Scanning the Horizon AP Photo/Al BehrmanWright State beat Butler for the conference title but Butler got all the national attention with a Sweet 16 run.
Want to know when a mid-major conference is truly under-the-radar? When it has won NCAA Tournament games in seven of the last 10 seasons and made three Sweet 16s in the past five, and the biggest buzz the league gets is when one of its teams wins a preseason tournament.
The Horizon League saw Butler make the Sweet 16 in 2003. Then Wisconsin-Milwaukee did it in 2005. Then the Panthers backed that up by making the second round in 2006. Still, there was a collective national yawn. The individual stories were great, but the league remained as nondescript as its original name, the Midwestern City Conference.
But an NIT Season Tip-Off title? That apparently gets the nation's juices flowing.
Dispatching Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga was just the start for Butler last season. The Bulldogs, at one point, were 23-2 and ranked ninth in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. Then they lost four of their next eight games. They weren't even the top seed in their own conference tournament. Nor did they win that tournament. They gave the nation every reason to think the hype was just that -- until they landed in the Sweet 16 again.
Only then, people began to wonder: Maybe the Horizon League is actually good?
Wonder no more. It's been very good for a while, even if you didn't know it. Don't worry. Not that many did.
"The reality is the league is a fantastic league," said Butler head coach Brad Stevens, in his first season in charge after six seasons as an assistant with the Bulldogs. "It has great coaches and great players. The last few years, you look at the top three or top four teams in the league, and those teams can go into the postseason and win."
Win they have, but the Horizon still has remained mostly overlooked while the national mid-major media frenzy has raised the profiles of the Missouri Valley and the Colonial.
"Without question, the Horizon is a league that is overshadowed at times and is a lot better than people realize," said Wright State coach Brad Brownell, "because we don't have football at a lot of our schools and we're in the shadow of the Missouri Valley [and] because the Valley's done so well."
The Valley is the barometer by which all mid-majors currently are measured, but the Horizon's track record on the sport's most important stage is more impressive.
According to NCAA Tournament historian Peter Tiernan, the Horizon's average "performance over seed expectations" (PASE) over the past decade -- that is, how much better a conference's teams do than what their seed projects they should do -- is plus 0.214. That means the average Horizon team wins 0.21 games more than its seed suggests it should. The Missouri Valley's PASE over the same span is plus 0.018.
The Horizon actually is in a virtual tie with the Big Ten for the second-best PASE of any conference over the past decade. Both trail the CAA, which is buoyed almost exclusively by George Mason's Final Four run from a No. 11 seed in 2006.
What's more, the Horizon has the nation's highest percentage of teams surpassing seed expectation, with half of the league's NCAA entrants winning more games than were expected.
Add the outperformance and consistency together, and you realize this isn't a fluke. Horizon teams simply deliver in the NCAAs, regardless of whichever team gets there.
"I don't think you are going to see any one team be dominant consistently over an extended period of time in this conference. It's too good of a league," said Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Tod Kowalczyk. "Let's face it, in mid-major basketball, you are going to have some runs with veteran ball clubs and then you are going to have some younger teams. In this league, the veteran teams are the ones that win."
Sometimes, those veteran teams are aided by a couple fortuitous transfers. As many Horizon schools are located in Midwest urban centers, the programs not only have deep local recruiting pools but quite often reload quickly with the help of high-major players who want to play closer to home.
Right now, the strength of the league is its collective strength. It's that strength that leads to the NCAA Tournament wins and that strength that will force the nation to pay more attention. Two years after the Valley started the current mid-major mania, the Horizon is poised to become The Next Big Thing in college basketball, even though it probably already is.
Compare and contrast
It's obvious that the Horizon isn't (yet) on the level of the Missouri Valley. The Valley has been multi-bid annually since 1999, and the upper-echelon members have been pouring money into coaching staffs and facilities in a high-major kind of way.
The bigger question as far as mid-majors go is whether the Horizon is better than the CAA. The Horizon finished just ahead of the Colonial in conference RPI last season and had seven of its nine members in the top 200 in the RPI. The CAA had eight of its 12 in that range, although four of them actually were in the top 75.
Who better to settle the debate than Wright State coach Brad Brownell? In his first season in Dayton, he led his Raiders to a share of the Horizon regular-season title and the league's auto bid. The season before he pulled off the same double in the CAA with UNC Wilmington. Unfortunately, Brownell is more equal opportunity in his speech than his teams are on the court.
