Over at Horizon League Hoops I've been posting 1200-word+ tempo-free previews for all nine Horizon League teams in reverse order according to my own data-supported rankings. I've decided to combine them all into one mega post right here.
No. 1 Valparaiso
Last season: It seemed like an impossible crusade. After posting 23 wins, a CIT berth and the most efficient defense in the Horizon League for the 2010-2011 season, Valparaiso said goodbye to their storied head coach of 22 years, Homer Drew, who had led them to seven NCAA Tournament appearances, their star two guard, Brandon Wood, who bolted for Michigan State, and two other starters.
But first-year head coach Bryce Drew, eventual Horizon League player of the year Ryan Broekhoff and his frontcourt partner, Kevin Van Wijk, ignored, met and then bulldozed expectations. Despite being picked to finish fifth in the conference preseason poll, the Crusaders won 22 games, defeated reigning NCAA Tournament runner-up Butler three times and finished with the best record in the Horizon League (14-4). Their season may have ended with a thud: A loss at home to lower-seeded Detroit in the Horizon League Tournament Championship followed by an opening-round loss to Miami (FL) in the NIT, but it was clear Valpo was in good hands.
The Crusaders ranked second among Horizon League teams in offensive efficiency (1.045 points per possession) and fifth in defensive efficiency (1.000).
This season: Drew-the-younger and almost his entire crew return to heightened expectations that they can only blame on themselves. Certainly they left a hard act to follow, but they're well stocked to do it. All five starters — two of which were named to the 2011 All-Horizon League First Team — return, and Drew brought in a talented gang of D-I transfers that are immediately eligible to contribute off the bench.
With Butler gone Valpo seems poised to capitalize.
Coach: Before he was tabbed to succeed his father at the helm, Bryce Drew was already a part of the annals of college basketball history for "the shot" which sent 13th-seeded Valparaiso past fourth-seeded Ole Miss in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament. He's since been the butt of untold thousands of sports ledes, and "the shot" even has its own Wikipedia page with the transcription of Ted Robinson's call.
Drew (22-12) spent six seasons working under his father as both an assistant and associate head coach before he was promoted before last season.
Returning minutes: 74.72% (1st) Returning possessions: 71.61% (1st) Returning scoring: 72.71% (2nd) Returning starters:
1. Ryan Broekhoff (34 games last season/34 starts last season/1.27 points per possession) - The 2012 Horizon League player of the year returns as the most efficient scorer and rebounder on an efficient team. The 6-7 senior forward from Australia can score from anywhere on the floor, beat anyone underneath and crash the glass with the most elite. Over the summer he was among the 15 finalists for a spot on Australia's 12-man Olympics roster.
Broekhoff played in 80.8 percent of available minutes last season for the Crusaders to finish among the top three among all Horizon League players in three tempo-free categories: Offensive rating (121.8, 2nd), defensive rebounding rate (24.0 percent, 2nd) and true shooting percentage (63.5 percent, 3rd). He sunk the third-leading number of three-pointers (66) among all Horizon League players and ranked fourth among Horizon League returners in my efficiency rankings.
What he lacks in size at 215 pounds, he makes up for in raw talent and fight. Broekhoff doesn't get massive usage in the frontcourt — he has a much lower possession rate than Kevin Van Wijk — because he's undervalued as a setup man and rebounder. Even so, Broekhoff + an open look = a sure thing.
2. Kevin Van Wijk (31/31/1.22) - Van Wijk brings size to the Valpo frontcourt and was also named to the 2011 All-Horizon First Team. The 240-pound native of the Netherlands received nearly a third (30.0 percent) of Valpo's possessions when he was on the floor last season (that put him at 35th in the nation) to become a highly-efficient scorer in the lane. His raw field-goal percentage (61.7 percent) led the conference.
Van Wijk is a master at getting to the stripe and attempted more free throws (201) than anybody in the Horizon last season. He's also valued for his boards on both ends and skill as a shot blocker. If he can improve on the latter, Van Wijk could be considered among the most efficient defenders in the league.
3. Will Bogan (34/32/1.21) - Bogan got his start at Ole Miss where he played in parts of three seasons but maintained two years of eligibility when he started for the Crusaders last year.
The 6-1 two guard specializes as a talented and rangey sharpshooter. Bogan downed 61 of 149 shots from behind the arc (40.9 percent) last season to lead the Crusaders in three-point shooting, and he was second only to Broekhoff in offensive rating (109.3). If he garnered a greater share of Valpo's possessions he'd get the recognition that he deserves off the court.
4. Erik Buggs (34/34/0.64) - If it seems like Buggs has been playing for the Crusaders for a long time, it's because he has. The fifth-year senior earned a medical redshirt in his sophomore season and so returns as Valpo's starting point guard.
The 5-11 Tennessee native ranked 10th among the Horizon's best in assist rate (22.5 percent), but is most efficient as Valpo's best backcourt defender.
5. Ben Boggs (24/20/0.78) - Boggs sat out the first half of last season after transferring from Virginia Tech, and he's had to sit out Valparaiso's two exhibition games due to ankle problems but is expected to play in Valpo's season opener. When he's ready I expect he'll resume his role as a starter in the three spot.
6. Matt Kenney (33/14/0.94) - Kenney, a true senior, extends the front court as a versatile two or three guard spot, and the 6-6 Indiana native has developed a knack for blocking shots that rivals that of Van Wijk. He's an efficient offensive weapon that got some time as a starter last season but is ready to contribute experience and confidence off the bench this year
1. Richie Edwards (30/1) - Edwards made the jump to the high majors in the offseason when he transferred to Arizona State. The high-usage frontcourt reserve was an efficient scorer, but I think he'll most be missed for his heart and enthusiasm on the floor.
2. Jay Harris (31/1) - Harris never really seemed to fit in at Valparaiso, and the undersized reserve point guard decided to take his talents to Wagner and first-year head coach Bashir Mason in the offseason.
1. Bobby Capobianco (6-10, 245, D-I transfer) – Capobianco sat out last season after transferring from Indiana where he received very few minutes as a sophomore. He's a sizable frontcourt force that would start on any other team in the Horizon and passed up an offer from Evansville to play for Drew.
Capobianco brings tremendous depth and talent to an already-stacked frontcourt and will play as a reserve at either the four or five spot. He led all scorers in both of Valparaiso's exhibition games already this season with an average of 20 points.
