(Author Note: This article was originally written on 11/19/15)
This is setting up to be one of the most exciting seasons of Horizon League Basketball in recent memory. One could argue I say that with a bit of bias because my two favorite teams, Detroit Mercy and Oakland, are not only in the H-League, but they both should be in the league’s upper echelon. But looking objectively, this league has some serious talent and depth. The National Championship game runs and league dominance that Butler enjoyed in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons were special and will never be duplicated. But the excitement now is spread across several league teams and should result in a great chase for first place and some very competitive games. Teams are listed in expected order of finish in the regular season for this preview.
Projected league record: 16-2
The Crusaders received two great pieces of news about people who would be returning to the team, when there looked to be serious doubt they would. The first is 41 year old Head Coach Bryce Drew. He was in the mix for the head coaching vacancy at DePaul. Reports stated that he would have taken the job if he was offered it. This will turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Drew. His stock as a coach will only rise this season as Valpo returns an experienced-laden roster (losing only one senior) who won the H-League regular season and tournament titles last season, and very narrowly lost to Maryland in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament. Despite having been the best player ever at Valpo and carrying on the torch for his father, legendary coach Homer Drew, I do not envision Bryce Drew being head coach at Valpo much longer. In fact, this may be his final season. But like I always say… “just because you leave, does not mean you won’t be back one day.” Do you think Butler would not welcome Brad Stevens back in the future with open arms, even if their program is still doing well? The fact is that Valpo is a mid-major school. There is nothing wrong with that. But they do not have the fan base or the resources to take the leap to being a major program, like Gonzaga, Wichita State, and Butler have done in recent years. With that said, you can call this year’s Valpo team ‘major’ because that is the type of season they will have. They should position themselves to crack the top-25 and consistently hang in the 17-25 range.
The second big reason is the return of reigning H-League Defensive Player of the Year Vashil Fernandez. His college eligibility had run out and it looked like he was headed overseas to play professionally. He was granted a fifth-year of eligibility. How cool is it to turn down pro ball to come back? He and his team must have a lot of unfinished business. A native of Jamaica, the 6-10 Fernandez is an intimidating shot blocker and does a lot of things that do not enter the box score, such as altering shots with his help defense. Valpo’s best player is 6’9” junior Alec Peters, an H-League First Team honoree from last season who averaged over 16 points and 6 rebounds per game. His versatility of being able to score in the post and from the outside makes him dangerous. Sophomore point guard Tevonn Walker is back healthy after a minor injury late last season and helps the offense by being able to get to the basket and finish efficiently. Look for senior Keith Carter to add backcourt depth, and LSU transfer Shane Hammink to add to their perimeter shooting. Of course they want to win the H-League Tourney, but if they do not, Valpo should have a good enough resume to earn an at-large berth. The key to this is earn some big non-conference wins. The first step of this was taken on 11/17/15 with a win over a solid Rhode Island team. Other games against Oregon, Oregon State, and Belmont provide opportunities for quality wins. Thanks in part to Bryce Drew’s improbably buzzer beater, Valpo went all the way to the Sweet 16 in the 1998 NCAA Tourney. Don’t be surprised if they reach that round again…or further.
Fun facts: Valpo has very much an international roster with players from Croatia, The Netherlands, Jamaica, and Canada. Call them the San Antonio Spurs of college basketball!
Remember Rik Smits of the Indiana Pacers from the 1990s? His son, Derrik, is a freshman Center and is likely to redshirt this season.
Projected league record: 14-4
The Golden Grizzlies get the award for most exciting off-season. They gained national attention when their innovative “blacktop court” garnered headlines. Former player Drew Valentine joined the staff as the third assistant coach. Coach Greg Kampe was not pleased when he had to scramble, just weeks before practice began, to find a new assistant coach when Brandon Weems abruptly left the program. Former Oklahoma assistant coach Dionne Phelps filled that void. For what used to be a commuter school, Oakland has a vibrant student life and its basketball program has played a big part in the school’s overall recognition and expansion. Having already conquered the Summit League in previous years, Oakland feels like it has the team to win the much stronger Horizon League right now. This is just Oakland’s third season in the H-League. They are led by 5’9” lightening quick junior point guard Kahlil “Kay” Felder, whom many thought should have won the league’s Player of the Year Award last season. He has that Preseason title this season, and will look add to his lengthy list of accolades. He was the only player in the country last season to average at least 17 points and 7 assists per game. Felder is built like a running back, and plays bigger than his height would indicate. Few players have the talent to score and distribute the ball so efficiently. With two more great seasons ahead of him, Felder will likely go down as the best player in Oakland history. Jalen Hayes was a pleasant surprise in his redshirt freshman year last season. He is an athletic 6’7” forward who can rebound and play strong in the post. Oakland has had some tremendous shooters over the years. The next man on that list is set to be sophomore Nick Daniels, who lit it up from downtown last season to the tune of 48% behind the arc. Big man Femi Olujobi played well sparingly last season, and he should see steadily increased minutes. The difference for whether Oakland will have a good or great season depends on the contributions of its transfers. It is interesting to note that Coach Kampe never recruits junior college players. But they sure have made a living in getting Division 1 transfers. Three of these transfers join the team this season. Coming from Iowa State, senior Percy Gibson has serious size at 6’9” and 271 pounds. Remind anyone of Shawn Hopes? Gibson will see a lot of minutes and provide a steady presence down low, with rebounding, shot blocking, and scoring. Sherron Dorsey-Walker and Martez Walker join the team from Iowa State and Texas, respectively. Both are 6’4” shooting guards who will likely see some time at the 3-spot in smaller lineups. Dorsey-Walker was very impressive in the team’s opening night win over Eastern Michigan. Oakland does a great job with its presence on social media and marketing. They also added LED lights and HD audio inside the O’rena. They also boast that 19 of their games will be televised locally or nationally. That is all great for the fan experience and exposure. But anything short of an NCAA Tourney berth will feel a bit disappointing for this team. And with another brutal non-conference slate, the Grizz better be peaking at Joe Louis Arena in early March. Also, if Oakland wants to finish this high in the standings, they must play better on the road. Plain and simple.
