Joey Yashinsky - a Special Contribution to HorizonLeague.com
(Teams are listed in order of final league standings, from 10th to first)
(“Scout’s Take” section contains analysis from assistant coaches and advance scouts around the Horizon League)
Milwaukee Panthers (#10)
TEAM CAPSULE: Many predicted this would be a transition year for Milwaukee after dealing with a slew of transfers last summer, and it has proven to be just that. The dramatic turnover in the Panthers’ roster would be a difficult hurdle for any head coach to overcome, let alone a guy in his first year on the job like LaVall Jordan. Milwaukee lost its final nine games of the season – four by seven points or less - and enters Motor City Madness as the tournament’s 10th seed.
However, the strong Milwaukee backcourt cannot be overlooked. Cody Wichmann and Brock Stull are both deadly from 3-point range, and both have imposing size for guards: Wichmann is 6’5”, Stull is 6’4”. The common adage is that in March, the advantage goes to the team with the best guard play. With that in mind, Jordan’s underdog Panthers have a chance to be this year’s Horizon Cinderella.
SCOUT’S TAKE: “In my opinion, Brock Stull is a first-team All-Conference kid. Only guy in the league to be top-ten in points, rebounds, and assists. He just does so much for them both offensively and defensively. Cody Wichmann has been fantastic all year shooting the ball from 3. They have some players that were thrown into the fire and they’ve done a nice job for them. August Haas at point guard, Bryce Nze in the post is a guy that shoots about 70% from the field. They’re young, they’re inexperienced, they’ve had their struggles; but when you’ve got a number of players that can knock down 3s, you always have a chance.”
Youngstown State Penguins (#9)
TEAM CAPSULE: For the Penguins, the question often comes down to how much help Cameron Morse can get from his supporting cast. Three different times this year, the explosive junior guard popped for at least 40 points. The problem? Youngstown State lost all three of those games.
Can Francisco Santiago provide a consistent second scoring option? Will 7-foot-1 Jorden Kaufman be able to stay out of foul trouble and provide double-double type numbers throughout the tournament? If those things happen, the Penguins suddenly become a pretty pesky lower seed.
Remember, Jerry Slocum’s club scored road wins over both Green Bay and Wright State during Horizon League play. Throw in their outstanding season-opening victory against MAC powerhouse Akron (23-6), and you see quite clearly that when Youngstown State is in rhythm, they can beat just about anybody.
SCOUT’S TAKE: “Cameron Morse can score very quickly, and in bunches. Youngstown’s style of play allows him to put up 25 or 30 shots. He’s got a little bit of Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors) in his game. He can break you down off the dribble, he has really improved using ball screens, and he can knock down shots. He is a 3-point threat as soon as he crosses half-court. He’s got an opportunity to be a pro, whether that is in the NBA or overseas.”
Cleveland State Vikings (#8)
TEAM CAPSULE: Joe Louis Arena is just two miles from Detroit Cass Tech High School. Why is that important? Because Cass Tech is the former stomping grounds of Rob Edwards, Cleveland State’s most valuable player, and a guy that will obviously be looking to put on a show playing back in his hometown. Edwards is a streak-shooter, but let him get on one of those runs and you could be in big trouble. He dropped a career-high 32 in a road takedown of Oakland, the Vikings’ defining win of the season.
Bobby Word is a junior transfer from Oral Roberts and complements Edwards on the wing. Keep an eye on freshman guard Kasheem Thomas; if he’s creating good looks for others and keeping turnovers to a minimum, the Vikings become that much tougher to beat.
The conference record for Cleveland State will not look great at 5-13, but be careful not to judge a book by its cover. Seven of those losses were by a margin of just five points or less.
SCOUT’S TAKE: “Their strategy is to muck the game up. Regardless of how things are going, they stick to their system. Night in and night out, you know what you’re getting from Cleveland State. (Coach) Gary Waters is an advantage for them. Anytime you have experience like that on your staff (11 years at CSU, 21 total as a D-1 head coach), that is invaluable when it comes to tournament play. He’s a guy that’s been to the NCAAs and he’s drawn up big plays in big moments.”
Detroit Mercy Titans (#7)
TEAM CAPSULE: The Titans might be the proverbial “team nobody wants to face” in this year’s Horizon League tournament. An overall record of 8-22 is obviously not terribly imposing, but don’t forget that Motor City Madness will take place just a short drive from their campus. And when completely healthy, this is a roster armed with some unique, high-powered talent.
Jaleel Hogan had a very productive junior season on the inside, especially taking into account that Detroit Mercy as a whole is a relatively undersized group. His 39-point, 11-rebound outburst against Oakland stands as possibly the most dominant individual performance in the entire conference season. Seasoned swingman Chris Jenkins has looked like a completely different player since returning from a thigh injury. Corey Allen, Josh McFolley, and Patrick Robinson, Jr. are all dangerous 3-point shooters.
