Oakland guard Martez Walker
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a new era in the Horizon League with Valparaiso out and IUPUI in. But even though the Crusaders had won four of the last five regular season titles, they might not have been a major factor in the 2017-18 race this year.

Oakland and Northern Kentucky lead the pack this year as heavy favorites, each with their own “Big Three,” and UIC is hanging around as a sleeper. Deeper in the conference, there’s plenty to unpack between three new head coaches (four if you count fourth-year IUPUI coach Jason Gardner) and a lot of roster turnover.

Let’s dive in for a closer look.

1. Oakland

Any way you cut it, Oakland has three of the best players in the conference in forward Jalen Hayes and guards Martez Walker and Kendrick Nunn.

Hayes averaged 15.9 points and 8 rebounds last year while making major improvements on the defensive end, developing into the conference’s best two-way player. Walker averaged 17.4 points and is right up there with Youngstown State guard Cameron Morse and UIC forward Dikembe Dixson as the Horizon League’s best pure scorers. Nunn redshirted last year after transferring from Illinois, where he averaged 15.5 points and shot 39.1% from three. He had All-Big Ten potential had he not been dismissed for a domestic-abuse case.

Unfortunately, Hayes will miss the first four games of the season, including a key matchup with Syracuse on Nov. 20, due to another mind-boggling ruling by the NCAA.

2. Northern Kentucky

After finishing third and winning the conference tournament, Northern Kentucky returns four starters and most of its bench. The Norse are built to challenge Oakland for the league title.

The official league poll named junior forward Drew McDonald the preseason player of the year. I’d take Hayes over him, but you can still make a very persuasive argument for McDonald. He averaged 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. While his 50.3 two-point percentage in conference play left a lot to be desired, he ranked top 10 in three-point percentage and free throw rate.

NKU has more than just McDonald. The Norse have their own big three thanks to senior guard Lavone Holland II and sophomore forward Carson Williams. Holland could sneak into the conference player of the year race as well. He averaged 14.5 points and 4.1 dimes last year.

3. UIC

UIC’s recruiting has tapered off a bit, but that’s okay — at least for the short term — because the Flames return their top six players.

Sophomore Dikembe Dixson, a former Horizon League freshman of the year, averaged 20.3 points on efficient shooting last season before a torn ACL ended his year. Senior forward Tai Odiase, a top 10 player in the league, is among the nation’s best interior defenders. The backcourt remains young with three sophomores, but they’re talented. 6’4″ point guard Tarkus Ferguson is a triple-double threat, 5’11” point guard Godwin Boahen actually put up a triple-double (albeit against a NAIA team) last season, 6’2″ Marcus Ottey is an elite athlete, 6’2″ Dominique Matthews is a lethal shooter who can stretch the floor for UIC.

The Flames made some big progress last season, going 7-1 against teams below them in the standings. But they didn’t win a single game against teams that finished above them until they upset a veteran Green Bay team in the conference tournament. UIC will need to be much better against the league’s top teams to make the jump everyone is expecting.

4. Milwaukee

What do we make of Milwaukee? The Panthers won only four Horizon League games last year but then made a run to the conference championship game, where they nearly knocked off Northern Kentucky to make the NCAAs. Now they’re going through another coaching change. After LaVall Jordan split for Butler, the Panthers tabbed Northwestern assistant Pat Baldwin as their next head coach. Although Jordan was only there for one there, he left Baldwin with plenty of good pieces to work with as the team returns six of its top seven players.

With shooting guard Cody Wichmann gone, the leadership falls to junior guard Brock Stull and senior forward Brett Prahl, both of whom will be key players off the court as well as on it. Stull, a 6’4″ guard, led the team in scoring and rebounding last year, so keep an eye on him in particular.

5. Detroit

It’s hard to judge Detroit. They were one of the worst teams in Division I last year. But with their top three scorers returning, including 2016-17 Horizon League Freshman of the Year Corey Allen, and a pair of eligible transfers with high-major experience, the Titans could see a big jump this season.