I really don't think there's anyway to overstate Capobianco's arrival at VU, and hopefully Drew will find a way to get the most out of the giant transfer.
2. Jordan Coleman (6-4, 185, JUCO transfer) - Coleman had a short career at D-I Hawaii before playing a year at Southwestern Illinois College and picking up an offer to play for Drew. He's a combo guard that played significant minutes (24 between the two) in both exhibition games and bolsters needed depth at the one and two positions.
Coleman passed on offers from St. Mary's, Northern Colorado and Pepperdine.
3. Vashil Fernandez (6-10, 240, RS sophomore) - A native of Jamaica, Fernandez reshirted last season as a freshman and brings even more size and depth to a deep Valpo frontcourt. He garnered more than 20 minutes off the bench in both exhibition games and was two points away from a double-double in one game.
Just imagine a Valpo frontcourt for next season that features Capobianco and Fernandez as starters (if Capobianco can really master the four spot). Scary.
4. LaVonte Dority (6-1, 200, D-I transfer) - Dority comes to VU from South Florida where he started in seven of nine games and shot decently from three. He'll become eligible at the semester break at which point he can add needed depth at the one spot.
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. At St. Louis (Ranked No. 25 in Ken Pomeroy's preseason rankings) on Dec. 2 - Even without their iconic coach working the trenches, the Billikens are expected to be among the mid-major elite this season. Four starters return from a team that ended a 12-year NCAA tournament drought and won 26 games last season. St. Louis was selected second in a stacked Atlantic-10 conference which now includes that one Butler team that people say things about. Joe Lunardi thinks the A-10 will even send five teams to the NCAA Tournament this season.
I like this game for the mid-major midwestern powerhouses that it includes even if the Crusaders don't have a great shot at a win. It'll be broadcast on Fox Sports Midwest.
2. At New Mexico (No. 21) on Dec. 8 - There's a desert-team pattern forming. Arizona last year, New Mexico this year for Valpo.
The Lobos return three starters to their 28-win team and are among the best that the Mountain West Conference has to offer but lose some talent in the froncourt where the Crusaders could win some battles.
3. At Murray State (No. 99) on Dec. 29 - As is usual the Racers' greatest challengers come during their nonconference slate. This year the Horizon League via Valparaiso gets to be a part of that contingent which also includes Old Dominion, Evansville and Dayton.
Isaiah Canaan is all anyone really need to know about Murray State, which is just outside the preseason top 25 polls. He'll be a tough matchup for Valpo's backcourt.
1. The league's hands down best overall froncourt. Depth, versatility, shooting, rebounding, shot-blocking — it's all there. The Crusaders have the tools to shuffle and matchup with any frontcourt in the league and create matchup problems on the other end. Green Bay's Alec Brown may be the league's best big, but even the Phoenix can't compete on this level.
2. Shooting. The Crusaders ranked 24th in the nation and first in the Horizon League last season in effective field goal percentage (53.4 percent). The most effective pieces of that sharpshooting staff all return.
3. They're hungry. "We've got the motivation of not only tasting some success, but also the ultimate failure," Broekhoff told Paul Jankowski of their season-ending losses. "We were at home in front of our fans with the nation watching on ESPN. We kind of had the all the pressure on us and it didn't work for us on that day.
1. Defense. The Crusaders will have to make some improvements on that end if they want to stake their claim as the new big team in the Horizon. It starts with creating more turnovers and opportunities in the backcourt.
2. Tough decisions. With such a deep roster at his disposal Drew will have some experimentation and potentially tough decisions to make. Van Wijk and Boggs are at risk of having their minutes taken by incomers, and hopefully they understand.
3. Thin at PG. With the departure of Jay Harris, Tommy Kurth gone forever and Lavonte Dority not available until January, the Crusaders have no pure point guard to play behind Buggs for now. Coleman, however was forced into action as a point guard at both of his previous schools and will help out. Otherwise, it's point guard by committee.
The Crusaders return more minutes, possessions and overall potential than any other team in the Horizon League, and they're class of incomers is no doubt the most talented in the league when considered as a whole. The youngest Drew has proven that he knows what he's doing and that he's committed to winning — at least for now.
Despite their loss to Detroit in the league championship last season, a lot of people are siding (the Blue Ribbon preview is also one of those) with Valparaiso as the league's top pick. My data supports it, and I cannot wait to watch.
No. 2 Green Bay
Last season: Going into last season there were a lot of questions for Green Bay. They had lost both of their most efficient starters, Bryquis Perrine and Rahmon Fletcher, a 5-10 freshman from the Chicago Public League, Keifer Sykes, was stepping in at point guard and it was youthful coach Brian Wardle's second season at the helm. They went on to lose four of their first five games as well as their first 11 road games of the season.
But with a masterful 15-point win over Valparaiso on Jan. 26 — about two-thirds of the way through their season — it seemed that Green Bay was figuring things out. They won 8 of their last 10 regular-season games of the season including their last six straight to finish 15-15 overall and tied for sixth in the Horizon League at 10-8.
Over the course of the season Green Bay ranked sixth in offensive efficiency (0.979 points per possession) and sixth in defensive efficiency (1.003 ppp).
This season: The Phoenix are well positioned to capitalize on that momentum with essentially their entire starting lineup back, eight of their 11 most efficient players back (including the loss of sophomore forward Josh Humphrey to a season-ending injury) as well as the most returning scoring among all Horizon League teams. A talented recruiting class will perfectly complement and support Wardle's returners.
Coach: Brian Wardle (29-33), a former Marquette guard, steps into his third season as Green Bay's head coach. When he was hired in 2010 the 33-year-old coach was the youngest head coach in Division-I basketball. He's making Green Bay figure high into the decisions of Wisconsin's best high school basketball recruits.
Returning minutes: 68.97% (2nd) Returning possessions: 69.89% (2nd) Returning scoring: 73.44% (1st) Starters returning: 4.5 (depending on how you count 20-game starter Steve Baker)
1. Alec Brown (30 games last season/29 starts last season/1.08 points per possession) - In his junior season, Brown's accolades are starting to pile up. Already the 7-1 big man was selected to the Horizon League's All-Newcomer team as a freshman, and he was chosen to the first team last season as a sophomore in a season in which he broke the single-game (11), single-season (89) and careers blocks (134) records at Green Bay.