"There are a lot of similarities between the CAA and the Horizon League, and I think the quality of basketball is right there as well," he said. " I think it's neck-and-neck in terms of the quality of play."
The Horizon's quality and depth will get even better this season as former Mid-Continent Conference heavyweight Valparaiso joins the mix.
Casual fans might recall Valpo from its buzzer-beating upset of Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders have been much more than that, though. They claimed the Mid-Con's NCAA berth seven times over a nine-season span from 1996-2004.
Horizon coaches are well aware of their new foe's qualifications. The common response? Valpo's good for the league and bad to have to prepare for.
"I'm looking forward to having them as a member in the league," said first-year Butler coach Brad Stevens. "I'm not looking forward to playing them. They're going to be hard to play. They're always going to be good. That's a fact of life, but I think that adds to the league."
Long-time Valpo coach Homer Drew recognizes that his team will have to raise its quality of play to prosper in a tougher conference. He noted that the Crusaders, now with some experience after being so young last season, will have to improve their rebounding and ballhandling. They also eventually will need to improve their facilities to stay competitive in the Horizon.
Entering Year 1, though, Drew couldn't be more pleased. Just moving to a league that makes more sense geographically should be a boon. Valpo gets to trade plane trips to Southern Utah and Louisiana for the relative comfort of bus rides to Detroit, Cleveland and Dayton.
"The nice thing about the Horizon is that it allows us to recruit locally," Drew said. " This gives us a better chance to recruit to be competitive."
* NCAA Tournament
^ Valparaiso was 16-15 overall and 9-5 in the Mid-Con Conference (now Summit League) last season.
Want a hidden reason behind Butler's terrific 2006-07 campaign? The Bulldogs committed just 9.5 turnovers a game, the best in the nation. Don't expect too much to change this season, as talented guards Mike Green and A.J. Graves return for their senior season, as does a good portion of last season's Sweet 16 team. If 30-year-old rookie head coach Brad Stevens can find an adequate replacement for forward Brandon Crone, a repeat trip to the Sweet 16 is a reasonable expectation. Mid-major scheduling coup note: The Bulldogs will play host to Ohio State at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Dec. 1, a true home game against last season's national finalists. Kudos to both Butler and Ohio State for making that happen. Matchups like that are great news for mid-majors, even though it can't touch North Carolina at Penn or USC at The Citadel on the (growing) list of most surprising road appearances this season.
With four seniors departed from last season's last-place club, the burden falls more heavily on stocky leading scorer and rebounder J'Nathan Bullock (13.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg). He'll get some help from sophomore Joe Davis, junior Bahaadar Russell and a strong incoming class that includes local products in forward Daitwan Eppinger, guard D'Aundray Brown and 6-11, 295-pound center Joe Latas, but it might be difficult for the Vikings to make much of a move, given the level of returning talent around the league.
Brandon Cotton, the former Michigan State guard, most certainly will be The Man in Detroit. He has averaged 18.1 points in his 2 ½ seasons at Detroit. In a league where three of last season's top four conference tournament seeds (Wright State, Illinois-Chicago and Wisconsin-Green Bay) were led by potent scorers, don't underestimate the impact one scorer could have. The big problem for the Titans will be replacing departed senior big man Ryvon Covile, who takes almost 14 points and 11 rebounds a game with him. Chris Hayes (6-8) is the only returning player taller than 6-4 to have played more than six minutes a game last season. Someone from the mix of junior transfer Michael Harrington, sophomore Justin Sample and freshmen Russell Allen and Jason Praet will need to step into that void.
The Flames looked as poised as any team to make a significant jump in the standings after a 7-9 finish that left them in a cluster in the middle of the league, but that was before the loss of leading scorer and rebounder Othyus Jeffers (15.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg), who has left the program. Still, the Flames return diminutive guard Josh Mayo (11.8 ppg, 3.1 apg) and shotblocking big man Scott Vandermeer, who swatted 111 shots last season, and also get back head coach Jimmy Collins, who missed the last three months of last season after surgery to repair an abdominal artery. If the Flames want to lick at the heels of the league's heavyweights, they'll have to replace Jeffers' production and also find a way to score more consistently from inside the arc. UIC was a solid 3-point shooting team last season (38 percent) but was poor from inside the arc (43 percent, 321st in D-I).
