Updated May 11, 1:00 p.m.
The 2014-15 season was a thriller in the Horizon League. First and fourth place were separated by only two games as Valparaiso took the conference title and eventually the tournament title as well.
While the conference will not be as good one through four in 2015-16, it has a potential Top 25 team in Valparaiso, which returns four starters.
Oakland and Milwaukee both have the pieces to do some damage, but in the end this is the Crusaders’ league to lose.
2014-15 record: 28-6, 13-3; No. 61 Kenpom; No. 53 KPI; NCAA Tournament Round of 64
Notable departures: Vashil Fernandez
Projected starters: Lexus Williams, Tevonn Walker, Darien Walker, Alec Peters, David Skara
Valparaiso is good enough to go 16-0 in the Horizon League next year. The Crusaders take a hit defensively as they lose rim protector Vashil Fernandez, but overall they should be an even better team in 2015-16.
Aside from Fernandez, everyone else returns. Forward Alec Peters will be one of the favorites for Horizon League Player of the Year, and he has quite a supporting cast between guards Darien Walker, Tevonn Walker and Keith Carter.
Valparaiso’s backcourt gets even deeper as Lexus Williams will return after redshirting his sophomore season with an ACL tear. Williams averaged 6.5 points and 2.4 assists two seasons ago as a freshman.
The one big addition coming to Valparaiso, which could help mitigate the loss of Fernandez, is that of 7-footer Derrik Smits, the son of former Indiana Pacers star Rik Smits. Derrik received offers from several high-major schools.
2014-15 record: 16-17, 11-5; No. 164 Kenpom; No. 157 KPI; CIT First Round
Notable departures: Corey Petros, Dante Williams, Ralph Hill
Projected starters: Kahlil Felder, Nick Daniels, Max Hooper, Jalen Hayes, Percy Gibson
In its third year in the Horizon League, Oakland is already in position to contend for a conference title. The Golden Grizzlies lose Corey Petros‘ 14.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, but they are poised to take another big step forward with three starters, including star point guard Kahlil Felder, returning.
Felder led the nation in percentage of minutes played and also had one of the nation’s higher usage rates, nearing 30 percent. He averaged 18.1 points and 7.6 assists, although he also coughed up the ball more than four times per game.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore is already an efficient offensive player, but he still needs to make some big improvements if he is going to make Oakland a serious title contender.
The Golden Grizzlies also return a pair of promising freshmen in forward Jalen Hayes and guard Nick Daniels, both of whom were named to the league’s All-Freshman Team. Hayes averaged 8.5 points and 5.1 rebounds while Daniels recorded 6.3 points per game and shot 48.6 percent on 3-pointers.
Oakland’s returning big men are undersized, but the addition of Iowa State transfer Percy Gibson and 6-foot-10 recruit Brad Brechting, a consensus three-star recruit, could help in that regard. Gibson, a 6-foot-9 center, averaged double-figure minutes his first two seasons with the Cyclones before his minutes dwindled as a junior.
Two other impact transfers, Sherron Dorsey-Walker (Iowa State) and Martez Walker (Texas), join the program as well.
2014-15 record: 14-16, 9-7; No. 198 Kenpom; No. 214 KPI
Notable departures: Steve McWhorter
Projected starters: Justin Jordan, Akeem Springs, Austin Arians, Matt Tiby, J.J. Panoske
Milwaukee loses its do-it-all guard Steve McWhorter, but with everyone else returning the Panthers are a solid sleeper pick for next year.
A veteran frontcourt of seniors Matt Tiby (13.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and J.J. Panoske (7.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) should worry Horizon League competitors.
A big boost for the Panthers will be the return of 6-foot-6 wing Austin Arians, who redshirted last season and will be a junior in 2015-16. Arians averaged 11.1 points and shot 36.7 percent on 3-pointers two seasons ago.
The backcourt does not return a single great player, although shooting guard Akeem Springs (10.3 ppg) could eventually reach that status. However, Milwaukee will have several quality players on the perimeter, which could be just as good if not better than returning one star.