Although he's still a bit undersized for his position at 225 pounds, Brown is drawing the eyes of NBA scouts, according to Rob Demovsky, who might want him as a defensive and perimeter specialist.
Brown led the Phoenix in minutes (77.8 percent), shot percentage (26.5 percent) and possession rate (24.9 percent) last season. He's the centerpiece of any offense thats tough to matchup with, and he's the league's top returning offensive rebounder (11.5 percent). Teams will also find it very difficult to score on Brown in the paint, but that's nothing new.
2. Keifer Sykes (30/28/0.99) - You could make a tenable case that Keifer Sykes, in his first season even, was better than the departed senior that he replaced. Sykes, a 5-10 product of the Chicago Public League's Marshall High School, took complete ownership of his role, embraced a style of play that perfectly suited the pieces around him and was rewarded with recognition as a member of the league's all-newcomer team.
Sykes dished assists at a rate (27.0 percent) that ranked fourth among all Horizon League players last season and was an improvement over his predecessor, Rahmon Fletcher's 22.9 percent assist rate. He also had a respectable 1.5 assist to turnover ratio. Sykes may be young — he's still only 18 — but he's earned the trust of his team and his coach.
3. Brennan Cougill (30/21/1.03) - Cougill came to the Phoenix last season as a JUCO transfer but ended up getting some starting nods, especially after then-sophomore Daniel Turner went down with a season-ending ACL injury.
The 6-9 junior turned out to be just what Green Bay's frontcourt needed. Cougill grabbed defensive boards at a rate (22.9 percent) that ranked third among all Horizon League players last season. He also supplemented Brown's shot-blocking and proved a decent (39.7 percent) weapon from long range. He is the team's only senior.
4. Kam Cerroni (30/19/1.40) - Defenses should fear Cerroni more than they do Sykes, Brown or Cougill. He's an undervalued but hugely efficient motor behind the Phoenix's scoring. In fact, Cerroni, who led the Horizon League in three-point percentage (46.5 percent), ranked eighth in the nation in true shooting percentage (66.5 percent) and was third in the Horizon in offensive rating (120.5). He was No. 1 in my returning player scoring efficiency rankings.
So what kept Cerroni off the radar last season? Possession rate. The 6-2 shooting guard ranked 10th in possession rate among Green Bay's top 11 possessors last season. When Cerroni was on the floor last season, possessions ended with him only 14.2 percent of the time, compared with 24.9 percent for Brown. Get the ball in his hands more.
5. Daniel Turner (14/9/0.70) - Turner made nine starts before an ACL injury sidelined him on Dec. 31. The 6-6 junior brings depth and experience to the front court that could use it. Once he's fully recovered from his injury (he was only just cleared to play), Turner might challenge freshman Jordan Fouse for the starting SG job that probably is his to lose.
1. Steve Baker (30/20) - Baker never really was a full-time starter in two seasons in Wardle's backcourt. He got slightly more minutes (61.8 percent) than Cerroni (60.7 percent) last season, but wasn't nearly as great a shooter or an efficient scorer.
Baker's greatest contributions were in the form of his steal rate (2.3 percent), which led the team. Fouse, Cerroni and Sykes will have to make up for that. Baker now plays for a professional team in Portugal.
1. Sultan Muhammad (6-1, 194) - Muhammad is a JUCO recruit that should immediately contribute in the backfield with Baker gone. The Phoenix shot fewer three-pointers last season than any team in the Horizon League, but Muhammad is known for his high-volume long ball and could change that trend.
2. Jordan Fouse (6-7, 220) - Fouse flew under the rader as a Wisconsin native, but will play a major part in Wardle's rotation this season. He's an athletic and defensive force. In Green Bay's only exhibition Fouse started, played 28 minutes and scored seven points to go with six assists, six boards, four blocks and three steals. Quite a line.
3. Carrington Love (6-1, 171) - Also a Wisconsin native, and former AAU teammate of Fourse, Love adds greater depth to a backcourt that last season lived and died with Sykes' minutes.
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. At Wisconsin (Ranked No. 5 in Ken Pomeroy's preseason rankings) on Dec. 12 - Ken Pomeroy has conceded that his rankings overvalue Wisconsin, but even though the Badgers lost their efficiency champion to the stars in point guard Jordan Taylor, they still return four starters and were ranked No. 23 in the recent AP preseason poll.
For those reasons, this traditional game won't be an even matchup, and repeating the 2009 upset will be a real challenge for Green Bay, but the Phoenix will seriously compete in the low post. Catch this one live on the Big Ten Network.
2. Marquette (No. 32) on Dec. 19 - I see this game as a real chance at a statement upset. The Golden Eagles lost their two most efficient starters (Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, of course), and will have to really start over on offense with those centerpieces gone. Marquette was picked sixth in the Big East preseason poll; It's the closest thing Buzz Williams comes to a rebuilding season.
Since Wardle has taken over, Green Bay has posted a pair of losses against the Golden Eagles, but this season — with Sykes, Brown and Cerroni running things — the Phoenix have a chance at breaking down a wall in Wisconsin state college basketball.
Potential recruits? They'll be watching.
3. At Virginia (No. 65) on Dec. 1 - There's a cool twist behind this game. Before Sykes, the highest-scoring freshman in Green Bay history was current Virginia head coach Tony Bennett.
The Cavaliers lost three starters, and don't matchup well with the Phoenix frontcourt. Chalk this one up as a potential solid win over a high-major ACC team.
1. That frontcourt. Maybe only Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk offer more dynamic frontcourt play than Cougill and Brown combined with either Fouse or Turner. The other seven teams in the Horizon League will struggle to matchup to this frontcourt.
2. Size. At an average height of 6-5 the Phoenix are the tallest in the Horizon.
In the case of Cougill and especially Brown, that means a lot of blocked shots, and Ken Pomeroy has shown that there is a real relationship between shot-blocking efficiency and solid defense. Additionally, Jeffrey Haley determined in this excellent piece that each blocked shot is worth about 0.7 points saved, on average.
3. Depth. The lack of depth in the backcourt last season seriously hampered the Phoenix. While they essentially kept pace with the D-I average for bench minutes, they were wildly inefficient on the floor. Wardle's offseason additions solve that and also shore up the frontcourt. Wardle will have greater options, and he'll be able to rest his starters more.
