By Kevin Sweeney
Conference realignment hit the Horizon League this offseason, with the league’s premier program in Valparaiso departing for the Missouri Valley and the addition of IUPUI to replace them. It’s certainly possible that more additions are the Horizon (sorry, I had to) for next offseason, but for now, the league remains at 10 teams.
That said, the Horizon League seems in position to have an excellent 2017-18 season. There’s plenty of star power at the top, and a few teams that seem in position to really take the next step.
- Oakland- The Grizzlies are absolutely loaded this year. A pair of conference player of the year-level guys in Martez Walker & Jalen Hayes return along with elite rim protector Isaiah Brock, and Greg Kampe also adds Kendrick Nunn, an elite scoring guard who began his career at Illinois. This team could be top-25 good.
- Northern Kentucky- Kind of the forgotten man in this year’s race, NKU won the conference tournament a season ago and return 4 starters from that squad. Head Coach John Brennan has done an incredible job building this program, and NKU will definitely be a factor in Horizon race.
- UIC- Probably the only team that has the talent to stand toe-to-toe with Oakland is UIC. Star wing Dikembe Dixson returns after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, as does talented center Tai Odiase and young guard Tarkus Ferguson. If the Flames can improve on defense, watch out.
- Detroit- Year 2 of the Bacari Alexander era appears to be an intriguing one. Jaleel Hogan and Cory Allen are among the talented returnees, while former 5-star Kameron Chatman and a strong recruiting class enter.
- Youngstown State- The Penguins have a new coach, a new system, and renewed optimism going into the 2017-18 season. Jerrod Calhoun will bring his fast tempo and press to YSU, and the cupboard isn’t as bare as some might think. A team that could make some noise.
- Wright State- WSU has a strong backcourt in Grant Benzinger and Justin Mitchell, but the loss of Mark Alstork is huge. They’ll need some younger guys to step up to rise in the Horizon League standings.
- Milwaukee- A hard team to project given the loss of head coach LaVall Jordan to Butler late in the offseason, the Panthers do return 3 starters, including an all-conference-type player in junior guard Brock Stull. Can new head coach Pat Baldwin capture some of the magic the Panthers found in last season’s run to the conference championship game?
- Green Bay- One of the more consistent programs in the Horizon League, Green Bay seems headed for a down year. Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen (eligible after first semester) will have to have a huge year if Green Bay is going to remain a factor in the top 5 of the Horizon League.
- Cleveland State- Another team with a new coach, Dennis Felton takes over for the Vikings. However, the cupboard is pretty bare this season, and there isn’t much reason for optimism yet.
- IUPUI- A pair of stars graduate from last season’s IUPUI club in Darell Combs and Matt O’Leary. It could be a rough season in the Jaguars’ first in the Horizon League.
As much as I like both NKU and UIC, Oakland is the clear top dog in the Horizon League this season. Greg Kampe’s club has an abundance of weapons, with 3 guys more than capable of averaging 20 points per game in Nunn, Walker, and Hayes, plus an elite rim protector in Brock who gives this team another dimension defensively. The biggest concern for the Grizzlies is the psychological aspect after being upset in their opener of the Horizon League tournament in consecutive seasons. If they can get over that hump, they are going to be a team no one wants to see in March.
Dark Horse: Detroit
The return of Jaleel Hogan, who had originally elected to transfer this offseason, is huge for the Titans. One of the better big men in the conference, Hogan averaged over 15 points and 5 rebounds per game despite playing less than 27 minutes per game due to foul trouble. Combine Hogan with a pair of talented guards in Cory Allen and Josh McFolley and the addition of a versatile wing-forward in Michigan transfer Kameron Chatman, and this team looks incredibly dangerous.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Cameron Morse (Youngstown State)
- G: Kendrick Nunn (Oakland)
- G: Martez Walker (Oakland)
- G/F: Dikembe Dixson (UIC)
- F: Drew McDonald (Northern Kentucky)
Player of the Year: Kendrick Nunn- I think people forget just how good Nunn was at Illinois when he wasn’t dealing with off-the-court issues. Nunn averaged over 15 points per game as a junior for the Illini, and should be absolutely unstoppable against Horizon League opposition, especially when you consider the amount of weapons around him. Don’t be surprised of Nunn winds up getting some NBA looks.
Breakout Player of the Year: Marcus Ottey (UIC)- Ottey is a super-talented guard coming off a terrific freshman season. Ottey averaged over 10 points per game for the Flames, and is one of the many options at head coach Steve McClain’s disposal offensively. The young core of Ottey, Ferguson, and Dixson around a senior center in Odiase is one of the most dangerous offensive units in the country.