Toughest Horizon League in years awaits Milwaukee

If the Milwaukee Panthers are going to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, they’re going to have to run through what might be the toughest conference schedule ever to get there. The 2016 Horizon League schedule features several easy games, but the middle of the conference looks strong and the top is as strong as it’s been since 2010-11.

There have been a few boneheaded losses and some real close shaves, but more than half of the Horizon League looks like they can beat anyone on any given night. Valparaiso could lose at Oakland, sure, but they could also lose at Green Bay. Wright State could take out the reigning champs as well. For all the bagging on Cleveland State for letting their nucleus transfer out, the Vikings took out Belmont, which beat Valpo the other night.

In short, this is a conference season that will be full of challenges.

Head coach Rob Jeter has his work cut out of him beginning Saturday, as Wright State heads to the Panther Arena to open the conference schedule.

Team (1st date, 2nd date [@ indicates road]):

Wright State (1/2,  @2/4) – The Raiders suffered a pretty long losing streak to Division I teams this season, but coach Billy Donlon has had to deal with injuries in a way that no team in the Horizon League has had to take – that is, since Donlon’s team last season.

Donlon’s difficulty in keeping a lineup on the floor shows: ten players have started at least two games for the Raiders, an incredible amount of players. Only three Raiders have played in each game. J.T. Yoho and Joe Thomasson are a great 1-2 punch that are healthy heading into conference play. The Raiders are holding teams to under 42% from the field and under 30% from three. That’s a tough deal for a Milwaukee team that thrives when it’s knocking down the three.

Conversely, J.T. Yoho is shooting 52.3% from three, the best mark in the conference (Cody Wichmann is next at 51.5% and should probably shoot every time he touches the ball). Milwaukee doesn’t defend the three very well, as opponents are shooting 34.9% from beyond the arc. That’s a spot to watch as the Raiders come to town Saturday.

Northern Kentucky (1/4, @2/6) – NKU is just starting to get their feet wet in the Horizon League after moving from the Atlantic Sun last season. The Norse have been competitive in nearly every game in which they’ve played since getting trounced by West Virginia at the start of the year.

Jalen Billups (14.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is the best player on a team that gets most of its production out of the back court. He’ll have his hands full with Matt Tiby and JJ Panoske, but boxing out is important for Milwaukee – NKU’s leading rebounder is 6’2″ Lavone Holland II (11.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Holland is similar to Cody Wichmann in that he has a good nose for long rebounds.

Cole Murray is an Austin Arians-type tall three-point shooter. He doesn’t shoot nearly as much from the outside as Arians, but at 46.2% from three he is the only one to really cover outside the arc. Also unlike Arians, he’s a bit of a stick and doesn’t cut to the hoop nearly as well.

Youngstown State (@1/7, 2/22) – What can be said about YSU? The Penguins are in the midst of another year where they aren’t much of a threat to do anything. They have a few players who can score, but there’s no defense – they’re giving up 78.4 ppg despite playing a couple non-D-I games (as always).

Cameron Morse (14.7 ppg) has done a good job stepping into the role of scoring guard, but he doesn’t do a whole lot else for the Penguins. Bobby Hain is a low-rent Matt Tiby yet will probably have his jersey promptly retired at the end of the season.

Seriously, it’s past time to consider cutting YSU. I wrote this a few days ago on the Oakland board:

Ten schools in the Horizon League, nine of them are centered around men’s basketball, one is centered around football. I’m not going to argue that they should change – if we were a football school, I’d be gung-ho about supporting football. But they should probably find a conference that better matches their athletics profile. The CAA, now that it’s lost some of its basketball only members, would be a strong fit as they’re within a short drive of most of the League. The NEC would be a step down but they could rule it in football. Maybe OVC? They’ve been an incredibly terrible anchor on Horizon League basketball for almost their entire time in the conference. Check this out: they are 64-170 in the Horizon League. That’s a 27.4% winning percentage. In 15 years, they’ve finished above .500 exactly once. Of their 123 victories since Jerry Slocum became head coach, TWENTY-FIVE of them have come against opponents who are not in Division I. They have 98 Division I victories in the Slocum tenure. That takes the winning percentage from .383 down to .331.

I’m done with them, and I think the Horizon League should be done with them too. Where is this conference if the spring of 2015 realignment move is to cut YSU instead of adding NKU? Fourteen in the RPI may be the basement for the Horizon in coming years. Instead it looks like 12 is the ceiling. I blame the only football school in a basketball conference.

The Detroit conference tournament could be an enormous disaster, and it still would have very little negative impact in comparison to the addition of Youngstown State to the Horizon League.

