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Lazerus: Horizon League needs to find next Butler

Valparaiso University's head coach Bryce Drew shouts out plays from sideline  during first round (NIT) National InvitatiTournament held Miami

Valparaiso University's head coach Bryce Drew shouts out plays from the sideline during the first round of the (NIT) National Invitation Tournament held at Miami University in Coral Gables Florida on Wednesday March 14, 2011. | Charles Mitchell~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 11, 2012 6:30AM



ROSEMONT, Ill. — The set-up was top-notch. A classy hotel — you know it’s classy when it charges $100 for one day of WiFi — with an elegant meal, gracious hosts and a professionally run operation. There were players from each team, model student-athletes on their best behavior, walking around the Intercontinental in full uniform, smiling at bewildered guests on their way to photo and video shoots. Coaches in three-piece suits, too.

The Horizon League’s first Media Day in recent memory was a hit, even if Northwest Indiana and Chicago were the only league markets to send reporters. Two by two, a coach and a player from each team came to the dais and said all the right things — about how deep the league is, about how many great players are back, about how so many teams feel they’re on the verge of something special. And they weren’t lying, either.

It almost felt like a defiant act by the league to even hold a media day, a pointed retort to the conventional wisdom that Butler’s departure for the Atlantic-10 means the conference has lost its national prominence, if not its national relevance. Bringing in a coach and a player from all nine remaining schools — Youngstown’s not exactly right around the corner, you know — for a Big Ten-style gathering shows they still mean business, after all.

But there was no escaping the fact that the one team that wasn’t there still was the most visible.

The Bulldogs, love them or hate them, have been the face of the league for several years now. They made the Horizon League a national brand. And their astonishing back-to-back runs to the national championship game surely will never be duplicated — not by a team in this league, not by a team in any mid-major conference.

Without Butler, the Horizon League’s Q-rating — never mind the RPI — takes a huge hit. And replacing Butler with a 10th team in the near future (Oakland, Mich., being the most likely candidate) or even expanding to 12 (Belmont is another popular target) won’t do much to change that fact.

But as seemingly every person in the league pointed out on Tuesday, the opportunity’s there for someone to become the next Butler, the next team worthy of games on ESPN’s main station, worthy of at-large NCAA bids, worthy of coast-to-coast respect.

“I think everybody’s going to be fighting for that spotlight, if you want to call it that,” said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters. “This is a very competitive league this year. With Butler in it or not, it was going to be competitive. In fact, Butler wasn’t at the top when it decided to leave.”

But that’s what made Butler different. Butler was relevant even when it wasn’t contending for the league championship. Detroit was a nice story last year, Cleveland State was a nice story in 2009, Valparaiso would be a nice story this year. But the league doesn’t need one-year Cinderellas. It needs a perennial player on the national stage. And it needs it quickly, or the concern is the league will slip into Summit League-style oblivion — the kind of oblivion Valparaiso escaped by coming to the Horizon League in 2006.

“It’s really energizing,” commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘concern.’ To a person, I don’t think there’s a coach in this room that doesn’t think they can be the next national type of program. In a sense, we’ve provided a platform for teams to have extraordinary success on the national stage.”

Valparaiso — with a name-brand coach in Bryce Drew, a deep roster and a highly touted freshman class coming in next season — is best situated to seize such an opportunity. If Drew stays. If the recruits pan out. If the Crusaders can start beating some major non-conference teams. If they can win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. If, if, if.

It snowballed for Butler. It can snowball for anyone. But it’s a long shot, at best.

Butler’s departure hurts the league in other ways, too. With an odd number of teams, the schedule — by necessity — is a random schedule full of Tuesday games, Wednesday games, Thursday games; with home games during the week and road games on the weekend. An “NBA schedule,” Drew called it. No more Thursday-Saturday sets. No more traveling partners, which means teams won’t visit both Wisconsin teams, both northeast Ohio teams, both Chicago teams in the same weekend. VU goes to Milwaukee on Jan. 12. It goes to Green Bay on March 2. That affects coaches’ preparation, and it affects athletes’ ability to work around their class schedules.

“For the coaches, we got into a routine,” Drew said. “It’s going to be a lot different now.”

Then there’s attendance. After all, the ARC doesn’t sell out for UIC. It doesn’t even sell out for Milwaukee, VU’s best rival. But it always sold out for Butler. The Bulldogs’ absence will be felt at box offices around the league. And don’t think the players won’t miss those games. And don’t think that’s not one fewer recruiting tool for coaches to use on borderline high-major talent.

“It was a great game, the atmosphere, both playing at their place and having them come to your place,” CSU’s Tim Kamczyc said. “It was always a large crowd and those are the type of games you love to play in.”

Don’t misunderstand. The Horizon League is not in dire straits. With 39 games on ESPN’s networks this year, with HD video and instant replay coming to the Horizon League Network, with encouraging signs from long-dormant programs such as Youngstown State and Loyola, and with high-quality basketball in big markets, the league’s on solid ground. And the league, to its credit, is putting on a good face and saying all the right things and doing all the things a successful conference does.

But there needs to be a sense of urgency, not only to replace Butler, but to reproduce Butler. And to do it soon.



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