Fun Fact: Felder, Dorsey-Walker, and Walker were all teammates at one point at Detroit Pershing.
Projected League Record 12-6
Panthers Head Coach Rob Jeter is no stranger to winning H-League titles. With a very good season this year, he will become the school’s all-time winningest coach. He has a talented enough roster to achieve that feat. Senior power forward Matt Tiby is a lot to handle in the post and is a terrific rebounder. Austin Arians will spread the floor and get his fair share of shots, many of them coming from behind the arc. Akeem Springs is an explosive scoring guard who is will overpower a lot of his opponents with his size. That is an important trait of this team as a whole. They are big and physical and plan to wear other teams down. Look for JUCO transfer Jordan Johnson to run the point and be a primary ball distributor. What makes the panthers so dangerous is that most of their size can play in the paint and around the perimeter. This will create a lot of mismatches that they will look to exploit.
Fun fact: Milwaukee scored exactly 71 points in each of their first three wins this season.
Projected League Record: 11-7
The Titans have may not have the #1 player in the league at this moment. But they certainly have the player with the highest ceiling. The sky is the limit for the versatile and lanky Paris Bass. He was exciting and even dazzling at times in his redshirt freshman campaign last season. But he was also very inconsistent with errant passes and questionable decisions. UDM will only go as far as the 6’8”, 200 pound swingman will take them. If you want more info about Bass, refer to the detailed scouting report I wrote about him over the summer. This season already did not get off on the right footing, as Bass was suspended for an unspecified violation of team rules. Apparently, those better decisions need to come off of the court too! If Bass has a very good season that I expect him to have, there will be legitimate talk of people saying he should enter the NBA Draft. Even though he will be three years removed from high school, it would be a mistake. He would increase his stock even more by returning for his junior year and then going pro. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Besides this one superstar in the making, UDM has a pretty balanced team with a lot of decent to solid college players, a couple with the potential to be very good. With this Titan team being so guard heavy, let’s start by looking at the frontcourt. Jaleel Hogan played well in reserve minutes as a true freshman last season. Expect his role to become much larger. He is undersized in playing the 4 or 5, so think of him as a Draymond Green type of player in progress. He is a good, feisty rebounder who does not back down from anyone. Redshirt freshman Aaron Foster-Smith is a big X-factor for this team. If he can establish himself as a consistent forward who can play mostly inside and even outside a little, this team will be able to spread the floor better on offense and compete in the paint defensively. Given the lack of depth upfront, true freshman Gerald Blackshear should see a lot of minutes and could blossom into a very good college player down the road. The stable of guards consists of a good mix of youth and experience, with lots of players expected to see significant minutes. Senior Anton Wilson is more of a spot-up shooter, whereas junior Chris Jenkins is more is a scoring threat when slashing to the basket. Junior point guards Matthew Grant and Jarod Williams are reliable and split a lot of ball handling duties. They run the offense well and have the green light to shoot the ball too. Josh McFolley is another true freshman who could make a big impact and take a lot of the minutes that the upperclassman were expecting to get. With the Horizon League Tourney in Detroit for the next five years, the Titans hope to use that Motor City mojo as a home-court advantage to pull an upset or two.
Fun fact: Blackshear and McFolley both played at Mt. Clemens High School under newly hired UDM assistant coach Jermaine Jackson. After Jackson left as coach, both players transferred to Detroit Western and led the team to the 2015 Class A state title.