Cleveland State (@1/9, 2/20) – Gary Waters could probably pay for a new practice facility if he had a dollar for every time his transfer crisis has been mentioned. Still, the Vikings are in a bad way. The only chance CSU has had is to depart from Waters’ free-running style and switch to a slow-down offense to keep games close. This has led to the Vikings being last-place in scoring and second-best in scoring defense in the Horizon League.

Freshman Rob Edwards and junior Demonte Flannigan are the Vikings’ only real threats on the offensive end. In games against the Panthers, Flannigan should get swallowed up by Tiby and Panoske, and Edwards will have several guards to fight with on the offensive end. Milwaukee should win both games going away, but don’t get bothered if they don’t win by 20 – after all, the Vikings have to slow down the game to have a shot.

Valparaiso (@1/14, 2/26) – Long considered the going-away favorite for the Horizon League, injuries have shown the Crusaders to be fallible. While not quite as extensive as Wright State, Valpo sure has had their share of unfortunate circumstances. E. Victor Nickerson has a hairline fracture that has held him out of the last two games, but he should be back before the Panthers’ road game in mid-January. David Skara missed five games and most of a sixth with a sprained ankle. Spraining the knee kept out preseason 2nd team All-Horizon wing Tevonn Walker for four games.

The Crusaders look to be mostly healthy coming into the conference season; Nickerson’s injury wasn’t supposed to keep him out of the Belmont game, so it’s likely he’ll be back soon. In any case, Valpo opens their conference season with a home game against travel partner UIC, so they only have one game in the opening week and play their second over a week from now.

While Skara played only three minutes and Walker didn’t play, the Ball State loss showed one thing – if you force the Crusaders to get all their production from Alec Peters, Valpo is beatable. You’re not going to stop Peters, but you can contain everyone else.

UIC (@1/16, 2/28) – I wish I could say the Flames weren’t a dumpster fire. I wish, but I also wish I could win half a billion dollars in the Powerball drawing tonight. UIC is at or near the bottom in these statistical categories: scoring offense, scoring margin, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three-point percentage, turnover margin, and assist/turnover ratio. They are leading the League in blocked shots, although their best three games came against a 300+ RPI team (9 against San Francisco) and two non-D-I teams (8 against Roosevelt and Purdue Calumet). Take those three games out and their blocks average falls from 4.9 per game to 3.6 per game. Still pretty good, but let’s not call them the best blocking team in the conference yet.

This was going to happen. Steve McClain is in his first year as coach and that wasn’t by accident; Howard Moore took over the program late in the 2010 off-season and couldn’t find traction. McClain, long known as a stellar recruiter, has a good pickup in freshman Dikembe Dixson. Tai Odiase is a good holdover from Moore’s last recruiting class. Both are decent rebounders, although Dixson is buoyed by playing strong in the non-D-I games and McClain is leaning harder on him as the season goes on.

Detroit (1/23, @2/13) – Throwing caution to the wind, Ray McCallum is letting his Detroit Titans run free. Reggie Hall’s Titans are scoring 84 points per game, a frighteningly high clip for a team that is only third in scoring (!!!) in the Horizon League. The downside to that is that opponents are scoring 83 per game. Those numbers are 26th and 339th in the country, both very good and very bad. The good news is that it’s mostly about playing up-tempo.

The Titans are shooting 45.6% as a team, a real strong number when you consider their strength of schedule is currently in the top 25 in the country.

Unfortunately, the Titans are only 4-4 against Division I competition and all four victories came at home. They have yet to win a true road game this season, which doesn’t bode well in a conference full of teams that play well at home. Toledo is a team that has beaten a few of the Horizon League dregs this season, but Detroit (and Oakland) took care of business against the poor mans coach k (no capitalization, no punctuation – forever and always).

Toledo is a good victory; so is Northeastern, a team that may win the Colonial in the CAA’s best season in years. But Detroit is going to need to play defense, and it’s not clear whether or not Paris Bass and the gang can do it. Eastern Michigan took Detroit to school the other night, and the Horizon League has eight teams shooting better than 33% from outside, and no team is poorer at defending the perimeter than the Titans.

I will say this: I’m rooting harder for Detroit this year than I have in past seasons, which has everything to do with our good friend Reggie Hall passing away after a car accident. There’s no doubt in my mind that if heaven exists, Reggie is up there pestering the big man for favors on the court.

Oakland (1/25, @2/11) – What’s great about the Michigan State game is that the country found out what the rest of us already know: Kahlil Felder is a beast. Oakland’s diminutive guard plays much bigger than he is, scoring 26.8 ppg (2nd in the country) and passing for 8.8 apg (1st in the country). He has a keen eye for spacing on the floor, often giving himself just enough space to catch and shoot a three without a hand in his face. He will drive the basket, finding a seam that no one knew was there until he’s already through it. Felder’s ability to find the open man is rare in college basketball today; his quick, crisp passes are good enough to get wide open shots for bombers like Max Hooper (44.1% 3FG) and Sherron Dorsey-Walker (48.5% 3FG).