Lost in the shuffle of the Wright State/Butler dance party, the Ramblers put together a 21-win season of their own and came within a hair's width of upending Butler in the Horizon semis. Well, we know someone recognized the achievement, as head coach Jimmy Whitesell received an extension through the 2011-12 season. Whitesell's challenge this season? Close the gap with Butler and Wright State while making up for the loss of all-league guard Blake Schilb (17 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4 apg) and second-leading scorer Majak Kou (12.9 ppg, 4 rpg). The good news: The team's three other starters return, and the roster will get a boost from transfers Chicago native Justin Cerasoli (a former Seton Hall and Ole Miss guard who will be eligible for the second semester) and forward Ross Foreman (Wyoming).
Valpo's primary six-man rotation last season featured two juniors, three sophomores and a freshman, so the Crusaders are bringing a fully stocked roster to their initial trip over the Horizon. With a patient attack and four scorers between 11.3 and 12.0 points per game last season, Valpo has a Butler Lite feel to its offense. It also has a Scrabble feel to its roster, with Samuel Haanpaa and Urule Igbavboa leading the way. Expect a more experienced Crusaders team to cut down on its glaring 16 turnovers a game. It must. The jump in league quality will be too much to overcome if the Crusaders burn three or four possessions away each night.
Let's get right to the point: If UWGB can find a capable one this season, the Phoenix have the pieces to challenge for the league crown. Yes, they lose leading scorer and assist man Ryan Evanochko (15 ppg, 5.2 apg), but junior forward Mike Schachtner (14.9 ppg, 4 rpg) leads a cast of five primary returnees, all underclassmen last season. UWGB coach Tod Kowalczyk noted that the Phoenix got 132 minutes a night last season from freshmen and sophomores, so while this team might still be young, it now has significant experience. That is, except at the point guard spot, where someone will need to emerge from a group including Edgar Segura, D'Angalo Jackson and Rahmon Fletcher. Surprisingly, the young Phoenix were very careful with the ball last season (11.7 turnovers per game). They also shot it extremely well from both the free throw line (76.6 percent, 5th in D-I) and the arc (38.1 percent, 48th).
The Panthers bring in Oklahoma State transfer Torre Johnson and freshman Tim Flowers to provide some bulk. They'll also have to provide some interior scoring and defense, as the Panthers struggled inside the arc on both ends of the court last season. The Panthers already have perimeter scoring in the form of Avery Smith (15.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.7 apg) as well as Allan Hanson, Ricky Franklin and Tulsa transfer Deion James. With four starters back, if Johnson, Flowers and Co. can join forces with Paige Paulsen (11.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) in the frontcourt, expect UWM to look a lot more like its back-to-back NCAA Tournament teams than the single-digit-W club.
Not a bad couple of years for Brad Brownell: Lead UNC Wilmington to a share of the CAA title and the tournament championship, move to Wright State and repeat that combo with the Raiders. Doubling up in Dayton might be a bit more difficult, as you don't just replace the league player of the year, but the Raiders were more than just Dashaun Wood (19.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4 apg). Five of the top seven guys in the rotation return this season. Vaughn Duggins, Todd Brown, and Jordan Pleiman averaged more than seven points a game last season. The Raiders also will get help from transfers John David Gardner (UNC Wilmington) and Ronnie Thomas (Duquesne). As good as Wood was offensively, the Raiders really made more hay on the defensive end last season. The Raiders were fairly stingy from all areas of the floor. As the team looks to find a replacement lead scorer, holding true to its solid defensive principles will keep Brownell's troops in the mix.
The Penguins might be a bit wobbly this season as they search for ways to replace their two leading scorers, Quin Humphrey (18.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3 apg) and Keston Roberts (16.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg). Three other starters remain, though, along with John Barber, who started eight games himself last season. So the cupboard is far from bare. Then throw in two juco transfers, three freshmen and a sophomore (Vance Cooksey) who sat out last season, and Jerry Slocum at least will have plenty of options to consider. To improve this season, YSU will need to get a bit more ball pressure and rebound the ball better on their defensive end.
The Horizon's race with the Valley may lose ground this season as it appears just one team will make the NCAAs. Which is the lucky team?
-- Joe Lunardi
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Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.