Projected League Record 10-8
With head coach Brian Wardle leaving for Bradley, and all-time Phoenix great Kiefer Sykes graduating, many thought this would be a rebuilding year. But fresh off of a Division 2 National Championship at Florida Southern, newly hired head coach Linc Darner had other ideas. He enters a pretty good situation as he has two experienced seniors to lead the way on the court. Power forward Jordan Fouse averaged about 7 points and 7 rebounds per game, and guard Carrington Love averaged about 10 pts and 3 assists. Expect those numbers for each player to increase significantly. Darner brought in a couple of JUCO players who should contribute significantly, most notably Charles Cooper who averaged nearly 19 ppg last season.
Fun fact: Sophomore forward Kerem Kanter is the younger brother of NBA star Enes Kanter.
Projected League Record: 8-10
Coming off of their worst season in the Billy Donlon era, the Raiders have nowhere to go but up in the young coach’s sixth season at the helm. They do return their top 4 leading scorers from last season, led by strong post and rebounding presence JT Yoho who averaged over 15 points per game in an injury shortened year. Grant Benzinger and his 43% 3-point shooting skills show that he is a budding star, and is only a sophomore. Expect Ball State transfer Mark Alstork to put the ball in the basket with his versatile play, as he is likely to make the league’s All-Newcomer team. Wright State has an interesting mix of experience and youth. Their ability to score should keep them in a lot of games. Their lack of depth and struggling defense should keep them from reaching the .500 mark in league play.
Fun fact: Coach Donlon’s father is the team’s Director of Basketball Operations.
Projected League Record: 7-11
With the departures of big man Anton Grady to Wichita State, and guard Trey Lewis to Louisville, Gary Waters is probably wondering about this season that might have been. Other teams are now enjoying the fruits of his labor and teachings. But it is hard to blame players who want to play for potential national contenders and gain more exposure. With Charlie Lee and Marlin Mason graduating, all four of their leading scorer’s from last year’s team are gone. “Who’s gonna step up?” should be the motto for this year’s team. The top candidate is junior guard Andre Yates who average 6 points per game last season. His feisty defensive play makes him a major threat to steal the ball. He matches up well with opposing point guards due to his strong stature. Demonte Flannigan is a junior power forward who saw very limited action last season, but should be the team’s top big man this year. Gary Waters’ teams are scrappy, physical, and never give up. So expect this team to fight all season long and spring a few upsets along the way.
Fun fact: Gary Waters was previously a head coach at Kent State and Rutgers, and has a winning record at each of the three schools he has led.
Projected League Record: 5-13
Being a football school, the Penguins athletic department must not mind having a consistently below average to mediocre basketball team. After a handful of players left the team following last season, most notably Marcus Keene who took his 15.6 points per game to Central Michigan, expect much of the same for Jerry Slocum’s team in his 11th season. The lone bright spot is the team’s lone senior, 6’10” senior Bobby Hain, who has over 1,000 points and 600 rebounds in his career. The role of his sidekick is really up for grabs, but is most likely to be filled by sophomore swingman Sidney Umude who is a very efficient scorer. Expect Youngstown State to have one of the better shooting percentages in the league.
Fun fact: Of their 13 player roster, the Penguins only have two players from their home state of Ohio.
Projected League Record: 4-14
The Norse have moved up in the world quite quickly. After many years at the Division 2 level, they spent the last three seasons in the Division 1 Atlantic Sun Conference. Two of those seasons, they finished with a .500 league record, which was good for a team that reclassified to a higher Division. But the H-League is at least two steps higher on the mid-major totem pole. Northern Kentucky should feel fortunate they were able to join the Horizon League. Their arena should become the envy of the league as it seats over 9,000 people and is not even 8 years old yet. But right now, that will be the only thing fellow league members will envy. The learning curve will be high for the Norse, who are led by first year head coach John Brannen, who spent many seasons as a top assistant to Anthony Grant at VCU and Alabama. The size and strength of Jalen Billups will be a lot for any defender to handle in the post. He is built like a football defensive end and will get his share of chances around the basket. This team does have some size and depth in their frontcourt, something that not a lot of other league teams have. The Norse will be able to put points on the board, with scorers like Lavone Holland and sharpshooter Cole Murray. Expect his team to get worn down by the end of the season with the grind of a long a physical H-League season.
Fun fact: Former two-time Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year Ronald Nored (Butler) is an assistant coach.
Projected League Record: 3-15
The Steve McClain era is beginning in Chicago, but the Flames will not shine very bright this season. McClain was most recently an assistant coach at Indiana, and had an overall winning record as the head coach of Wyoming for nine seasons. Point guard Paris Burns (what an appropriate surname!) will lead the way scoring and distributing the ball. Jake Wiegand is another prototypical H-League big man whose game may not look overly refined on tape, but he gets the job done with paint scoring and rebounding. This team has six freshman and even gained a couple of small school transfers. Expect them to have their struggles this season, but they could be good in a couple years. With a team with so many young players, they will undoubtedly be a hungry team who will not play with much fear.
Fun fact: First year assistant coach Brendan Mullins spent the last three seasons in the same position at Wright State…a rare intra-conference coaching transfer.