The biggest question for the Panthers lies at the point guard position. McWhorter was far and away the team’s leader in assists last season with 4.6 per game. The next best was Tiby with 1.9 dimes per contest.
Despite being a newcomer, junior college transfer Jordan Johnson could be coach Rob Jeter‘s best bet to replace McWhorter. Johnson averaged 13.5 points and 4.6 assists at John Wood Community College last year.
The Panthers also add three-star recruit JayQuan McCloud, a combo guard who transferred from Murray State before playing a game with the Racers.
4. Green Bay
2014-15 record: 24-9, 12-4; No. 68 Kenpom; No. 65 KPI; NIT First Round
Notable departures: Keifer Sykes, Greg Mays, Alfonzo McKinnie, Daeshon Francis
Projected starters: Carrington Love, Khalil Small, Jordan Fouse, Kenneth Lowe, Kerem Kanter
Green Bay made a potentially great hire to replace former head coach Brian Wardle, who left for Bradley last month. Linc Darner, who led Florida Southern to the Division II title last season, will take the helm for the Phoenix, but he has his work cut out for him in year one.
Green Bay loses conference player of the year Keifer Sykes, second-leading scorer Greg Mays and versatile forward Alfonzo McKinnie.
However, the Phoenix have two more potential studs in guards Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse, both of whom will be seniors next season. Love has work to do in terms of offensive efficiency, but his 10 points per game and 1.58 assist-turnover are signs of how good he could be.
Fouse is another versatile player. The 6-foot-7 guard took more than 40 percent of his shots at the rim and grabbed 7.1 rebounds per game. With 121 assists and only 56 turnovers, he was a high-quality distributor alongside Love and Sykes.
Fouse and Love will provide one of the best one-two punches in the Horizon League next season.
5. Wright State
2014-15 record: 11-20, 3-13; No. 250 Kenpom; No. 272 KPI
Notable departures: Reggie Arceneaux, Chrishawn Hopkins
Projected starters: Joe Thomasson, Grant Benzinger, Steven Davis, JT Yoho, Michael Karena
Wright State was slowed down by injuries last season. If the Raiders stay healthy, they have the potential for a much-improved year despite losing two of their leaders in minutes.
Forward JT Yoho was on pace to be one of the Horizon League’s better scorers and rebounders, but he saw action in just five conference games with a knee issue. Sophomore forward Steven Davis, who averaged 7.1 points, missed 17 outings with a leg injury.
If there’s any positive in there for the Raiders, it’s that some newcomers received valuable experience stepping in for the veterans.
Junior college transfer Joe Thomasson led the team in minutes and also averaged 10 points and 3.2 assists. Another junior college transfer on the front line, Michael Karena, averaged 9 points in 22.5 minutes.
Freshman Grant Benzinger was one of the league’s better surprises, averaging 9.1 points and shooting 43.1 percent from deep. The 6-foot-3 guard showed his potential as a scorer with a 31-point effort against Oakland.
The pieces are there for Wright State to make a jump in the 2015-16 standings.
2014-15 record: 15-18; No. 188 Kenpom; No. 187 KPI
Notable departures: Juwan Howard Jr., Brandan Kearney
Projected starters: Matthew Grant, Jarod Williams, Anton Wilson, Paris Bass, Patrick Ackerman
Detroit was far and away the Horizon League’s most disappointing team last season. The Titans finished in sixth place and are in some trouble with their do-it-all small forward Juwan Howard Jr. exhausting his eligibility.
The bad news is Detroit loses Howard’s 17.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. The good news is the team’s other four starters return.
Most notable among that group is freshman forward Paris Bass, who exploded onto the scene with 12.4 points and 5.7 rebounds as a rookie.
Bass is surrounded by several quality perimeter players, even with Howard and reserve guard Brandan Kearney graduating. Guard Anton Wilson became more efficient as a junior, and the Titans will need Wilson as a senior to lead this team along with Bass.