1. Preventing second chances. In over a third (33.4 percent) of Green Bay's opponents' possessions last season, their opponent was able to snag an offensive rebound. That's good enough for worst in the league. Jordan Fouse and Daniel Turner are tasked with evening that out.
2. Josh Humphrey. Thanks to a knee injury suffered last season, Humphrey will be taking this season off to recover from surgery, per Rob Demovsky. Fortunately, Turner, Fouse and even Muhammad play at the spot where the 6-5 sophomore would be filling in.
3. Targets on their backs. Doubly so with Butler gone. Or maybe I just ran out of negatives.
Expectations are riding high for Green Bay. They were picked third in the preseason media poll — their highest since 2006 — and because I think the voters overrated Detroit, the Phoenix get No. 2 in my rankings. Not that Wardle cares anyway.
For years now it's been the women's program at Green Bay that has set the bar for their athletics. This season the men have a real chance at raising that bar with so many high quality pieces. Every team in the Horizon League has a great player, and a bunch have a great frontcourt or a great backcourt. Well, Green Bay has all of those, and they have high-quality depth. There are dangerously efficient scorers all over the floor that are tough to defend, and defensive specialists rule the roster.
The Phoenix are doing big things. Watch.
No. 3 Youngstown State
Last season: Youngstown State shook off the cobwebs after years toiling in the Horizon League's cellar with their most wins in over 10 seasons. Their 64-61 upset over league-favorite Detroit in December made a lot of people start paying attention, despite an obvious lack of depth in both their front and backcourt. That set the pace for a streaky but energizing 16-15 year.
YSU ended up with a 10-8 conference record that included two wins over Green Bay, a win over eventual regular season champ Valparaiso and a tie for sixth place in the league standings. It was their winningest conference season since joining the Horizon League.
The Penguins ranked third in offensive efficiency (1.037 points scored per possession) among Horizon League teams last season, and eighth in defensive efficiency (1.013).
This season: The Penguins want to keep that momentum, and they will have a lot working in their favor. Their three most efficient starters, including last season's All-Horizon League first team selection Kendrick Perry, return. Further, as Slocum assured reporters at the Horizon League media day, YSU's newcomers will provide immediate big-play talent that will fill the gaps left by two departing starters — and then some.
Perry, and the other returning starters, Damian Eargle and Blake Allen, all worked on their game in the offseason by playing in the Pittsburgh Pro-Am club league.
Coach: Jerry Slocum (74-136), now in his seventh season at the YSU helm, is tied with Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter for the longest active Horizon League head coaching tenure. Last season was his only winning season, and it might have saved his job. At least one writer listed Slocum as on the hot seat.
Slocum has been an unusually outspoken supporter of his team this offseason.
Returning minutes: 64.72% (3rd) Returning possessions: 65.56% (4th) Returning scoring: 67.06% (3rd) Returning starters: 3
1. Kendrick Perry (31 games last season/31 starts last season/1.18 points per possession last season) - Perry, who was selected to the All-League First Team by media both after last season and before this season, returns as YSU's most efficient player and his third season starting at shooting guard. He'll compete with Detroit's Ray McCallum Jr. as the best guard in a guard-driven league.
How? Just look at his tempo-free metrics. Perry's top-ranked assist to turnover ratio (1.9), second-ranked steal rate (4.21 percent), fifth-ranked assist rate (25.9 percent), sixth-ranked turnover rate (14.4 percent), fourth-ranked fouls committed per 40 minutes (2.1) and fifth-ranked offensive rating (114.4) among all Horizon League players last season all rank better than McCallum Jr.
Despite being the youngest starter on the floor for the Penguins last season, Perry played more minutes (86.3 percent), got more possessions when he was on the floor (25.3 percent) and took more shots when he was on the floor (24.6 percent) than any of his teammates.
One other thing: Lights out shooting. Perry shot 57.2 percent from inside the arc, and 35.5 percent from outside the arc last season.
With some team success under his belt, people might finally start giving Perry the attention he deserves. He should easily by in the conversation for the Horizon League's best guard.
2. Blake Allen (31/31/1.21) - Whereas Perry is an efficient scorer, setup man and defender, Allen specializes as an even more effective scorer. In fact, he's the second-most efficient scorer among returning Horizon League guards with 1.21 points per possession, and he's a cartoonishly good shot.
The starting point guard launched more three-pointers (212) last season than any player in the Horizon League and knocked them down at a 42.9 percent clip that ranked second. Three-pointers accounted for 68.7 percent of Allen's points last season, a number that topped the Horizon and ranked 23rd in the nation.
This is his third season as a full-time starter for the 6-1 Florida native.
3. Damian Eargle (31/31/0.96) - What Eargle lacks in size, he makes up for in raw defensive talent. The undersized 6-7 post player returns as YSU's efficient frontcourt leader for his third season as a full-time starter and was selected to the All-Horizon Preseason Second Team.
Only two players have blocked shots at a higher rate than Eargle since Ken Pomeroy started keeping track in 2005 (they're Scott VanderMeer and LaMarcus Lowe if you're curious), and he led the league last season with a shot blocked in 12.81 percent of his chances. The number two and three players on that list from last season are 6-11 and 7-1 respectively.
Eargle also returns as the Penguins board-crashing leader on both ends, and he's undervalued for his efficiency in the offensive low post.
1. Ashen Ward (31/31) - Ward started the last two seasons in Slocum's frontcourt, and developed into a pretty efficient piece of the offense. However, the 6-3 wing/small forward wasn't a lights-out shooter or a high-percentage rebounder so he won't be difficult to replace.
2. DuShawn Brooks (31/31) - Last season Brooks stepped in to take over for the departed Vytas Sulskis, but didn't really even compare to one of the best frontcourt pieces YSU has seen over the last few seasons. You can't fault Brooks for much, but he lived in the shadow of Eargle on the boards and in the paint. Still, Brooks' 42 percent 3-pt. percentage will be missed.
3. Nate Perry (25/0) - The sophomore guard played behind Perry and didn't get many minutes. Perry's shooting stroke wasn't looked highly upon, and he took his talents to D-II Seton Hill in the offseason.
1. Ronnye Beamon (6-4, 195, freshman) - It's a sign of how much noise Slocum's team is starting to make that Beamon passed over offers from Valparaiso, Cleveland State, Lehigh, Evansville, Indiana State and a few others when he chose YSU.