Bacari Alexander is a rookie head coach, but he’s been involved in plenty of high-stakes games after six years as a top assistant at Michigan. The big stage is not likely to intimidate him; his job will be to extend that fearlessness to his players.
SCOUT’S TAKE: “The first thing you think of with Detroit Mercy: ‘improvement.’ It started when they beat Oakland, who had come off an excellent non-conference season. Coach Alexander has done a great job of keeping those guys focused. Guys like Chris Jenkins have really come along, certainly Jaleel Hogan is an all-leaguer, and then Corey Allen, he’s had a great run and was named Freshman of the Year. I know they are excited to have the tournament in their hometown. Some really good outside shooting, a dominant post man, and wing guys that can hurt you in a variety of ways. I’ll tell you what; you better watch out for this team.”
UIC Flames (#6)
TEAM CAPSULE: Experience or raw talent: what is the ultimate key to post-season basketball success? We will find out the answer to that riddle living vicariously through the UIC Flames, a team packed with ability, but with the great majority of it coming from freshmen ballplayers.
Steve McClain’s unit is not to be taken lightly. They sit near the top of the league in both 3-point accuracy and offensive rebounding. Come in unprepared against the Flames and they’re liable to run you out of the gym.
UIC’s young roster is still learning the importance of ball security; unfortunately, falling short in that possession game often winds up costing a team its life in March.
SCOUT’S TAKE: “They’ve had different guys step up, and they really share the wealth. Dominique Matthews went on an incredible tear down the stretch, and they have some other very talented pieces out on the perimeter. Tai Odiase is such a huge asset as a rim-protector. This could be the most athletic team in the league.”
Wright State Raiders (#5)
TEAM CAPSULE: It was another typically reliable conference season for the Raiders, last season’s Motor City Madness runner-up. They finished safely in the top half of the league with an 11-7 record. The issue facing Wright State as they prepare for the tournament? They’ve had a very difficult time with the teams sitting above them in the standings.
They went to Oakland and got beat by 19. Went to Green Bay and lost by 17. Another double-digit loss, by 15, awaited them in Valpo. All told, the Raiders went just 2-6 against the league’s other top teams. The silver lining? None of that stuff matters once the ball tips at Joe Louis Arena.
Mark Alstork’s offensive arsenal is reminiscent of NBA star C.J. McCollum; he’s got the in-between game, can get to the basket, is deadly from the foul line (86%), and has range extending well beyond the arc. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Alstork catches fire and the Raiders play their way back onto the big stage next Tuesday night.
SCOUT’S TAKE: “They’ve been very hit-or-miss this year, but when they're on, they are one of the best teams in the Horizon League. Tremendous ability to shoot the 3 with multiple weapons on the perimeter. Mike La Tulip, a transfer from Illinois, can really shoot it. Grant Benzinger has really come on. And Steven Davis is back. They really missed him last year. Alstork is one of the most underrated players in the conference. He’s an unbelievable talent. Just knows how to score. And I think you’re seeing a little more buy-in from him this season. You can just tell. When they all get on the same page, they can be a championship-type team.”
Northern Kentucky Norse (#4)
TEAM CAPSULE: Oftentimes, it is not necessarily the team with the best record walking away with the hardware in March. If given the choice, you’d rather be the “hot” team, gaining steam at just the right moment and flying into the tournament with guns blazing. Enter the hard-charging Norse from Northern Kentucky.
With seven wins in their final eight games, the Norse vaulted into a surprising fourth-place finish in the conference. Coach John Brannen has engineered the dramatic turnaround from last year to this, transforming a 21-loss team into a version that just picked up its 21st victory with a gritty season-closing triumph over Valparaiso.
Drew McDonald is an emerging sophomore with a fully-developed inside-outside attack. He played in all 18 Horizon League games for Northern Kentucky and not once failed to score in double figures. Lavone Holland II makes the offense go and has been very sharp down the stretch.
The Norse are not the deepest team in the league, but Brannen’s starting five is as good as you’ll find. This is Northern Kentucky’s first year of NCAA Tournament eligibility; meaning, run the table in Detroit and it’s off to the Big Dance.
SCOUT’S TAKE: “They have some really outstanding freshmen. Carson Williams is really good. He was Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky last year. Drew McDonald is one of the top big men in the league, maybe even the best. He has such great footwork. Lavone Holland II is a really steady guard, and Cole Murray is a tremendous perimeter threat. They have come on in this last month and will be a very tough out in the conference tournament.”
Green Bay Phoenix (#3)
TEAM CAPSULE: Just one year ago, the Green Bay Phoenix arrived for Motor City Madness as the tournament’s fourth-seed, needing to rattle off four wins in as many days to be crowned Horizon League champions. They also had a rookie head coach in Linc Darner preparing for his first taste of post-season basketball at the Division I level. Surely an impossible task, right?
Wrong. Darner’s resilient bunch stormed their way through the bracket, earning the school its first invitation to the NCAA Tournament in 20 years.
