By Kevin Sweeney
No mid-major conference tournament has demonstrated the unpredictability of March basketball than the Horizon League. Two straight years, a team that played in the play-in game made it to the title game, knocking out high seed after top seed in the process. Will we see more madness this year? There feels like a massive gap between the top and bottom of the conference this season, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be craziness in the Motor City come early March.
#1. Wright State
Scott Nagy’s club won 25 games and made the NCAA Tournament with 3 freshmen in his regular rotation. While one of those youngsters transferred out of the program, that young core seems positioned to run the Horizon for the next 2-3 years. Loudon Love is an absolute load in the post and should average a double-double, while Jaylon Hall oozes upside as a 3-level wing scorer. Cole Gentry gave this team the point guard they desperately needed last season once eligible at the semester break, with his presence on the floor providing a steadying force who makes good decisions and shoots the ball well. A similarly high-impact transfer joins the Raiders this season, as former Drake wing Billy Wampler should bring versatility and scoring punch to the table. This will be a dangerous club in March.
#2. Northern Kentucky
Two years ago, the Norse were beneficiaries of widespread upsets throughout the Horizon League Tournament, cruising to the league title thanks in no small part to playing the 5, 9 and 10 seeds during the event. Last year, they were the victims of “Motor City Madness”, falling as the top seed to 8th-seeded Cleveland State. That loss surely left a poor taste in NKU’s collective mouths after an incredibly successful season, and they’ll be tasked with getting back to the top of the Horizon despite losing a pair of important contributors. Drew McDonald is the clear favorite for conference player of the year, but the losses of LaVone Holland (graduation) and Carson Williams (Western Kentucky) leave less margin for error. Norfolk State grad transfer Zaynah Robinson was a critical get to bridge the gap at the point guard position. He’ll need to replace Holland’s shot-making ability for the Norse to contend.
After a disastrous 3-10 start against D1 competition, the Flames really turned things around down the stretch. Nothing contributed more to their turnaround than the return to form of Tarkus Ferguson, a unique triple-double threat who runs the show for Steve McClain’s club. After dealing with a foot injury for much of non-conference play, Ferguson returned and helped engineer a 20-win season. While the UIC loses a pair of key cogs in elite rim protector Tai Odiase and wing scorer Dikembe Dixson, a pair of high-level backcourt talents in Marcus Ottey and Godwin Boahen will pair with Ferguson to form one of the most dynamic backcourts in mid-major basketball. Still, the Flames turned it over more than any team in the country last season, and while the backcourt getting a year older should help in that regard, some of those struggles are systematic of how McClain’s UIC teams have played.
#4. Green Bay
There’s a fairly clear gap to me between the league’s top 3 and the bottom 7. Green Bay feels like the best of the rest, and has serious “dark horse” potential. The backcourt is absolutely loaded, giving Linc Darner the creators he needs for his system to thrive. The headliner of that unit is Sandy Cohen, who turned heads after becoming eligible at the semester break averaging more than 16 points per contest. Both PJ Pipes and Kameron Hankerson showed significant promise last season, and Darner adds a high-level JUCO prospect in JayQuan McCloud to the mix as the x-factor of the unit. Going small to get as many of these playmakers onto the floor at once might hurt them on the glass (an area they struggled last season) but it’s hard not to be excited by how explosive this offense might be.
#5. Cleveland State
Dennis Felton’s team made headlines in March during their miraculous run through Motor City Madness last season, winning 3 games in a row (including a 44-40 win over Oakland that was enough to make one’s eyes bleed) before falling to Wright State in the title game. CSU will actually be younger in year 2 than year 1 with a transition senior class graduating, but have pieces to make a move up the standings. Sophomores Tyree Appleby and Stefan Kenic showed big-time promise as freshmen, and DePaul transfer Al Eichelberger seems like an immediate starter next to Kenic. Felton will also rely heavily on a strong freshman class, and if those guys can live up to the hype next to the Appleby/Kenic/Eichelberger core, Felton may have something cooking at CSU.