Beamon 's solid shooting stroke from an anywhere on the floor should mean he'll be a versatile wing or two-guard. He'll get significant minutes as a freshman even if he doesn't start in Ward's vacated spot. I'm guessing that figured highly into his commitment.
2. Kamren Belin (6-7, 225, junior) - A JUCO transfer from Crowley College in Kansas, Belin passed on offers from UMKC, North Dakota and Sam Houston State. Belin — in the image of Eargle — plays bigger than his frame. He was recruited as a shot blocker and board crasher that even boasts an above average perimeter shooting stroke.
Belin and Bobby Hain should battle for the hole where DuShawn Brooks was in the starting lineup along with junior Josh Chojnacki and sophomore Fletcher Larson.
3. Bobby Hain (6-10, 235, freshman) - Hain come to YSU from Florida, and Slocum has said he has "unlimited potential." He's athletic, agile, and will be needed for some big minutes in his freshman year.
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. At Georgia (81st in Pomeroy's preseason rankings) on Nov. 12 - This game is part of the Progressive Legends Classic and will be broadcast live on ESPNU and ESPN3.
I can't find another instance of a Youngstown State matchup with an SEC opponent from the regular season Per a reliable source, the Penguins have only ever played two SEC games (vs. Auburn and Alabama in the early 80s) during the regular season, so this game will have some historical implications.
The Bulldogs return four starters from their 15-17 team, but have been criticized for a serious lack of depth. Maybe the 'Guins make a late run to upset the Bulldogs at home. I can dream.
2. At South Florida (76th) on Dec. 18 - The Bulls were competitive and featured top-to-bottom depth last season, but have since lost three starters. This one might come down to defense. USF had the 13th-most efficient defense in basketball last season, only allowing opponents an adjusted 0.889 points per possession.
Relevant: South Florida takes on Georgia in the SEC-Big East challenge on Nov. 30. YSU will be watching, and the transitive property of non-conference basketball is on the line.
3. At Duquesne (157th) on Nov. 21 - The Penguins have lost their last three games against Duquesne — in 2002, 2005 and 2007. This shot at revenge closes out the Progressive Legends classic, and it should be a pretty even matchup.
Duquesne lost three starters and their head coach after their 16-15 season near the middle of the A-10.
1. Depth. Finally. The Penguins ranked dead last among all Division-I teams in bench minutes last season (15.4 percent). That changes with some more experienced frontcourt bench players, and a solid recruiting class. Perry, Eargle and Allen won't have to shoulder all the load.
2. Experience. Only maybe Valparaiso returns a more experienced corpse of starters. Slocum, Perry, Eargle and Allen know the league and their opponents, what works and what doesn't, and they trust each other. YSU hasn't had that kind of experience since I don't know when.
4. Backcourt. With Cleveland State's back court dismantled, I don't think there's a backcourt anywhere in the Horizon League that stacks up to the dynamic duo of Perry and Allen. Their court vision, their perimeter shooting stroke and their defensive mentality just are unmatched.
1. Rebounding. Slocum will have to figure out the Chojnacki-Larson-Hain-Eargle-Belin rotation in a way that improves how his team rebounds. YSU finished eighth in both grabbing and defending offensive rebounds last season, but remained efficient because of solid passing and shooting. With more boards this offense comes together.
2. Scheduling. The Penguins will be traveling for six of their first eight games of the season, and only have two non-conference games at home against Division-I competition. That would be okay if the schedule was filled with high-major statement games, but it's not.
YSU needs these wins over middling teams like James Madison, George Washington, Duquesne, North Dakota State and Bowling Green to remain respected around the league coming into conference play, but they won't come as easily on the road.
3. Target. Where the Penguins were normally seen by league and non-conference foes as a team not worth preparing for, success has made YSU a target. Their opponents will be prepared, and it's going to make things tougher on the 'Guins.
I know, it sounds crazy: Youngstown State at No. 3. People thought the same thing when preseason voters chose them at an all-time best No. 4, and that bias may well have some real value. The Penguins have been languishing in the cellars of the Horizon League for years, so why this team? Why now? What's changed?
Is it that Slocum is feeling some pressure to perform? Is is that team chemistry just has come along at a fortunate pace that has Eargle, Perry and Blake all peaking at once? Is it that their marginal success last season earned them an edge with recruits that want to help? It's likely some combination of those.
Whatever the reason, YSU's underdog storyline is hard not to get swept up in, but I don't think I was. They earned this.
Youngstown State's starters have a combined nine seasons of experience as full-time starters, and all three are among the most efficient in the league. Horizon League teams have real reasons to fear this underdog team that is cutting its teeth on success.
No. 4 Detroit
Last season: Although they were hampered by roster problems, especially early on, the Titans got better as the season progressed and otherwise returned most of their lineup. Their 22-win season was capped by a huge road win over top-seeded Valparaiso in the Horizon League Tournament Championship that earned Detroit an NCAA Tournament berth where they were bouced by Kansas, 65-50, in the first round.
They ranked first overall in the conference in offensive efficiency (1.071 points per possession) and sixth in defensive efficiency (1.003 ppp).
This season: Nick Minnerath, who missed all but five games last season after a season-ending ACL injury, is back along with one of the league's best point guards in Ray McCallum Jr. and two other starters. However, the departure of big role players in the low post leaves a big hole to fill.
Coach: For Ray McCallum Sr. coaching has become a family affair as his son embarks on his third season as father Ray's starting PG. The Elder McCallum (66-57) is now in his fifth season as Detroit's head coach and again has secured a strong corps of JUCO recruits to fill out his roster. He hasn't lost more than 14 games in each of the last three seasons, and I'm sure he doesn't intend on starting now.
Returning minutes: 55.38% (6th) Returning possessions: 55.75% (6th) Returning scoring: 57.34% (6th) Returning starters: 3/4 (depending on how you count Minnerath who started in five of five last season)
1. Ray McCallum Jr. (36 games last season/36 starts/1.11 points per possession) - Can you believe he's only just going to be a junior? McCallum Jr., who passed over high-major offers to play for his dad, was last season named to the All-Horizon League team, and was chosen as the Preseason Player of the Year by the media earlier this month for the second straight season.
