It’s realignment time once again in the Horizon League. With a new commissioner on the way in, the conference has officially added two new members for 2020-21: defending NEC champs Robert Morris and Summit League member Fort Wayne. Both have long looked like targets from a geographical perspective, and expanding your league while remaining steady in your footprint is a smart move. The RMU move in particular adds upside: it’s a program that has had a lot of success in recent years and just built a beautiful new arena that should be a recruiting boost. Given that the IUPUI addition to replace Valpo hasn’t worked out at all, taking a swing at two newcomers is a smart move at the right time for the Horizon.
- Wright State – The Raiders feel like the clear choice at the top in a league with a whole lot of parity below them. Star big man Loudon Love is back for one more year in Dayton, and expect as much or even more offense to run through the bruising post player with Billy Wampler having graduated from the program. Love will finish his career as the program’s all-time leading rebounder and could push for 2,000 career points with a big enough senior campaign. Sophomore Tanner Holden is also an incredibly exciting player: he averaged close to 12 points and shot a blistering 61% from the field during his freshman campaign and flashed the potential to be a future conference POY candidate. Wampler’s departure leaves a bigger role for Holden in the offense, and we’ll see if he can maintain that efficiency with more defensive attention paid to him. Perhaps most fascinating about the Raiders last season was an incredible jump in tempo: WSU jumped from the bottom 50 nationally in adjusted tempo per KenPom in 2018-19 to 31st-fastest in 2019-20. While a strange move on paper with an offense built around a big man who likes to post up in Love, the move didn’t come at the cost of ball security or offensive efficiency, even boosting things thanks to the team’s knack for getting to the free throw line. We’ll see what pace Scott Nagy opts to play this season: the graduation of heady point guard Cole Gentry may encourage Nagy to slow things down a bit, though sophomore PG Trey Calvin is more than capable of pushing the pace if so desired. 20+ win seasons have been the norm under Nagy, and I don’t see that changing this season.
- UIC – This is where things really get interesting and the margins really shrink. I’m not sure many folks would have believed it if I told them I’d be picking UIC second in the conference when the season was shut down in March, but the Flames made one of the best coaching hires of the cycle in Luke Yaklich and brought in an impressive group of immediately eligible talent with him. Yaklich is a defensive guru, known for his meticulous game plans and attention to detail during his time on staffs at Illinois State, Michigan, and Texas. His arrival in Ann Arbor a few years ago was game-changing for the John Beilein era, and I’ve been screaming from the rooftops for someone to hire this man since. UIC is a perfect fit given Yaklich’s connections to the high school programs in the state: prior to joining Dan Muller’s staff, he coached HS basketball at Joliet West HS. Because of that, it’s probably not surprising that three of Yaklich’s earliest moves were adding transfers originally from the state, all of whom earned waivers to play right away: Teyvion Kirk (Ohio via Colorado State), Zion Griffin (Iowa State), and Maurice Commander (Chattanooga). Kirk has had issues with turnovers and efficiency over the years, but he’s a big ballhandler wired to score who I expect to be surrounded with shooters to cover his weaknesses there. Griffin is also a big add: an athletic slashing wing with high-major pedigree who should help set the tone for the program on the defensive end. As I mentioned, shooting was a concern, so Yaklich added a pair of JUCO sharpshooters in Jalen Johnson (John A Logan) and Rayquawndis Mitchell (Otero). Add in a pair of experienced returners with size in Michael Diggins and Braelen Bridges, and Yaklich has a roster capable of competing in this league. Putting all the pieces together may take some time, but I expect this group to play as hard as any team in this league and really be clicking by March.
- Youngstown State – With an experienced group that returns its top four scorers in a league with lots of turnover, this may be as good a chance as Jerrod Calhoun will get of taking the Penguins to the promised land. Calhoun’s program has built its identity around two things: pounding the offensive glass and running opponents off the three point line. Calhoun’s teams gang-rebound and love to gamble for second chances on the offensive end, using a trio of physical veterans in Naz Bohannon, Michael Akuchie, and Garrett Covington to create lots of extra opportunities. Bohannon was particularly good on the offensive glass, snatching 4 offensive boards per game a season ago. Meanwhile, Calhoun relies HEAVILY upon Darius Quisenberry to shoulder the load offensively, and he did so brilliantly last season as a sophomore. Quisenberry isn’t great as a shooter, but he’s fearless going to the basket and loves to draw contact. Helping on the shooting front should be Greyson Kelley, a grad transfer from D2 Shaw who made two threes per game at a 43% clip last season and shot 92% from the free throw line. Adding an outstanding spot-up shooter like that as a 5th starter or 6th man is a savvy move by Calhoun and should pay dividends for a team that didn’t have a single player shoot over 33% from deep last season.
