By Kevin Sweeney
After bottoming out to 24th in KenPom’s conference rankings in 2017-18, the Horizon had a nice bounceback year a season ago. League-wide improvement is often more related to the bottom of a league than a top: the Horizon has had too many teams in transition in recent years. They’ll deal with that again this year after a pair of late-summer coaching moves at Cleveland State and IUPUI, but I think things are generally headed in the right direction.
#1. Wright State– One thing jumps out when you look at this Wright State roster: experience. An experienced coach in Scott Nagy. Veteran returning pieces in seniors Billy Wampler and Cole Gentry, as well as a junior in Loudon Love. Nagy added to the experience on this roster by adding a pair of grad transfers to fill roles– an athletic defensive-minded guard in Jordan Ash (Northwestern) and a skilled offensive big man in Aleksandar Dozic. The Raiders are a disciplined team with a dominant post player, steady point guard, and scoring wing. That’s just about all you can ask for in a wide-open league like this.
#2. UIC– Steve McClain has consistently recruited at a high level since taking over at UIC, but just hasn’t quite gotten over the hump yet. With the remainder of McClain’s first full recruiting class (Tarkus Ferguson, Godwin Boahen, and Marcus Ottey) set to graduate after this year, it feels somewhat like now or never for McClain to get this team back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. Ferguson is the nation’s best guard no one knows about, a truly do-it-all player who plays with terrific pace. Where the Flames suffered last year were two main areas: free throw margin and turnover margin. Fix those two flaws, and they can finally put it all together.
#3. Northern Kentucky– One can hardly blame John Brannen for moving on after doing an unbelievable job positioning the NKU program for the future, and I have no doubt he’ll do well at Cincinnati. I also have little doubt that NKU crushed it with its hire of Darrin Horn, an experienced, successful mid-major coach with recruiting connections galore who plays an exciting style. Horn has an excellent stable of guards to work with in year one– the multi-talented Jalen Tate is the headliner, but Tyler Sharp and JUCO imports Bryson Langdon and Adham Eleeda should all be productive. The big question is up front: Dantez Walton is a nice piece at the four, but the early departure of Chris Vogt left NKU with virtually no one to play center.
#4. Detroit Mercy— The Antoine Davis show was a whole lot of fun to watch last season, as the fearless shot-making guard put up buckets against everyone in his freshman campaign. Now, his head coach (and father) Mike Davis has to maximize him with the right talent around him. With lots of incoming pieces, it’s tough to crack who will make the biggest impact. Abilene Christian transfer BJ Maxwell should be excellent on the wing, and we can’t sleep on everyone’s favorite player: Brad Calipari. Ironing out one of the nation’s worst defenses will be critical, but Davis is about as good a piece to build around as there is in mid-major basketball.
#5. Green Bay— It’s hard to overstate the loss of Sandy Cohen here– the Marquette transfer was not only a matchup nightmare as a 6-6 point guard, he was the engine that made the Phoenix go. Still, Linc Darner’s club has plenty of talent in the backcourt to keep pushing the pace and putting up points. The question: does Green Bay have a star in its group? If JayQuan McCloud or ShanQuan Hemphill can step in Cohen’s absence, the Phoenix will be just fine.
#6. Oakland— The Golden Grizzlies were well-positioned to contend for a league title as the offseason began, but offseason transfers by Jaevin Cumberland (Cincinnati), Braden Norris (Loyola-Chicago), and Karmari Newman (William Penn) left Greg Kampe’s group hobbled. Xavier Hill-Mais is still one of the league’s best players, and should be able to carry this team. I’m also big on sophomore guard Tray Maddox, and if Cleveland State transfer Rashad Williams gets a waiver, he’ll help too. One piece to watch: athletic forward Daniel Oladapo, a high-upside piece who should make an immediate impact out of JUCO.
#7. Milwaukee— After being guard-poor a year ago, the Panthers could have one of the more dynamic backcourt pairings in the league in 2019-20 as Illinois transfer Te’Jon Lucas joins returning star Darius Roy in the backcourt. Lucas was an incredibly savvy add by Pat Baldwin, a shifty combo guard who eventually got beat out by Trent Frazier at Illinois but was a legitimate Big Ten guard. He should thrive in his new digs. USC transfer Harrison Henderson will be looked to as a frontcourt solidifier, and the Panthers could push towards the league’s top half with a few breaks.
#8. Cleveland State— If you had told me in early July that I wouldn’t be picking Cleveland State last this season, I’d have been very surprised. Just a few months ago, the program was a complete mess– Dennis Felton was fired after an internal uprising led to nearly the entire roster putting their names in the transfer portal, and the Vikings didn’t have a coach until after Peach Jam. But Dennis Gates was a superb hire, and he made strong late signing after strong late signing to give the roster a late jolt. Gates has said he wants to play a ball screen-heavy offense with multiple point guards on the floor, and he recruited to that system well– guards like Tyrese Potoma, Tre GoMillion, and Hugo Ferreira have all earned rave reviews from those I’ve spoken to. Combine that with retaining Jaalam Hill up front, and I think the Vikings will be pesky in year one.
#9. Youngstown State— The Penguins virtually run it back after making some progress in year two for Jerrod Calhoun, but I’m not sold on this team taking the next step. Calhoun slowed down the pace last season, not going all-in on forcing turnovers like he has done for much of his coaching career. However, that didn’t help the defense, which still ranked among the nation’s worst. Another area they really struggled was getting to the line– YSU struggled to get to the rim and that makes it very difficult to run efficient offense.
#10. IUPUI— Former Prairie View A&M head coach Bryon Rimm takes over on an interim basis after Jason Gardner stepped down in late August following an arrest for driving under the influence. He’ll have to deal with the loss of Camron Justice, who departed after just one season for Western Kentucky after rebuilding his stock with a huge 2018-19 season. Campbell transfer Marcus Burk should help out after playing second fiddle to Chris Clemons for the Camels, and pairing him with Jaylen Minnett should give Minnett a competent backcourt. Still, it could be a rough transition season in Indianapolis.
All-Conference First Team:
- Antoine Davis (Detroit Mercy)
- Tarkus Ferguson (UIC)
- Godwin Boahen (UIC)
- Jalen Tate (Northern Kentucky)
- Loudon Love (Wright State)
Player of the Year: Antoine Davis (Detroit Mercy)
One of just four players in the last 25 years to average over 26 points per game as a freshman, Mike Davis’ biggest recruiting pull after taking the Detroit job late in the coaching cycle was his son. Antoine Davis was the first freshman in college hoops history to hit at least 130 threes in a season– he’s a certified sniper who can really score the ball from the point guard position. He has room to improve as a distributor, but few mid-major players have the talent Davis does.
Breakout Player: Tray Maddox (Oakland)
Maddox perhaps flew under the radar last season because of the play of freshman counterpart Braden Norris, but he popped quite a bit when I reviewed the film. Maddox has great size, is a fluid athlete, and can shoot the ball. He could be looked to as Oakland’s top backcourt option this season, and I’m excited to see what he does in year two.
Newcomer of the Year: Te’Jon Lucas (Milwaukee)
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of Lucas’ game. Even if he hasn’t improved much as a jump shooter, he’ll still be dynamic with his quickness and ballhandling ability. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lucas winds up being an all-conference player for Pat Baldwin’s bunch.