Lazerus: Intriguing season on the Horizon
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org November 30, 2011 10:56PM
Updated: January 3, 2012 9:03AM
Back in September, after writing a column musing about the intriguing but far-fetched idea that Butler could be scooped up by the Big East in the wake of the nationwide shakeup that saw that conference badly plundered from a football standpoint, I received an e-mail from a very confident Butler fan. It was titled, “Of course Butler will leave.”
“Butler is going to leave the Horizon League,” the fan wrote. “When the Big East fails, whether (it’s) this year, next year, or the year after that, the Big East will split and Xavier and Butler will be invited to join the conference.”
He was 100 percent sure of it. And he wasn’t alone. That was the hot rumor back then.
That, of course, is not going to happen. The Big East has no intention of giving up on football, and instead went after Boise State and the service academies, among others, to secure its standing as a BCS conference. Yes, SMU and Air Force are more attractive than the two-time defending national runner-up, because football — not basketball — runs the collegiate world.
My point? Predicting the future in college sports is a rather futile endeavor. Things change. Rapidly and drastically.
So with that in mind, let’s reassess the Horizon League — which, sorry, Butler fans, you’re still slumming it in — now that we’re about a month into the season. The annual early December glimpse into league play begins today, with most teams playing two conference games this weekend, and Valparaiso visiting Butler on Saturday.
As Butler recovers from heavy losses, this is the most wide-open race the league has seen in years. It’s also the shallowest the league has been in some time — there’s a clear line of demarcation between the top five and the bottom five teams. Usually, that line comes between the top seven teams and the bottom three (normally Loyola, UIC and Youngstown State). But Green Bay and Wright State have too much rebuilding to do to be factors this season.
So with that in mind, and in the interest of saving space, here’s a revised look at the five best teams in the Horizon League, in predicted order of finish.
1. Cleveland State (6-1)
I got laughed out of my inbox after putting D’Aundray Brown No. 3 on my Horizon League preseason ballot. But those people clearly didn’t remember how good this guy was two years ago before missing last season with an injury. He might not be Norris Cole, but with so much experience and talent around him — Trevon Harmon, Jeremy Montgomery, Aaron Pogue — he doesn’t need to be. Brown is averaging 14.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.7 steals per game as the Vikings have knocked off No. 7 Vanderbilt on the road among their six wins.
The Vikings were knocking on the door of the Top 25 before a loss at Hofstra last Saturday brough them back down to Earth a bit. Saturday’s game at Detroit will be a key early barometer for both teams.
2. Detroit (3-4)
These are tough times for the Titans, my preseason pick to win the league. Injuries and suspensions have left coach Ray McCallum Sr. with just eight players. Nick Minnerath is done for the season with a knee injury, Eli Holman is still on an indefinite leave of absence after an alleged offseason assault of a fellow student, and academic issues have cost the Titans a couple of other players for the rest of the semester.
Talent-wise, nobody in the Horizon League can match up with the Titans, — when they’re at full strength. And Chase Simon (16.9 ppg) and Ray McCallum Jr. (13.1 ppg) are doing yeoman’s work carrying the team in the meantime.
The key, of course, is Holman’s eventual return. McCallum Sr. is not saying when he’ll be reactivated, and major kudos to the Detroit program for how it’s handled the Holman situation. It appears not to be a suspension, but rather a genuine attempt to make sure Holman’s “personal issues,” are addressed properly. He’s a fabulously talented athlete and a potential NBA player. But this isn’t the Indiana transfer’s first off-court issue, and the Titans are doing what they can to make sure it’s the last one.
They easily could have done what Milwaukee did with Kaylon Williams — a meaningless one-game suspension against a non-Division I team for an offseason DUI, blowing nearly three times the legal limit and fleeing from police. Instead, Detroit is handing down a real punishment, and at the same time making a real effort to get Holman’s life and career in order. Bravo.
3. Butler (4-3)
Is Butler the third-best team in the Horizon League right now? No. Valparaiso and Milwaukee are both better — now. But the Bulldogs are extremely talented, just young. And they also have one of the nation’s best and brightest coaches. The safe bet is Brad Stevens will have sophomores Chrishawn Hopkins and Khyle Marshall playing like seasoned veterans by the time it matters.
It might be too late to win the regular-season title, but, as always, you won’t want to face these guys in the league (or even the NCAA) tournament. By then, that exhibition loss to Northern State, that season-opening loss at Evansville and that by-the-skin-of-their-teeth win over mighty Gardner-Webb will be distant memories. Remember, a restructured Butler lost to Evansville early last year, too. At home. How’d that end up working out?
4. Valparaiso (5-2)
The Crusaders are in a similar position to Detroit, down to just nine scholarship players because of eligibility issues. But talent-wise, this team can hang with anybody in the league. Ryan Broekhoff (14.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg) is possibly the most well-rounded player in the league, Jay Harris (12.3 ppg) is becoming a bona fide sharpshooter, Erik Buggs is a defensive nightmare for opponents, and (his dreadful performance against Ohio State aside) Kevin Van Wijk has been the big, physical productive center VU has needed for years.
Solid wins over strong mid-majors Akron and Duquesne were enormous confidence-boosters for an overhauled squad with a new coach. And the Crusaders have taken on Bryce Drew’s more tenacious, more aggressive personality.
But it would only take one injury to potentially devastate a team with so little depth. Stay healthy, and VU could do some damage a year ahead of schedule.
5. Milwaukee (5-1)
James Haarsma, a 6-7 Evansville transfer, has done a tremendous job for the Panthers, filling the void left by the graduated Anthony Hill with 12.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. The Panthers have been feasting on weak opponents, and that won’t change this weekend with home games against Loyola and UIC. Kaylon Williams, offseason troubles aside, has been better than ever at the point, doling out 6.0 assists per game while scoring 10.6 points and bringing down 5.2 rebounds. So when Tony Meier returns from a calf injury, the Panthers should make another run at the regular-season title.
This team — like all five teams discussed here — can win this league, or this league’s tournament. The difference between one and five is smaller than ever. It ought to make for yet another compelling, chaotic, unpredictable regular season.
As a result, by February, I’ll probably take a look back at this column, then take a look at the standings, and wonder why I even bothered.