The scoring, driving, go-to point guard played more minutes (83.9 percent), got more possessions (24.5 percent) and took more shots (419) than any other Titan last season, even though he was the youngest starter on the floor. Now, as an upperclassman who has gained all the respect of those newer to the team, his numbers can only increase.
McCallum will have the ball in his hands a lot, and that's not bad. McCallum ranked seventh in the Horizon in assist rate last season (25.3 percent) and third in assist to turnover ratio (1.8). He was also second in offensive rating (111.1) among Horizon League players that earned at least a 24-percent possession rate last season.
2. Doug Anderson (36/31/1.18) - Anderson may best be known around the league as a walking highlight reel, but the 6-6 senior is also an efficient scorer. He's much more than just a gimmick.
Anderson last season posted a higher offensive rating (114.2) than McCallum Jr. and clocked a 53.3 percent effective field goal rate with his work jamming in the lane. Teams that let Anderson sneak away with a chance to score on transition will be surely punished.
3. Nick Minnerath (5/5/0.98) - It's been a long road to Nick Minnerath's final year of eligibility. The former JUCO standout became a full-time starting journeyman in the lane alongside Eli Holman in the 2010-2011 season with offensive numbers that threatened to eclipse that of Holman, but he was sidelined just five starts into last season with a knee injury.
Minnerath returns but without Holman to lead the Titans' front court, which includes whomever McCallum Sr. tabs to fill the vacated center position.
4. Jason Calliste (36/34/1.14) - Calliste has toiled in the shadow of McCallum Jr. for two seasons now as a starter. The underrated 6-2 two-guard is entering his senior season. He led the Titans in my individual scoring efficiency rankings with 1.14 points scored per possession and showed a skill for putting himself at the stripe last season.
Calliste sunk 56 of 163 (34.3 percent) from range last season.
1. Eli Holman (26/2) - The reigning Horizon League Sixth Man of the Year missed some time last season after a team suspension, but rebounded well. He still made good on high preseason expectations by leading the league in offensive rebounding rate (15.1 percent). Holman ranked seventh in the Horizon League in block rate (6.7 percent) and fifth in defensive rebounding rate (21.4 percent).
McCallum Sr. found it hard to fill that kind of defensive void last season, and he'll have the same trouble this year with Holman's fill-in, LaMarcus Lowe, also gone. Back to the drawing board.
Holman briefly was signed to the Houston Rockets for summer league play, and he saw action in one game, but has since signed on to play professionally in Israel.
2. Chase Simon (36/36) - Simon started 102 games as a Detroit Titan, and he'll be missed as much for his doggedness on the wings as for his leadership on the floor. The Detroit native has continued his career in basketball by signing with the Aris basketball club out of Greece.
3. LaMarcus Lowe (35/35) - Lowe was Holman's stand-in last season underneath, and he more than ably handled the job. The 6-11 senior pulled down blocks at a rate only exceeded in the Horizon League by Youngstown State's Damian Eargle and played the glass hard.
Lowe has signed on with a professional team out of Rotterdam, Holland.
1. Anton Wilson - McCallum Sr. had an advantage over other recruiters when it came to getting a commitment from highly sought-after Wilson: He represented Detroit basketball. Wilson passed on offers from the likes of Iowa, Baylor, Memphis and Boston College to play near where he grew up, in Flint, Michigan.
The 6-5 guard/wing will be an offensive weapon from behind the arc. He downed eight three-pointers in a contest his senior year in North Carolina en route to a 30-point outing, and I bet he's tired of hearing about that. He'll get significant minutes as a freshman and could easily start in Chase Simon's vacated spot. In last week's exhibition win over Ryerson, Wilson drilled four of six from downtown in 18 minutes on the floor but did not start.
2. Juwan Howard Jr. - After sitting out last season, per NCAA rules, the Western Michigan transfer adds even more depth at the two and three spots on the floor. As a 6-6 reserve for the Broncos, Howard saw 56.9 percent of WMU's minutes off the bench and gained a reputation as a shot blocker and rangy but streaky shooter.
3. Jermain Lippert/Olumide Solanke/Ugochukwu Njoku - The way I see it all three of these incoming JUCO transfers will challenge for the open big man position, and all three probably will see major minutes. Solanke (6-11) and Njoku (6-10) are originally from Nigeria, and Lippert (6-8) hails from Germany originally.
In Detroit's preseason exhibition against Ryerson last week Njoku got the start and played six minutes, Solanke saw three minutes off the bench and Lippert garnered 10 minutes of floor time off of the bench. They scored a total of three points, had no blocks and grabbed a combined eight boards. Nothing crazy.
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. At St. John's on Nov. 13 - The world will be watching on ESPN as the Titans try for back-to-back wins over Steve Lavin's Red Storm. St. John's returns only five contributors total to their 13-win team from last season and will be challenged to put together anything resembling a solid season in the Big East. A win here is a confidence builder and a publicity and recruiting tool.
2. At Syracuse on Dec. 17 - Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Fab Melo might not be back, but the Orange are still going to be among the Big East's best in their final season representing the conference (they're joining the ACC). Syracuse was ranked ninth in both the AP and ESPN preseason polls released last week.
This game is part of the Gotham Classic and will be televised on ESPNU. Hey, exposure is exposure, right?
3. At Pittsburgh on Dec. 1 - Jamie Dixon has added lots of talented depth to his team that doesn't plan on missing out on the NCAA Tournament this season. They too are leaving the Big East after this season for the ACC, and Detroit has the chance to spoil the show.
This game will be broadcast on ESPN3.
1. The backcourt. McCallum and Calliste are embarking on their third season together in the Detroit backcourt, and they're well supported by a bench that includes scrappy 5-8 sophomore guard P.J. Boutte and highly-recruited freshman two-guard Gabriel Dos Santos. Wilson and Howard also will help out in the backcourt.
Over the past several seasons the Titans, led by an athletic backcourt have led the league in up-tempo play, which peaked in the 2010-2011 season with an average of 71.1 possessions per game. That's super fast basketball, and they should be well equipped to return to such figures this season.
2. Free throw rate. Getting to the free throw line is important, more important even than free throw shooting, and Detroit's leaders in that metric — McCallum Jr., Calliste, Lowe and Anderson — are well represented on this season's roster. Only Lowe is missing.
3. Upperclassmen. They make up over half of the roster, and their leadership will be key. Other Horizon League teams wish they were so lucky this season.
