Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Horizon League Preview


The Horizon League played out the way it was expected to heading into last season. UW-Milwaukee was the favorite, and won the league on the last day of the season by one game over Butler. The Panthers lost 4 of their last 7 to let the Bulldogs back in the race, but they pulled it out in the end. Five teams finished at 8-8 in the league, tied for third. The conference tournament mirrored the regular season standings, as Wisconsin-Milwaukee defeated Butler in the title game. In the NCAA Tournament, though, the Panthers were unable to repeat their Sweet Sixteen run of two seasons ago, but pulled off another first-round upset, this time over #6 seed Oklahoma. This year should be more wide-open at the top, with no clear-cut favorite.

Favorite: Loyola-Chicago is the main candidate to take over Wisconsin-Milwaukee's throne this season after going 19-11 last season and finishing third in the conference. The Ramblers return all five starters and several of their top bench players. Leading the way is Horizon Player of the Year favorite Blake Schilb. He is one of the top ten players in the country at his position. The 6-7 guard is an excellent all-around player who can fill it up on offense and can also rebound and pass the ball very well. He is good enough to carry Loyola to a title by himself. He won't have to, though. Wing Majak Kou also returns. He is an all-conference candidate who is one of the best defensive players in the league. Guard J.R. Blount rounds out the best perimeter in the Horizon. He is a very good all-around scorer who is capable of having a big game on the offensive end. Up front, sixth man Leon Young leads the way. He is another all-conference possibility who could start this season. He is a tenacious rebounder and a solid post player despite his 6-4 stature. Brandon Woods could be poised for a big season, while Kye Patrick and Tom Levin were part-time starters in the frontcourt a year ago.

Contenders: Illinois-Chicago finished tied for third in the conference last season with a very young team, but with the return of four starters, the Flames could improve and jump up a spot or two. Newcomer of the Year Othyus Jeffers returns to lead the way. Jeffers is extremely versatile and can play nearly every position on the court. He is primed for a huge season due to his all-around play. Joining him up front will be a duo of Serbians in Daniel Zoric and Jovan Stefanov. Zoric finished strong down the stretch and will be more of an impact player this season, while Stefanov is a solid performer. Bowling Green transfer Scott VanderMeer will see playing time. Josh Mayo is the main man in the backcourt. He is a very good long-range shooter and will likely improve upon his double-figure scoring numbers of a year ago. Robert Bush and Western Illinois T.J. Gray will fight for minutes next to Mayo. Wisconsin-Green Bay was another team that tied for third in the conference last season with an 8-8 league record. The Phoenix return all five starters, led by all-conference guard Ryan Evanochko. He is an excellent point guard who is a very good distributor and does not turn the ball over often. He can score in a variety of ways and is one of the better mid-major PGs in the country. Also in the backcourt is 6-8 wing Ryan Tillema, an excellent three-point shooter. Up front, Josh Lawrence leads the way. He's one of the top long-range shooters in the league and could have a breakout season. Double-figure scorer Mike Schachtner returns at forward, as does Terry Evans, the team's best defender. The aforementioned trio comprise an excellent frontcourt. Aswan Minatee provides solid production off the bench.

Sleepers: Detroit was yet another team that tied for third in the conference last season. The Titans lose three starters from that group, but could be improved overall. Brandon Cotton is one of the best players in the conference, and is a likely all-Horizon selection. He is a versatile score who can fill it up from anywhere on the court. He could have a big-time senior season. Joining him in the backcourt will be Marquette transfer Brandon Bell, who sat out last season due to injury. Jon Goode is a double-figure scorer and the team's leading assist man on the perimeter who will see plenty of minutes once again. Zach Everingham could push for a starting job. Up front, Ryvon Coville will be the go-to-guy. He is an excellent defender who will improve his offensive game this season. Take a guess where Wright State finished last season in the conference? If you guess tied for third with an 8-8 record, you'd be right. The Raiders get a boost with new coach Brad Brownell, who comes over from UNC-Wilmington after leading the Seahawks to two NCAA Tournament appearances in the last three years. Brownell arrives just in time to see DaShaun Wood wrap up his career. Wood is one of the best players in the league and could be one of the top mid-major point guards in the country. He can do-it-all on the court, from scoring in bunches to being among the league leaders in assists and steals. Returnees William Graham and Tyrone Scott will fight for a starting spot next to Wood. Both are role players who will need to increase their production. Freshman Vaughn Duggins will also see time. Up front, Drew Burleson and Jordan Pleiman form an excellent duo. Burleson is an all-conference candidate who could have a breakout season in his senior year. Pleiman is a very good rebounder and a double-figure scorer who could improve those numbers this season. Scottie Wilson provides depth. Wisconsin-Milwaukee will likely see their streak of two straight NCAA Tournament appearances end. They have three tourney wins over the past two seasons, more than Kansas, Pittsburgh, and several other big-name programs. All five starters are gone from last year, leaving second-year coach with a near-empty cupboard. Guard Avery Smith will become a go-to-guy. He is the leading returning scorer at 4.7 points per game, but will need to improve that number greatly if the Panthers are to be competitive. Allan Hanson and Tyrone Young will see expanded roles on the perimeter. Up front, Kevin Massiah is the lone returning rotation player. The newcomers will have to make a huge impact. Luckily for Jeter, there are plenty of them. Guards Ricky Franklin and Charlie Swiggett will fight for starting roles in the backcourt, while Kaylan Anderson and Roman Gentry will also see plenty of time on the perimeter. Paige Paulsen and Marcus Skinner will help out in the frontcourt.

