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The Horizon League race was a competitive one – for about seven games. After that, it was all Butler. The Bulldogs came into the season as the clear favorite after last year’s Sweet Sixteen appearance and No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and they did not disappoint. They won the conference by four games over both Wright State and Cleveland State. CSU started 7-0, but then lost five in a row to drop out of the league race. This tourney is Butler’s to lose.
Favorite: Who else it would it be? Butler is clearly the best team in the league, and is one of the better teams in the country, regardless of conference affiliation. The Bulldogs are headed towards another top-five seed, and could make another Sweet Sixteen run depending on the match-up. Mike Green is one of the most underrated players in the country, while backcourt mate A.J. Graves is a very good all-around star. Matt Howard gives Butler a legitimate inside presence, and Pete Campbell is a deadly long-range shooter. Butler is also very solid defensively and is tough to beat late in games.
Contenders: Both Wright State and Cleveland State knocked off Butler once this season, and looked good enough at certain points in the conference season to pose a threat to the Bulldogs in the league tourney. WSU won 11 games in a row during the middle of the conference season, but then dropped its last three games, including a five-point road loss to the Bulldogs. The Raiders are led by the backcourt tandem of Vaughn Duggins and Todd Brown, both very good scorers and shooters. Cleveland State, as mentioned earlier, got off to a hot start then hit a wall. However, the Vikings have won six of their last seven, with the lone loss coming at Butler by five points. J’Nathan Bullock is a tough match-up in the frontcourt, while former St. John’s transfer Cedric Jackson is an outstanding all-around player on the perimeter.
Sleeper: Outside of the big three, there is a logjam of four teams at 9-9. Due to tiebreakers, Valparaiso got the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament, which could be a nightmare for any team in its half of the bracket. The Crusaders have won five of their last six, including a victory over Wright State in the season finale. Shawn Huff is an outstanding three-point shooter; he leads five guys that average at least 9.8 points per game (although Samuel Haanpaa is out). Jarryd Loyd is a solid point guard, while Urule Igbavboa gives them an inside presence.
Prediction: As said in the intro, this is definitely Butler’s tournament to lose. The Bulldogs have the most experience, most weapons and the best talent in the league. No team can match-up with Mike Green on the perimeter, and the addition of freshman Matt Howard down low makes Butler very difficult to defend. The only question is who the Bulldogs will play in the final – honestly, though, it likely won’t matter. Butler isn’t going to lose on its homecourt in the title game.
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