- Cleveland State – I’m tempted to push the Vikings even a bit higher in year two of the Dennis Gates era, but 4th seems like a reasonable preseason prognostication for a team that did finish 313th in KenPom last season. Despite that ugly number, I’m bullish on CSU’s immediate outlook thanks to one man: D’Moi Hodge. The 11th-ranked JUCO recruit in the country per JUCORecruiting.com, Hodge is without a doubt a high-major player who Dennis Gates convinced to commit early and stay committed even after a masterful sophomore season at the State College of Florida. During that second JUCO season, Hodge averaged 25 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks per game while shooting 46% from the field and 37% from 3 (on 110 makes). And this was at a very good JUCO program that regularly produces D1 players. Hodge is a special, special talent who could earn some NBA buzz down the line, and I expect a lot of offense to run through him. Gates made it clear when he took the job that he wanted to play 4-out, 1-in basketball, and he has the personnel to do just that: Hodge and experienced returners in the backcourt like Torrey Patton, Tre Gomillion, and Craig Beaudion playing around a physical post presence in Al Eichelberger. Despite how much more appealing Hodge makes this roster, there still are concerns: namely improving what was a tire fire of an offense last season. It’s difficult to win basketball games with you rank in the bottom 20 nationally in both effective FG% and turnover rate, which the Vikings did last season. Internal improvement from the returners will be necessary to remedy those struggles.
- Robert Morris – One of two newcomers to the league in 2020-21, RMU joins from the NEC after multiple years of speculation that they’d eventually depart for a better conference. The Colonials’ move to build a dazzling new arena locked in those projections, and the move to the HL happened quickly this summer once momentum took hold. Now Andy Toole’s defending NEC champs take their show from the Northeast to the Midwest, where they’ll hope to build momentum from a season that saw them win 20 games for the first time since 2014-15. The biggest reason for excitement is the presence of veteran forward AJ Bramah, a menace on the glass who averaged 13 points and 8 rebounds per game last season. Expect Toole to make getting Bramah touches a major priority in an offense that does a great job sharing the ball. Junior point guard Dante Treacy’s return is also critical: beyond being a terrific passer, Treacy is smart in picking his spots and had a huge game when it mattered most in the NEC title game last season. Highly-regarded freshman Enoch Cheeks should also give this backcourt a lift as an athletic two-way player who always seems like he’s in the right place at the right time. There may not be a true star here, but this team will play together, force plenty of turnovers, and make plays in timely moments. They should be a legit threat in their inaugural season in the Horizon.
- Northern Kentucky – Darrin Horn and the Norse had punched their ticket to the Big Dance prior to the pandemic shutting things down, but he’ll have a more difficult task this season in reloading without their three best players from a season ago. Tyler Sharpe not receiving a waiver to return for an extra year of eligibility to replace a walk-on year at Louisville during which he played sparingly was denied, and Jalen Tate departed for greener pastures at Arkansas. Add in the graduation of leading scorer Dantez Walton, and Horn is left to replace guys who combined to average 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game last season. A trio of juniors will look to keep the train moving at NKU: Trevon Faulkner was so steady last season even as injuries took Tate and Walton off the floor at times, while Bryson Langdon led the team in assists and Adrian Nelson was a productive and efficient force on the Norse bench. Building a rotation around them may be a bigger challenge though, with NAU transfer Carlos Hines the only guy seemingly guaranteed to get big minutes. High-scoring wing Darius Harding (Motlow State) will be critical: he averaged 19 points and shot 39% from deep at a strong JUCO program and chose the Norse over several other mid-majors. If he can provide consistent scoring for this group, the Norse have a chance to climb the ladder and remain in the conference’s top tier.
- Green Bay – One of the more surprising moves of the coaching carousel this spring/summer was the decision to move on from Linc Darner. While I could somewhat understand the move in normal times (Darner has been solid but not spectacular, and a daring admin might roll the dice and swing for the fences), doing so in pandemic times when budgets are tight and Darner had several years left on his deal was a stunner. Enter Will Ryan, a man whose last name should carry weight with locals but whose resume is lacking on experience. The son of legendary Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, Will Ryan has just one season as a head coach, leading D2 Wheeling to a 14-13 finish last season. It’s certainly possible he’ll succeed with the Phoenix, but the move is without a doubt a risk for a program that hasn’t had consecutive sub-.500 seasons since 2003. The conversation about winning in year one starts and ends with Amari Davis, the fantastic sophomore guard who elected to stay put following the coaching change. Davis is a terrific driver who was terrific at opportunistically attacking in transition and early offense in the Darner system but struggles to shoot – figuring out how to utilize him best should be Ryan’s first priority in year one. Illinois State transfer Josh Jefferson staying put along with the return of veteran guard PJ Pipes gives Ryan a pair of guards who can hit outside shots. This is a young team though, with five freshmen on the roster and two transfers set to sit out. Add in a young coach and there could be some bumps in year one.
