By Paul Oren
Oakland and Valparaiso once again top seeds at Motor City Madness
The more things change, the more they stay the same in regards to the upcoming 2017 Little Caesars Horizon League Men’s Basketball Championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Motor City Madness is back for a second straight year, albeit with a tweaked format this season, and once again Oakland and Valparaiso are sitting atop the conference. Both teams finished with identical 14-4 records in conference play, but the Grizzlies enter the weekend as the No. 1 seed by virtue of sweeping the Crusaders during the regular season.
Oakland and Valparaiso earned the top two seeds in last year’s inaugural Motor City Madness event at the Joe, but both favorites were upset in the semifinals by Wright State and eventual champion Green Bay respectively. The Grizzlies and Crusaders will come to Detroit with revenge on their minds as both teams could once again meet the Raiders and Phoenix in the semifinals.
Before the favorites get to the semifinals however, they’ll have to get past a quarterfinal opponent in a new tournament format that is designed to give the top seeds an earlier matchup before allowing the winners a day to recover while the rest of the quarterfinals unfold. By the time Oakland and Valparaiso took the court at Joe Louis Arena for the first time last season, their opponents had already had two games to get used to the new environment.
The No. 1 Grizzlies (24-7, 14-4) are led by All-Horizon League forward Jalen Hayes, Second Team honoree Martez Walker and newcomer Isaiah Brock who was named to the All-Freshman Team and All-Defensive Team. Oakland will open tournament play on Saturday evening against the winner of Friday’s nightcap between No. 8 Cleveland State (9-21, 5-13) and No. 9 Youngstown State (11-20, 5-13). The matchup will feature a battle between two of the best scorers in the league in All-Horizon League member Cameron Morse (Youngstown State) and Second Team member Rob Edwards (Cleveland State). The in-state rivals split their two games in the regular season with the home team winning on both occasions. Should the Vikings advance, they’ll enter Saturday night’s game against Oakland with full knowledge that they’ve already beat the Grizzlies in Michigan once this season and lost by just two points in their other meeting.
The biggest question mark entering Motor City Madness surrounds the No. 2 Crusaders (24-7, 14-4) and the absence of Horizon League Player of the Year Alec Peters. Thursday morning, Peters was ruled out for the remainder of the season due to a lower leg injury. Meanwhile they will await the winner of Friday’s matchup between No. 7 Detroit Mercy (8-22, 6-12) and No. 10 Milwaukee (8-23, 4-14). Both programs are led by new coaches, former Michigan assistants Bacari Alexander (Detroit Mercy) and LaVall Jordan (Milwaukee), and split their two regular season games with the road team winning both contests. Detroit Mercy fans will get to see Michigan natives Jaleel Hogan (All-Horizon Second Team) and Corey Allen (Horizon League Freshman of the Year) playing in their home state.
Sunday at Joe Louis Arena will go a long way see if the popular coachspeak phrase “it’s hard to beat a team three times in one year” actually has any merit. No. 3 Green Bay (18-12, 12-6) will look to defend its Horizon League tournament championship by opening the 2017 tournament against No. 6 UIC (14-17, 7-11). The Phoenix won both games against the Flames this season, but both contests were close in the final moments. Defense will be served in bunches in this contest as 60 percent of the Horizon League All-Defensive Team will take the court in Sunday’s men’s opener. Green Bay defensive stalwarts Kenneth Lowe and Khalil Small will match wits with UIC’s Tai Odiase, recently named the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year.
Fourth-seeded Northern Kentucky (21-10, 12-5) will look to make it three wins over No. 5 Wright State (20-11, 11-7) this season and it will do so by trying to ride the hot hand of reigning Horizon League Player of the Week and All-League First Team sophomore Drew McDonald. The Raiders will counter with their own First Team star in Mark Alstork as Wright State looks to get back to the Horizon League title game for the fourth time in five seasons.
Plenty of stars will be on display over the next five days as the Horizon League does its own part to say farewell to the historic Joe Louis Arena. Will Oakland or Valparaiso be able to recover from last season’s disappointing tournament? Will Green Bay end the tournament dancing once again? Can a team like Detroit Mercy catch fire much like the Phoenix did last year and win four straight games to return to the NCAA tournament? Whatever happens in the Motor City in the next five days, it’s bound to be Madness.