1. Lots of rebounding to replace. Part of what made the Titans so efficient on the offensive end last season involved crashing the offensive glass hard. They were the best in the Horizon in offensive rebounding rate with an offensive board in 37.1 percent of their chances, but two of their most efficient in that category — Holman and Lowe have departed. Someone has to step up.
2. The big man job. Based on their one exhibition game so far, McCallum Sr. hasn't yet decided who will take over the vacated spot. For now a committee of newcomers is doing the Lord's work in the low post. No one has shown the talent that Holman and Lowe did.
3. Tough non-conference schedule. Not only are St. John's, Syracuse and Pittsburgh on there, but Miami, which earned preseason top 25 votes in both polls, Temple, Akron and Drake also made the list. Those are seven potential losses and seven potential reasons Detroit's confidence may not be riding too high come conference play.
Like Milwaukee, my data didn't support ranking Detroit as has as the Horizon League's media voters had in the preseason poll, which tabbed them second.
This team will have a totally new identity with Holman, Simon, and Lowe gone. Afterall, they ranked sixth among all Horizon League teams in terms of returning minutes, possessions and scoring. McCallum Jr. and Minnerath make for great centerpieces, but this is not the same team that challenged Valparaiso last season.
Still, Detroit has lots of talented pieces and good depth in many spots that will keep them firmly in the league's upper half.
No. 5 Cleveland State
Last season: D'Aundray Brown stepped in for the NBA-departed Norris Cole, and everybody else returned from the 27-win team to push the Vikings to a 22-11 record, an NIT bid and a second-place finish in the Horizon League regular season standings.
The Vikes ranked fourth in offensive efficiency (1.027 points per possession) and second in defensive efficiency (0.935 ppp) last season.
This season: Almost nobody returns. Tim Kamczyz — the sole returning starter — will have to lead a young team that is highlighted by All-Horizon League Preseason Second-Team selection Anton Grady and sophomore point guard Charlie Lee.
Coach: Gary Waters (122-82 at CSU) has only had two losing seasons in his six-year tenure at CSU. Two winning season separated those seasons, and two winning seasons separate the last losing season from this season. Waters faces an uphill battle to break that pattern, but he's done well as far as recruiting goes.
Returning minutes: 46.21% (9th) Returning possessions: 41.52% (9th) Returning scoring: 41.07% (9th) Returning starters: 1
1. Tim Kamczyz (33 games played last season/33 games started last season/1.30 points per possession last season) - After two seasons as a full-time starter in CSU's frontcourt, Kamczyc will most be counted on for leadership as the only senior on this team.
But teams that overlook his scoring ability will not do themselves a favor. Kamczyc scored 1.3 points per possession when CSU possessions ended in his hands last season, second only to Green Bay's Kam Cerroni. The fact that he scored 9.1 points per game last season is misleading. Kamczyc only earned 14.3 percent of the Vikings' possessions when he was on the floor, but used them exceptionally efficiently to become the overall Horizon League leader in offensive rating (125.9).
Waters has said that Kamczyc will have an expanded scoring role this season, and it should pay dividends.
2. Anton Grady (33/3/1.10) - Grady is fun to watch, and it shows in the press. He was selected to the All-Horizon Newcomer Team at the end of last season as a freshman, and made the All-League Second Team before this season.
Some questioned how Grady would handle the transition at the beginning of last season until they saw him play. By March he was leading the Vikings and the League in defensive rebounding rate (26.3 percent) and led his team in block rate (8.0 percent). He's also an exceptionally adept driving scorer that downed 55.0 percent of his attempts from inside the arc. The 6-8 Cleveland native is a lock to start as a sophomore.
3. Charlie Lee (33/3/0.70) - Despite being a true freshman and a reserve for most of the season, Lee demonstrated the most efficient passing-ability. He led the Vikings in assist rate with one in 24.1 percent of his possessions while playing in 43.9 percent of CSU's minutes.
Waters has said that the 5-9 sophomore will start at point guard.
4. Sebastian Douglas (15/0/0.86) - Douglas has been biding his team after an accident-related injury kept him sidelined as a freshman and an MCL injury limited him to 15 games last season. That after choosing the Vikings over offers from Wichita State, Texas A & M and Houston in 2010. The 6-4 guard played point in high school, but has had plenty of time to learn the two-guard spot in Waters' scheme.
Douglas posted a steal rate of 3.4 percent last season that is encouraging despite the small sample size. Only D'Audray Brown (5.3 percent) was better last season.
5. Marlin Mason (18/3/1.00) - Waters converted Mason to the three spot after the 6-6 sophomore was forced into action instead of red-shirting last season.
1. Trevon Harmon (32/32) - Harmon, an All-Horizon Second-Team selection, leaves after three years as a full-time starter in CSU's backcourt. The combo guard took more shots (25.6 percent), launched more threes (189) and played more minutes (74.7 percent) than any other Viking last season. Harmon was one third of CSU's monster backcourt last season.
2. Jeremy Montgomery (33/33) - Montgomery, another three-year full-time starters, is also another departed monster third. He was No. 1 for the Vikings in possessions (24.6 percent) last season. His value on the floor is difficult to translate into words.
3. D'Aundray Brown (26/25) - Brown missed the 2010-2011 season with an injury, and a groin injury left him on the sidelines for seven games last season but Norris Cole's replacement ended up as the nation's fourth-ranked steal-grabber with one in 5.3 percent of his opportunities.
Brown yesterday was cut from the Cleveland Cavaliers after he was signed to a contract last Thursday.
Together Brown, Montgomery and Brown accounted for 48.0 percent of CSU's scoring last season and 50.3 percent of shots.
4. Aaron Pogue (32/32) - Pogue too spent three seasons starting for Waters. The 6-9 big provided huge inside presence that included a 10.9 percent offensive rebounding rate and a 4.0 percent block rate.
1. Junior Lomomba - Lomomba is easily Waters' big-name recruit for this season. The 6-5 forward had outstanding offers from Cincinnati, Baylor, Xavier and Washington State but committed to CSU. He'll be a versatile piece of the frontcourt that should be able to guard almost anybody. He'll get major minutes as a reserve this season.
2. Aaron Scales - Scales had originally committed to Missouri but instead attended the American Basketball Institute before arriving at Cleveland State. He adds more size and depth to a solid frontcourt.