A trio of high-major imports join the fray for Jason Gardner’s IUPUI club, looking to spark an offense that was one of the nation’s least efficient in 2017-18. Headlining that group is Camron Justice, who comes in following 2 ineffective seasons at Vanderbilt after being Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball out of high school. He should shoulder a fairly hefty scoring burden right away, with Jakoby Kemp and Grant Weatherford also coming in from major programs by way of junior college to fill rotation minutes. A Justice/Nick Rogers/Jaylen Minnett/Weatherford backcourt rotation is enough to be at least intriguing in the Horizon, but points may still be at a premium unless Justice is a star from the get-go.
Just 8.6% of Oakland’s scoring from last season returns, a team loaded with star power that never found its way. Finding a way to replace that type of production is a massive task for Greg Kampe and staff. Brailen Neely will be expected to pick up a ton of responsibility on offense after showing bright spots the last 2 seasons, while George Mason transfer Karmari Newman should also be penciled for double-digit scoring. But the incoming class doesn’t stand out on paper, and I just don’t see the returning talent necessary to play the way Greg Kampe wants to.
Detroit completely botched its coaching search this spring, needing into June to finally make a decision and in the process losing their entire core (Kameron Chatman, Corey Allen, Jermaine Jackson) to transfers or the pro ranks. While that search may have set them back for the time being, it did end well with the hire of well-respected former Indiana head coach Mike Davis, who comes off an outstanding stint at Texas Southern. Virtually everything about the roster he assembled is a question mark, but he did find some nice under-the-radar adds that can keep this club out of the cellar in year 1. His son Antoine was the most touted of the newcomers, as the former Houston commit had multiple high-major offers out of high school but chose to follow his dad. It may take some time, but I have no doubt in my mind that Davis will make Detroit a contender.
Pat Baldwin was thrown into the fire late in the process last year when LaVall Jordan left in the ripple effect of Thad Matta’s departure at Ohio State. His 2017-18 team was solid, but he then lost his 3 best players to transfer this offseason in Jeremiah Bell (UAB), Brock Stull (Minnesota), and Bryce Nze (Butler). Looking to fill that void will be a mixed bag of newcomers, including well-regarded freshman wing Shae Mitchell and JUCO forward Amir Allen. With no one on the roster who has averaged more than 6.5 ppg at the D1 level, it’s hard to see where the points come from for this Milwaukee club.
#10. Youngstown State
I had high hopes in year one for Jerrod Calhoun, who brought an outstanding resume of D2 success with a pressing style from the Bob Huggins tree to YSU. Things just didn’t pan out in the slightest, as he didn’t have the athletes to truly play the system he wanted to and as a result had one of the nation’s worst scoring defenses. Calhoun’s answer in this recruiting cycle was size to help protect the rim (a particular struggle last season and a necessity in the system), but lost his 2 top creators in Cameron Morse (graduation) and Braun Hartfield (transfer). Calhoun will need Delaware State transfer Devin Morgan and former high-level recruit who fell off the map in Atiba Taylor to put the ball in the bucket, even if the defense improves.
All-Conference First Team:
- Marcus Ottey– UIC (13.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, .518/.342/.839)
- Tarkus Ferguson– UIC (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, .379/.336/.802)
- Sandy Cohen– Green Bay (16.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.5 apg, .474/.349/.709)
- Drew McDonald– Northern Kentucky (17.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, .464/.337/.806)
- Loudon Love– Wright State (12.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.1 apg, .533/.000/.541)
Player of the Year: Drew McDonald (NKU)
Perhaps no player in college basketball has had more impact on the trajectory of his program than McDonald. The bruising forward came into a program in its D1 infancy that had seen no early success and brought them to a Horizon League title and an NCAA Tournament bid. Now, the in-state product gets one last crack at leading his program to the promised land, and could reach 2,000 career points in the process.
Breakout Player: Brailen Neely (Oakland)
Neely was wild at times last season, but showed significant promise as a high-assist lead guard next to Kendrick Nunn. Look for him to up his scoring output a ton this season, operating in Greg Kampe’s guard-friendly system.
Newcomer of the Year: Zaynah Robinson (NKU)
Robinson was a necessary add at the point guard spot for John Brannen, especially after reserve guard Mason Faulkner transferred out of the program after being seen as a potential replacement for LaVone Holland. Robinson took care of the ball well and showed the ability to make shots last season at Norfolk State, and will be huge in the Norse’ title hopes.