority and freshman Alec Peters.

Dority was one of the league’s top guards, averaging 16.2 points and 2.4 assists. He also kills opponents from downtown at 44.0%. He is poised for a big first-round game against UIC. In two games against the Flames, Dority averaged 23.5 points and 4.0 dimes.

Projected finish: Semifinals

 

5. Milwaukee

Milwaukee draws a potentially tough matchup in the first round against Detroit. The Panthers split the season series with the Titans, with each team winning on the other’s home floor. In the regular season finale, Milwaukee won at Detroit.

And if they avoid a Detroit upset, the Panthers chances of reaching the semifinals are slim as they would likely play a Valparaiso team they have struggled against.

Milwaukee does not have a ton of depth, but it has a few noteworthy players in its starting five.

Sophomore forward Matt Tiby is set to become a star in this league after averaging 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds this season.

Projected finish: Second round

 

6. Oakland

Oakland’s offensive firepower makes them a tough out. The Golden Grizzlies have an extremely talented frontcourt with seniors Travis Bader and Duke Mondy and freshman Kahlil Felder. Bader is an all-conference first teamer, Mondy is one of the league’s best defensive players, and Felder is the conference’s Freshman of the Year.

Up front, they have a good anchor in junior center Corey Petros. If Oakland gets by Youngstown State in the first round, Wright State could be in for a surprise in the second round. But it’s hard to imagine the Golden Grizzlies reaching the championship game, as Cleveland State has the offensive talent to knock them off in the semifinals.

Projected finish: Semifinals

 

7. Youngstown State

Youngstown State’s backcourt of senior Kendrick Perry and junior DJ Cole make the Penguins a tough out. Perry is one of the Horizon League’s best players, behind only Keifer Sykes. He averaged 20.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.8 steals this season.

Cole does not get the recognition he deserves playing next to Perry, but he actually has more assists and fewer turnovers than Perry has.

These two guards can lead a Youngstown State run this week if they get some help from forwards Ryan Weber, Kamerin Belin and Bobby Hain.

Projected finish: First round

 

8. Detroit

Detroit looked to be turning corner with three wins in four games during February, but then the Titans lost their final three games of the season. The Titans have been a two-man show all year with junior Juwan Howard Jr. and senior Evan Bruinsma.

Howard is one of the league’s best scorers at 18.2 points per game. Bruins, though he shoots only 44.2% from the field, averages 12.5 points and 7.7 rebounds.

Howard and Bruinsma could lead Detroit to a first round upset, but a trip to the semifinals against Green Bay is unlikely.

Projected finish: First round

 

9. UIC

UIC was the punching bag of the Horizon League for the first 14 games, though it turned things around a bit in the final week.

The Flames will have a tough opening round matchup against Valparaiso, which looked sharp twice against them in the regular season.

Senior guard Kelsey Barlow has the ability to take over games, but he has struggled to do so for a full 40 minutes. Add in that he averaged only 10.5 points in the two games against the Crusaders, and it is likely the Flames will not make the trip to Green Bay for the second round.

Projected finish: First round

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