2. UIC Flames
Flames Seek Offensive Consistency with Young, yet Very Talented Team
Although they might not admit it, most college basketball teams have the goal of winning their conference. Despite finishing dead last in the Horizon League last season, going from worst to first is not a far-fetched idea for the Flames. UIC returns Horizon League Freshman of the Year and All-League Second team selection Dikembe Dixson, along with junior defensive standout Tai Odiase, who led the nation in blocked shots last season.
Dixson is an explosive scorer, who carried his team offensively last season. But with more talent around him, expect Dixson’s shot selection and field goal percentage to both improve. Odiase will form a formidable frontcourt with JUCO transfer Clint Robinson, who averaged 8 rebounds per game last season. Overall, the Flames have seven new players, and nine of their 14 man roster are either freshmen or sophomores. Expect athletic swingman K.J. Santos and guard Marcus Ottey to have the biggest impact among the newcomers. Dominique Matthews’ first collegiate season was cut short by injury last year. But expect him to be a starter and major factor in the backcourt. The Flames were one of the better teams defensively last season, leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots. But it was another story offensively, as the Flames were last in the league in field goal shooting (38.8%) and second to last in both points and assists per game. Turnovers also plagued UIC last season. Expect an uptempo style of play for a team that should have a larger rotation. UIC did not win a non-conference game versus a Division 1 opponent last season, and they were also winless on the road. But they also lost a lot of close games, losing six times by five points or less. The Flames have a manageable non-conference slate this season, with their toughest tests coming when they travel to Grand Canyon and DePaul. Expect UIC to be one of the surprise teams not only in the H-League, but in all of college basketball.
Projected H-League Record: 13-5
1. Valparaiso Crusaders
With Some Familiar Faces Gone, Valpo Looks to do What Last Year’s Team Couldn’t
It was a busy and uncertain offseason for the Crusaders. It will be the first season since 1987-88 that their head coach will have a surname other than Drew. Two-time Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year Vashil Fernandez has graduated, as have Keith Carter and Darien Walker. But the best news Valpo got is that star forward Alec Peters is returning for his senior season, after testing the waters of the NBA Draft. Peters is not only the overwhelming favorite to win Horizon League Player of the Year, he will be one of the ten best players in all of college basketball. Assuming he can stay healthy, look for junior guard Tevonn Walker to have a breakout season and finish the season on an All-League team. Senior Shane Hammink will also have his role increased, especially on the offensive end. Senior Jubril Adekoya will be a main factor for the Crusaders in the low post. But look for 7’2” redshirt freshman Derrik Smits to see some quality minutes in the frontcourt, along with true freshman Jaume Sorolla (6’11”). No other Horizon League team has a two player combo that can match that kind of height. Don’t expect Lottich to change the game plan all that much, especially with such an experienced and battle-tested team. The Crusaders will continue to be deliberate and disciplined on both ends, while always taking advantage of the mistakes of opponents. Last regular season, Valpo was the clear-cut best team in the H-League. No other team was really even close. But this season, expect UIC, Oakland, Green Bay, and Detroit Mercy to bridge the gap significantly, if not one of them pass the Crusaders. But Peters is good enough to put this team on his back to keep Valpo in first place and head back to the NCAA Tourney.
Projected H-League Record: 14-4