But the inevitability of college athletics is that your top players will eventually graduate and move on. Jordan Fouse, last year’s tournament MVP, and Carrington Love, Green Bay’s Iversonian point guard, are gone. This is still a very good Phoenix roster, but there’s no disputing that quite a bit of punch is missing from last season’s championship squad.
Green Bay enters this year’s festivities as the third-seed, again taking a little bit of a backseat to more heavily-favored Valparaiso and Oakland. Sound familiar?
SCOUT’S TAKE: “They are unbelievably well-conditioned. They live and die by that RP-40 (Relentless Pressure for 40 Minutes). Highest scoring team in the league. Charles Cooper is such a weapon coming off the bench, and they have some really talented guards in Khalil Small and Warren Jones. I’ve been impressed by the production they’ve received from Kerem Kanter. He has stepped up big for them the whole year and seems to only be getting better.”
Valparaiso Crusaders (#2)
TEAM CAPSULE: Just a couple of weeks ago, you could have safely installed Horizon powerhouse Valpo as the favorite to take home the Motor City Madness title. The Crusaders were on their way to another outright league championship and star forward Alec Peters was drawing comparisons to one Larry Joe Bird. Then adversity struck. Peters went down with a leg injury, the Crusaders dropped their final game of the year to share the regular season crown, and along with it their hold on the tournament’s top overall seed. News recently broke that Peters, the Horizon League Player of the Year, will not be back for the tournament. It is a devastating blow to a team that is looking to erase memories of last year’s semi-final loss in overtime to eventual champion Green Bay.
Fortunately, there is still a good dose of firepower throughout the roster. Shane Hammink is an excellent second option and went for 48 points over two games in Peters’ absence. He’ll need to continue scoring at that high clip in order for this version of Valpo to wiggle through the bracket. Tevonn Walker is another upperclassman unafraid of the bright lights. Derrik Smits (son of 12-year NBA vet Rik) and Jaume Sorolla provide a ton of size (7’2” and 6’11”) on the interior. There are no easily identifiable holes on rookie head coach Matt Lottich’s roster.
The good news for Crusaders fans making the trek from Indiana to Detroit? Odd years on the calendar have been very kind to Valparaiso. In 2013, they won the Horizon League regular season and conference championships. In 2015, they pulled the daily double again. Will that trend repeat itself in 2017?
SCOUT’S TAKE: “Alec Peters is obviously going to be a pro. He is the class of the league. Just an incredible talent. Shane Hammink, another senior that continues to step up big for them. They’ve had to deal with a couple of injuries, but they always get guys to step up. The two freshman bigs, Smits and Sorolla, are really nice players and have been logging significant minutes for them. Tevonn Walker is one of the toughest guards in the whole league. I expect them to have a major chip on their shoulder after last year. They are coming back to win it.”
Oakland Golden Grizzlies (#1)
TEAM CAPSULE: Historically, when basketball fans think of Greg Kampe and his Oakland Golden Grizzlies, one thing naturally comes to mind: offense. Keith Benson and Reggie Hamilton racking up points by the boatload, Travis Bader launching from every part of the court, Kay Felder lighting up the scoreboard. But if you ever listen to Kampe, he’ll divert that narrative as often as he can and let you know of something else. His team plays some pretty darn good defense, too. After all, you don’t win nine games in a row (OU’s current streak) by accident.
For the year, Oakland is permitting just a shade over 70 points a game. As the 33-year veteran of the Oakland sidelines, Kampe, would say, “That’s not good defense -- it's great defense.” The Grizz are second only to Valparaiso in scoring D. As for field goal percentage allowed, Oakland is tops in the conference. Same goes for defending the 3-ball. They have more blocks and steals than anyone else, too. Not a bad list of accomplishments for a group that isn’t necessarily slowing the pace on offense, either. (#2 in scoring offense, behind GB.) Add it all up and you get the first Horizon League regular season crown for the Golden Grizzlies.
Martez Walker, free from the Felder shadow, had a fantastic year. He’s especially hot coming into Motor City Madness and has to be considered as one of the most feared offensive players in the tournament. Jalen Hayes is a double-double machine and leads the Oakland defensive charge. Combine that with the surprising contributions of Isaiah Brock -- just your average, run-of-the-mill, 6’8”, 191-pound, 22-year-old freshman shot blocking dynamo that also happens to be ex-military -- and Kampe has one of his most eclectic groups in the three-plus decades he’s been running the show in Rochester Hills. (And a conference championship ring to go with it.)
SCOUT’S TAKE: “Jalen Hayes is one of the best bigs in the Horizon League. He’s been tremendous. Martez Walker deserves to be first-team All-Conference. Coach Kampe always gets his kids to buy in. Beating Valpo twice in a year is not something many teams do in this conference. Brailen Neely is a tough young point guard from Detroit, but with this roster and the way they run their offense, it doesn’t fall solely on him. It’s more point guard by committee. It’s Sherron Dorsey-Walker, Martez Walker, Nick Daniels, even Stevie Clark is back now and giving them good minutes. It’s really the collecti