7. Cleveland State
2014-15 record: 19-15, 11-5; No. 79 Kenpom; No. 153 KPI; CIT Second Round
Notable departures: Trey Lewis, Anton Grady, Charlie Lee, Marlin Mason
Projected starters: Kaza Keane, Terrell Hales, Andre Yates, Demonte Flannigan, Vinny Zollo
First leading scorer Trey Lewis transferred. Then second-leading scorer Anton Grady transferred. Couple that with starting point guard Charlie Lee and starting forward Marlin Mason leaving, and Cleveland State is in complete rebuilding mode.
Point guard Kaza Keane has never showed much promise as a scorer, although he should be fine as the team’s primary facilitator.
Shooting guard Andre Yates could be counted on for scoring in small doses, but he reached double figures only four times in 18 league games, including the conference tournament. The Vikings will need him to step up as a higher volume scorer.
Kennesaw State transfer Myles Hamilton and three-star recruit Jeron Rogers will help mitigate some of the team’s losses, but they likely won’t be enough to keep the Vikings in the top half of the conference.
If there’s anything going Cleveland State’s way right now, it’s that only once in the last eight years has Gary Waters‘ club finished lower than fourth place in the Horizon League.
2014-15 record: 10-24, 4-12; No. 273 Kenpom; No. 295 KPI
Notable departures: Jay Harris, Ahman Fells, Marc Brown
Projected starters: Paris Burns, Markese McGuire, Lance Whitaker, Jason McClellan, Tai Odiase
UIC has a new coach and some new energy, but can that translate to immediate wins? Possibly, but most likely not.
The Flames struggled last season, although they advanced to the Horizon League semifinals, and they now lose their two best offensive players in Jay Harris and Ahman Fells.
That’s not to say UIC doesn’t have some competent pieces coming back. Junior Paris Burns was one of the conference’s leaders in assist rate and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. He often played out of control, but if he gets reined in, he could be one of the league’s top scorers.
An X-factor for UIC will be how center Tai Odiase develops going into his sophomore season. Odiase missed some time with injures but gave some great performance when healthy.
With Fernandez gone at Valparaiso, Odiase will likely be the Horizon League’s best rim protector. The freshman played just 39 percent of the team’s minutes last year, and a player needs 40 percent to qualify for statistical rankings on Kenpom.
If Odiase had played just a hair more and met that qualification, his 9.5 block percentage would have easily ranked second in the conference.
9. Northern Kentucky
2014-15 Record: 13-17, 7-7 A-Sun; No. 243 Kenpom; No. 248 KPI
Notable departures: Tayler Persons, Jordan Jackson, Daniel Camps, Anthony Monaco
Projected starters: Tyler White, Chad Jackson, Deontae Cole, Jake Giesler, Jalen Billups
New member Northern Kentucky, set to join in July and compete in the 2015-16 season, loses leading scorer Tayler Persons, who starred as a freshman. The Norse also experienced a coaching change following last season with former Alabama assistant John Brannen becoming the new head coach.
However, the Norse return four starters from a team that went 7-7 in the Atlantic Sun, so don’t expect them to roll over against the upgraded competition.
A lack of size could hurt Northern Kentucky as it transitions to the Horizon League. The tallest player on the Norse roster is 6-foot-7.
However, one of their undersized bigs, 6-foot-6 Jalen Billups, could be one of the Horizon League’s better players. Billups averaged 11.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. He shot an unbelievable 69.6 percent from the field and ranked No. 96 nationally in offensive rating.
10. Youngstown State
2014-15 record: 11-21, 2-14; No. 279 Kenpom; No. 291 KPI
Notable departures: Marcus Keene, DJ Cole, Shawn Amiker, Osandai Vaughn
Projected starters: Latin Davis, Cameron Morse, Matt Donlan, Sidney Umude, Bobby Hain
Youngstown State returned to the bottom of the Horizon League last year with a 2-14 record, and there’s a good chance the Penguins will stay there in 2015-16.
Youngstown State brings back a star in forward Bobby Hain (14.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and a quality guard in Cameron Morse (6.0 ppg). But everything else will be an unknown for the Penguins, as they lose four of their top scorers and their two leaders in assists.
6-foot-6 forward Matt Donlan, a junior college transfer who averaged 11.7 points last season, should see some immediate playing time. Coach Jerry Slocum will need as much help as he can get from all his newcomers.