- Oakland – The Grizzlies lose both starters from arguably the conference’s best frontcourt, but all hope is certainly not lost despite that. Greg Kampe’s team was a different one last season once Rashad Williams finally hit the floor in mid-January: Williams played 36 or more minutes in all but one game and posted four 25+ point outbursts. Williams gave Kampe’s club the player it desperately needed – one who could create his own shot in the backcourt and open things up for the rest of the offense. Results followed, with OU finishing 6-2 after starting the season 8-17. A full season of Williams in a high-usage role will be interesting: his efficiency lagged behind at times, and that is a concern when so much runs through him. But Williams has help – I love athletic forward Daniel Oladapo’s energy, and veteran guards Blake Lampman and Kevin Kangu are all steady. A waiver for Western Illinois transfer Zion Young would be big, particularly because it would open up some small-ball options for a team lacking experience in the frontcourt.
- Detroit – Mike Davis’ club regressed in 2019-20 after opening the Davis era fairly well. The main reason why: UDM was a train wreck defensively, owning the nation’s 326th-ranked defense per KenPom. No amount of Antoine Davis buckets (and he scored a whole lot of them) was enough to overcome that, and that’s the main reason why it’s hard to get excited about this team despite having one of the most exciting players in the country. Antoine Davis has put up 1,500 points in two seasons, a remarkable accomplishment in two otherwise-forgetful seasons in the Motor City. Does he have a capable Robin to his Batman this season? His dad certainly hopes so with the addition of Seton Hall grad transfer Taurean Thompson. Thompson was once a productive young player at Syracuse before falling off the map at SHU. He’s known as something of an enigma who doesn’t own a cell phone, and his basketball IQ was lacking to say the least when Kevin Willard did put him on the floor. Still, he’s more than worth the risk for a program like Detroit that’s unlikely to ever be able to recruit a player of his talent level in other circumstances. While he’s unlikely to do much for the defense, using Thompson in ball screens with Davis could make for a very dynamic offense.
- Milwaukee – Pat Baldwin has yet to get things going at UWM, and it may take convincing 5-star son Patrick Baldwin Jr to stay home and play for him to really turn the tide. Te’Jon Lucas is an excellent Horizon League point guard, but the roster around him is really lacking to compete in the conference. The Panthers graduate a pair of double-figure scorers, including leading scorer Darius Roy. A trio of newcomers on the wing will be critical: DeAndre Gholston was highly regarded out of Tallahassee CC, while Tafari Simms is an aggressive slasher out of Western Texas JC and Boston College transfer Vin Baker is fresh off a sit-out year and could fill DeAndre Abrams’ role from a season ago. We’ll see if that’s enough to stay out of the bottom tier of the conference – I’m not so sure.
- Fort Wayne – The Mastodons are the other newcomer to the Horizon, but they enter with far less momentum than fellow newcomer Robert Morris. Fort Wayne is coming off its worst season of the Jon Coffman era, a 14-19 finish that includes three non-D1 wins and just one victory over top-200 KenPom teams. A quick turnaround doesn’t appear to be in the cards either. Jarred Godfrey is a nice building block, a high-usage point guard capable of creating for himself and others. But shooting from deep has been such a big part of Coffman’s teams in recent years, and the Mastadons lose their top two shooters in Brian Patrick (DePaul) and Matt Holba (graduation). A waiver for St. Bonaventure transfer Bobby Planutis would help there: Planutis really struggled last season for the Bonnies, but he has built a reputation as a sharpshooting 4-man who could be an impact piece at a lower level. Vermont transfer Ra Kpedi will also be looked to for steady frontcourt play.
- IUPUI – Things were ugly for Byron Rimm and the Jags in an interim situation last season, but Rimm is back for another year after the pandemic wreaked havoc on the ability to have coaching searches. Back with him are a pair of talented guards in Marcus Burk and Jaylen Minnett, who combined to average close to 38 points per game last season. But beyond that duo, there just isn’t a ton to like here. The defense was atrocious last season in virtually every measurable category, and none of the newcomers exactly jump off the page.
All-Conference First Team:
- Antoine Davis (Detroit)
- Darius Quisenberry (Youngstown State)
- D’Moi Hodge (Cleveland State)
- Amari Davis (Green Bay)
- Loudon Love (Wright State)
Player of the Year: Loudon Love – A relatively easy choice here, Love is the defending conference POY and should repeat during his senior season. He’s just such a tough cover in the post for mid-major centers and does such a good job of drawing fouls. I’d like to see him improve on his 56% FT% from a season ago, which would make him even more efficient a post scorer.
Breakout Player: Braelen Bridges – There isn’t one obvious choice here, but I think Bridges could be poised for a big season under a new coach in Luke Yaklich. A lanky, athletic big man, Bridges runs the floor well and is a capable shot-blocker. He should be a good lob target for UIC’s stable of guards and a force in transition.
Newcomer of the Year: D’Moi Hodge – Placing Hodge on the first team over some qualified returners is somewhat bold, but I’m all the way in on Dennis Gates’ biggest recruiting win of his time in Cleveland. Hodge is the type of guy who can change the trajectory of your program and make everyone else better, and he’s a seamless system fit for what Gates wants to do at CSU. Watch out for a huge year.