The Horizon League Tournament gets underway Tuesday night. I’m a big fan of this tournament because of how much it favors teams that performed well in the regular season.
The top two seeds, which are Valparaiso and Green Bay this season, receive byes to Saturday’s semifinals, with Valparaiso hosting the second round and semifinals as the No. 1 seed.
The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds receive byes to the second round Friday, where they await the winners of Tuesday’s first round games.
The championship game is then next Tuesday, March 10 at the site of the highest remaining seed.
Here are some picks and predictions for what should be an entertaining week of win-or-go-home basketball.
First Round (hosted by higher seeds)
No. 5 Detroit vs. No. 8 Youngstown State
Detroit swept Youngstown State in the regular season, although the Penguins took the Titans to overtime in a visit to Calihan Hall.
Youngstown State is a dangerous squad with the third-most efficient offense in the Horizon League. However, the Penguins are one of the worst in the nation defensively, and the Titans took advantage of that in both regular season meetings.
As long as Detroit gets one or two players to help out leading scorer Juwan Howard Jr., it should be earn a trip to the second round.
Detroit 90, Youngstown State 77
No. 6 UIC vs. No. 7 Wright State
UIC swept Wright State in the regular season, including a 61-46 victory in Chicago just a few days ago. The Flames completely outplayed the Raiders for three of the four halves they’ve played this season.
UIC got hot in February and looked competitive against every team in this conference at least once this season, except for Oakland.
Meanwhile, Wright State hasn’t won a game since Jan. 26.
UIC 70, Wright State 62
Second Round (hosted by Valparaiso)
No. 4 Cleveland State vs. No. 5 Detroit
Detroit gave Cleveland State fits in the regular season. The Titans lost 70-66 in Cleveland and then edges the Vikings 66-65 at home.
With this rubber match coming on a neutral site, it would be another dogfight.
Cleveland State should come out extra-hungry for this one. The Vikings had a chance to earn the No. 1 seed in this tournament but lost at home to Valparaiso. They received a double-whammy as Green Bay’s win against Valparaiso in the final game of the season dropped the Vikings all the way to this No. 4 slot.
Cleveland State will want another shot at Valparaiso after losing a pair of close games in the regular season, and the Vikings should get that opportunity.
Cleveland State 64, Detroit 59
No. 3 Oakland vs. No. 6 UIC
Oakland beat UIC handily in both regular season meetings. The Golden Grizzlies went just 3-5 away from home in Horizon League play and 4-12 overall. Playing this game on a neutral site could help UIC early, but Oakland will run away with it in the second half.
The Golden Grizzlies simply have too many offensive weapons for the Flames to handle. Five different Oakland players scored in double figures over the two regular season matchups.
Barring explosive offensive performances from Flames players like Ahman Fells and Jay Harris, which are possible, UIC’s season will end here.
Oakland 76, UIC 62
Semifinals (hosted by Valparaiso)
No. 1 Valparaiso vs. No. 4 Cleveland State
Cleveland State would have the disadvantage of needing to play a true road game. Additionally, whoever Valparaiso faces will have played a second round game the night before while the Crusaders will have eight days of rest.
A couple of weeks ago, I would have picked Cleveland State to win this game. But in their final two games of the regular season, the Vikings looked sluggish.
Cleveland State has the pieces to make this game close, much like it did in two regular season losses to Valparaiso. But in the end, home court advantage for Valparaiso and tired legs for Cleveland State will play a factor.
Valparaiso 60, Cleveland State 55
No. 2 Green Bay vs. No. 3 Oakland
Typically, Oakland plays just eight guys, and only seven of them receive significant minutes. The Golden Grizzlies also play at one of the nation’s top-100 tempos.
Playing a second game in as many nights against one of the country’s premiere mid-majors would take its toll.
Oakland still has several offensive weapons though, so it’s not like Green Bay would be coasting.
Green Bay 77, Oakland 68
Finals (hosted by higher seed)
No. 1 Valparaiso vs. No. 2 Green Bay
From start to finish, these two teams were pretty clearly the cream of the crop in this year’s Horizon League. They have the top two Player of the Year candidates in Green Bay’s Keifer Sykes and Valparaiso’s Alec Peters and two rising stars in the coaching ranks with Brian Wardle and Bryce Drew.
This has the makings of an epic championship game.
Green Bay and Valparaiso split the regular season series with each team winning on its home floor. They are currently ranked right next to each other on Kenpom at No. 68 and No. 69, respectively.
This matchup is a toss-up, and I’m going with Green Bay. The Phoenix have some unfinished business after falling last year as the No. 1 seed to Milwaukee in the semifinals while Sykes and star forward Alec Brown, who nows plays in the NBA D-League, were limited by injuries.
If the Phoenix stay healthy through championship week, I like them to cut down the nets Tuesday night.
Green Bay 63, Valparaiso 61