Rounding Out the Pack: Butler had another good season last year, finishing second in the conference and even winning an NIT game before heading home. Conference Player of the Year Brandon Polk and two other starters are gone, leaving the Bulldogs looking for new stars. A.J. Graves is a good start. The junior guard is an all-conference player on the perimeter. He is an excellent long-range shooter who can also distribute the ball well. Towson transfer Mike Green will make an immediate impact in the backcourt next to Graves. On the wing, returning starter Brandon Crone is poised for a big season. He is a very good shooter but can also score in the paint. IUPU-Fort Wayne transfer Pete Campbell will see playing time, as will Brian Ligon and Julian Betko, who missed time last season due to injuries. Youngstown State finished last in the conference a year ago, and went only 7-21 overall, but the Penguins return four starters and could move out of the cellar. The best of the returnees is all-conference wing Quin Humphrey. He is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate after he led the conference in both scoring and rebounding despite his 6-4 height. Moreover, he is a good long-range shooter and is very athletic. Also on the perimeter will be New Mexico State transfer Byron Davis and potential all-conference guard Keston Roberts. Davis is a very good point guard who will make an immediate impact, while Roberts put up 14 points per game last season but will need to develop consistency. The frontcourt is not as talented. John Barber is a solid forward who was a part-time starter, while Jack Liles and Colin LaForme should also see an expanded role and more minutes this season. JC transfer George Cotal could push for playing time. Cleveland State has struggled for most of the last decade, but optimism is starting to grow in Ohio with the hiring of former Rutgers coach Gary Waters. He inherits a team that is far from contending for a league title, but also has four starters returning. The best of the returnees is forward J'Nathan Bullock. The 6-5 sophomore is a versatile frontcourt player who can score in a variety of ways due to his athleticism and strength. Another returning forward is Patrick Tatham, who is a very good defender and rebounder. Luke Murphy and Renard Fields will also play. The perimeter is also pretty solid. Raheem Moss and Carlos English form a nice duo in the backcourt. Moss is a good long-range shooter that is expanding his offensive game, while English is a very good distributor. Victor Morris and freshman Joe Davis will fight for the final starting spot.

Prediction: The Horizon League won't have a team like Wisconsin-Milwaukee that will make noise on a national level and bring exposure to the conference this season, but the title race will be wide-open. Loyola (Chicago) is my pick due to their balance and the presence of Blake Schilb, the conference's best player. A trend to watch out for this season in the conference is the myriad of good guards in the league. In addition to Schilb, there is Detroit's Brandon Cotton, Wisconsin-Green Bay's Ryan Evanochko, DaShaun Wood of Wright State, and Quin Humphrey of Youngstown State. There is a lot to look out for in the Horizon League this season.

Player of the Year: Blake Schilb, SG, Loyola-Chicago

All-Conference Team:
G- Brandon Cotton, Detroit
G- Blake Schilb, Loyola-Chicago
G- DaShaun Wood, Wright State
G- Quin Humphrey, Youngstown State
G- Ryan Evanochko, Wisconsin-Green Bay

Second Team:
G- A.J. Graves, Butler
G- Majak Kou, Loyola-Chicago
F- Drew Burleson, Wright State
F- Leon Young, Loyola-Chicago
F- Othyus Jeffers, Illinois-Chicago

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