Greg Kampe has a monster that’s surrounded by an incredible supporting cast. Hooper is so good at shooting threes that he hasn’t attempted a shot inside the arc all year. Dorsey-Walker, Jalen Hayes and Percy Gibson all average between 7.6 and 7.8 rebounds per game. Defensively they do enough to keep themselves ahead in most games. Against Virginia, the Golden Grizzlies were forced into a bunch of stupid turnovers. The Cavaliers also cut off Felder’s passing lanes, forcing him to try and beat them himself.

That may be the best course of action with Oakland – like Peters at Valpo, Felder is going to get his. He’s going to get it whether you try to stop him or not. He hasn’t scored fewer than 20 points in a game all season, and he’s averaging 32.4 over his last five. Cutting off his passing lanes and keeping the ball in his hands alone will force Felder to carry the load on his own – as the season drags on, that may be the way to beat Oakland.

I’ll tell you what – as a Milwaukee fan, I absolutely cannot wait to see Felder and Jordan Johnson square off against each other. Felder’s 8.8 assists per game is the only number better than Johnson’s 8.0 apg, but Johnson has an A/TO of 3.2, higher than Felder’s 2.5. Felder will almost undoubtedly score more, but the match-up should make any college basketball fan salivate.

Green Bay (1/29, @2/15) – Milwaukee won’t see their archrivals until they’ve played everyone else, which means the opening salvo at the Panther Arena on January 29th is going to be a big game, one that caps off the first week of the spring semester. Normally with a rivalry you just throw everything out the window, but we’re going to take a look at the Phoenix anyways.

Green Bay almost pulled off a Christmas miracle, coming back from a thirty-point deficit to almost overtake Wisconsin on December 23rd. They ended up losing by five, but the reason the Phoenix were able to fight back in that game was their defense.

They may allow a second-worst 79.4 points per game, but that has to do with Linc Darner’s free-flowing offense more than poor defense. The Phoenix don’t stop a whole lot of scoring, but they pile up 11.2 steals per game, by far the best in the conference. This gives them a turnover margin of +6.7, more than two times the next best (Valpo, +2.8).

Darner’s offense allows players to score more. Carrington Love is second in the conference at 19.5 ppg, which is particularly impressive when you consider that he’s never been the featured scorer and has the cloud of a January 11th trial date hanging over him for a weapons charge. One wonders what kind of scoring average Keifer Sykes would have had under Darner – probably not too much lower than Felder’s current 26.8 ppg mark.

Aside from Love, Darner has senior Jordan Fouse in the front court. As usual, Fouse is one of the best defenders in the Horizon League, owning the interior with 8.5 rpg. His 1.1 blocks per game average is impressive, although teammate Kenneth Lowe is fourth in the conference with 1.4 bpg.

In the non-conference there weren’t too many surprises. The biggest question mark might actually be a victory – the Phoenix eked out a 93-88 victory over Pacific, one of the bottom 30 teams in the RPI. A game like that wouldn’t be a surprise in November, when bad teams have their best chance at winning games – especially when they’re at home or on a neutral court. Everyone is just getting started, and at Green Bay they’re adjusting to a new coach. But this wasn’t in November, on the road or in some neutral site tournament. This was December 15th, a lot later than you’d want your contender to struggle in a game against a bad opponent.

The Phoenix could look very different by the end of January, due to Love’s impending trial. One would hope that he’ll be able to keep playing; by all accounts Love is a good kid, and I’ve enjoyed limited discussion with him in past years at the Milwaukee Pro-Am. He’s not some thug, he’s a good citizen and a good student who got himself into a dumb situation. We hope to see him in the Arena on January 29th.

The next couple months are going to be an absolute firestorm. Of ten teams, pretty much everyone can win against good teams at home. Many of them can win hard games on the road. It’s going to be an 18-game grind, all leading to the Reggie Hall Memorial Horizon League Tournament in March.

If Milwaukee’s going to pull off an incredible run and win the Regular Season Championship, they’re going to need to come ready to play night in, night out. There’s easy games on the schedule, to be sure, but the Panthers can’t let anyone keep it close. You don’t want the game in the hands of the referee, or the clock operator, or the other team. They play forty minutes of basketball, Milwaukee can achieve at a very high level.

The problem is, so can a lot of other teams. The non-conference fluff is over. The season starts now.

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