Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Horizon League Tournament Preview

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The Horizon League had one of the more underrated conference races in the country. Everyone knew about Butler, who started off hot and put themselves for an at-large bid early. However, the Bulldogs won’t be the #1 seed in the conference tournament. That goes to Wright State, who had won nine in a row before falling in their season finale. The loss ended up meaning nothing, though, as Butler also lost that night—at home to Loyola (Chicago). Only one other team finished .500 or above.

Favorites: Obviously, the two teams that tied for first come into the tournament as favorites. Butler knocked off Notre Dame, Indiana, Gonzaga, Tennessee, and Purdue in non-league play, but lost three conference games, and also fell in three of their last six overall contests. A.J. Graves is one of the best guards in the country, and is capable of carrying the Bulldogs. His backcourt partner, Mike Green, does it all. He can score, rebound, pass, and play defense. Brandon Crone and Pete Campbell are solid performers up front. Campbell can shoot the lights-out. Wright State, on the other hand, has flown under the radar. They have one of the most underrated guards in the country in Horizon Player of the Year Dashaun Wood. He is a terrific scorer that can also distribute the ball and rebound very well for his size. Vaughn Duggins teams with him in the backcourt, while Drew Burleson is the main option up front. With the title game on Wright State’s home floor, the Raiders will be tough.

Contender: The only other team to finish above .500 in league play was Loyola (Chicago), who came into the season as the favorite. They won seven of their last eight games, including a road win at Butler. Blake Schilb is one of the best all-around players in college basketball, capable of doing a variety of things. Majak Kou and J.R. Blount round out arguably the best perimeter group in the conference. Leon Young is solid up front.

Sleeper: Illinois-Chicago might be hitting their stride. They have won three in a row, including a road victory over Loyola-Chicago to end the season. The Flames also knocked off Butler, and took Wright State to overtime. Othyus Jeffers is very difficult to stop up front, and is the best rebounder in the league. Josh Mayo and T.J. Gray form a good backcourt, and Jovan Stefanov is solid in the frontcourt.

Prediction: Despite Butler’s overall resume, I’m going with Wright State to win it all. The title game, should WSU get there, will be on the Raiders’ home floor, where they are 12-1 this season. Butler is struggling lately and I don’t see them beating WSU on the road. Moreover, the Bulldogs better watch out for Loyola in the semi-finals, so they don’t avoid a repeat of last week. The Horizon looks like a two-bid league this year, since Butler has locked up an at-large invite.

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