Once again, junior guard Josh McFolley will start alongside Allen in the backcourt, and the duo gets an interesting addition in Michigan transfer Kameron Chatman. Chatman was a top 40 recruit out of high school but didn’t play much in two years at Michigan. He’s a lengthy wing at 6’9″, and that’s scary in a mid-major league. Chatman should be an upgrade over 6’8″ guard Chris Jenkins from last year’s team.

The frontcourt also gets a nice upgrade. Detroit returns 6’7″ senior Jaleel Hogan and 6’9″ junior Gerald Blackshear, and now 6’6″ transfer Roschon Prince joins the fold. Prince bounced around from USC to Long Beach State before landing at Detroit. Most recently, he averaged 9.4 points and 6.9 rebounds at Long Beach.

6. Wright State

The Raiders put together another 20-win season in their first year under Scott Nagy, but they lose not only their two leading scorers but also their two leaders in usage rate in guard Mark Alstork and forward Steven Davis. The key for Wright State will be senior guards Justin Mitchell and Grant Benzinger growing into alpha dog roles.

Mitchell can do a bit of everything as a two-way player who rebounds extremely well for his size at 6’4″. He put up one of the more efficient triple-doubles you’ll ever see against Green Bay last February: 14 points on 5-of-5 FG, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and two turnovers. The concern with Mitchell is he had his struggles as a facilitator, posting a 25.3 turnover rate. With Alstork and his 3.5 assists per game gone, Mitchell’s usage rate will skyrocket, and he’ll need to bring his turnovers down while taking on a larger role in the offense.

Meanwhile, Benzinger is an electric shooter and the team’s top returning scorer at 12.8 points per game, but he worked almost exclusively off the ball in his first three seasons. The three-point shot is his speciality, and 70 of his 78 triples last year (89.7%) were assisted, according to Hoop-Math.

7. Green Bay

Linc Darner is 41-27 with a 23-13 Horizon League record in two seasons. With all Green Bay lost from last year’s team, it looks like a down year ahead. But maybe Darner can outperform preseason expectations again.

Senior guard Khalil Small is Green Bay’s only returning player who who played at least 10 minutes per game last season. Small is a good finisher at the rim, and it would be huge for Green Bay if he can find his outside jumper again. He shot 40.6 percent from three as a sophomore and then 23.2 percent as a junior.

Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen III is the other player to watch on Green Bay.

8. Youngstown State

One thing’s for sure. Youngstown State’s backcourt will be a heckuva lot of fun to watch. Senior guard Cameron Morse ranked No. 9 in the nation last year with 22.9 points per game despite his shooting numbers taking a sizable dip. His classmate, senior point guard Francisco Santiago, is a stat sheet stuffer who averaged 11.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.4 steals.

After those two, the Penguins have a lot of question marks. During the offseason, they replaced Jerry Slocum with Jerrod Calhoun, a first-time Division I head coach who’s coming off a run to the Division II championship game with Fairmont State.

9. Cleveland State

Here’s the third first-year coach in the Horizon League. Dennis Felton has a winning history, taking Western Kentucky to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 2001-2003 and then leading Georgia to a miracle SEC Tournament run in 2008. Most recently, he was an assistant at Tulsa.

Cleveland State couldn’t hold onto its top talent, shooting guard Rob Edwards. He left for Arizona State. But between senior Bobby Word and sophomore Kasheem Thomas, Felton has a pair of experienced guards to work with.`

10. IUPUI

Valparaiso’s replacement is no Valparaiso. In 19 seasons in Division I, IUPUI has one NCAA Tournament, and that was as a No. 16 seed in 2003. The Jaguars haven’t posted a winning record since Ron Hunter, now of Georgia State fame, left in 2011, going 63-128 overall in the last six seasons.

IUPUI wasn’t terrible in the Summit League last year. Thanks to being one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams, they went 7-9 in the conference and finished just inside the top 200 in KenPom. But with their top three scorers gone, this program is still heavily in rebuilding mode as coach Jason Gardner begins his fourth season.

If there’s one guy to watch on this team, it’s senior guard Ron Patterson. He averaged 9.3 points, 2.0 assists and 1.4 steals.

The Catch and Shoot’s All-Horizon Picks

Jalen Hayes, Oakland (*Player of the Year*)

Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky

Dikembe Dixson, UIC

Martez Walker, Oakland

Cameron Morse, Youngstown State

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