3. Bryn Forbes - Forbes was likely scouted for his rangy potential. The shooting guard from Michigan was ranked by ESPN as the No. 12 player in the state before Waters nabbed him. The 6-3 freshman adds backcourt depth.
Projected starting five: Charlie Lee (PG), Sebastian Douglas (SG), Marlin Mason (SF), Tim Kamczyz (PF), Anton Grady (F/C)
1. At NC State on Dec. 8 - The Wolfpack will be among the ACC's best this season with C.J. Leslie deciding not to turn pro, three other starters back and a corpse of McDonald's All-Americans joining the mix. This matchup provides a televised look at how CSU can compete.
2. Old Dominion on Nov. 17 - In their last season as a member of the Colonial Athletic Conference (they're joining Conference USA), the Monarchs are starting over with their starters. They've been picked by several outlets to finish near the middle of the CAA, offering a solid opportunity for a young CSU team to reel in a solid mid-major win at home.
3. At Akron on Dec. 23 - The Vikes have won this intrastate matchup the last two seasons, but the Zips are the favorites to win big in the MAC this season. Akron's Zeke Marshall and Alex Abreu will make keeping bragging rights difficult for CSU.
1. Frontcourt depth. While Kamczyc is a returning starter, Grady played starter-like minutes last season as the year went on. Mason also saw some significant time, and 6-7 junior Devon Long and 6-9 junior Ludovic Ndaye also bring plenty of experience back from time spent last season on the bench. Scales also will challenge the returners for minutes.
2. Tim Kamczyc realized. Kamczyc can score with the best of them, but he previously hasn't gotten huge possessions. That should change this season, and the senior will get some deserved attention.
3. Anton Grady. His passion is almost as evident as his talent. He'll cause matchup problems for every Horizon League team.
1. Getting to the stripe. The Vikings ranked dead last in the Horizon League in both getting to the stripe and keeping opponents off the stripe last season, and the exit of Aaron Pogue changes the dynamic underneath. They need to capitalize.
2. Backcourt experience. Lee, Douglas, Forbes and Trey Lewis come in as an untested backcourt rotation with giant-sized Montgomery-Brown-Harmon shoes to fill.
3. Defense. What made CSU's backcourt so exceptional last season is that they played effective and disruptive defense. The Vikes made their opponents search for shots, garnering the lowest opponent eFG% in the league (45.8 percent) and the second-worst opponent turnover rate (23.7 percent) that meant CSU came into every game with a defensive advantage. With that backcourt gone, can the new rotation keep pace?
The Horizon League's media voters tabbed the Vikings fifth, and my numbers tend to agree. While they may rank last in the league in returning minutes, possessions and scoring, some of the Vikings' best returners actually were playing off of the bench last season because their corpse of starting seniors was just so good.
They won't be as dominant as they had been the last two seasons, but I expect solid defensive play and a competitive frontcourt to keep CSU in the upper half of the league standings.
No. 6 UIC
Last season: The Flames had major growing pains in head coach Howard Moore's second season that included his first recruiting class. The 2011-2012 team included 10 new faces and just one returning starter. They finished 8-22 with three Horizon League wins that put them in ninth place to end the season.
The team finished the year ranked eighth in offensive efficiency (0.942 points scored per possession) and last in the league in defensive efficiency (1.049 ppp).
This season: UIC's revolving door keeps spinning as Moore works to fill out his roster. This season the team welcomes eight new faces, but returns four starters that will have to fight with some quality transfers to keep their jobs. Depth is finally a thing at UIC.
Coach: Moore (15-46) has had excuses the last two seasons. He accepted his position in late August 2010, giving him a late start on his rookie season as a head coach that ended with a disappointing seven wins. Last season he was dealing with former head coach Jimmy Collins' leftover recruits and tried unsuccessfully to mold them to fit his system.
This season Moore has no excuses. The recruits are his, the starters are his, the system is his and the team is his. Another failed season will certainly put Moore on the hot seat.
Returning minutes: 64.71% (4th) Returning possessions: 69.56% (3rd) Returning scoring: 64.57% (4th) Returning starters: 4
1. Gary Talton (30 games/26 starts/0.94 points per possession last season) - After warming to the role, Talton proved himself as a scrappy, driving point guard and soon was the full-time starter last season. The senior was selected to the Horizon League All-Newcomer team last season as a JUCO transfer.
Talton is No. 1 among all Horizon League returners in assist rate. He dished an assist in 27.3 percent of his possessions last season, behind only Butler's Ron Nored and Milwaukee's Kaylon Williams. He also notched a decent 1.2 assist to turnover ratio and drilled 78 of 90 free throws.
2. Hayden Humes (30/24/1.18) - Humes played a unique role in Moore's offense last season. As a sophomore transfer from Toledo University, the 6-8 wing was a low possession player that was clutch from range. His 55.5 percent effective field goal rate led his team.
3. Daniel Barnes (30/26/1.03) - Barnes started in the traditional two-spot in Moore's system last season. The 6-2 Chicago native played more minutes than any other UIC player (he was on the floor for 78 percent of the season's minutes), and he attempted a lot (200) of three-point shots that fell at a 32.0 percent clip (fifth among HL players). In fact, 61.7 percent of Barnes' points last season came from range, a figure that ranked third in the Horizon League. He also won the Flames' recent three-point contest at the Red vs. Blue scrimmage.
4. Marc Brown (30/26/0.54) - Starting as a true freshman last season, Brown had some trying moments. He also shows some real flashes. The 6-4 guard played in the three-slot and played probably his best game in the post where he showed off his basketball IQ to get to the stripe at a decently high rate.
1. Darrin Williams (30/27) - The Flames' towering 6-9 center was one of the few remaining holdovers from Jimmy Collins' final recruiting class. UIC needed his board-grabbing frame last season, but could have done without all the fouls called against him. Senior transfer Josh Crittle is a no-brainer to take over the open role.
2. Paris Carter (30/8) - Carter, another holdout from the Collins era, was tough for the Flames in the post last season, but he's replaceable.
1. Josh Crittle - When the University of Central Florida was hit with a postseason ban from the NCAA for violations following last season, Crittle (6-9) made the choice to return home and was granted immediate eligibility to play for the Flames. He's a true center that started 25 games for the Knights last season alongside Marcus Jordan.
If Crittle can keep his fouls under control — he averaged seven fouls per 40 minutes last season — he should be a force on the boards.
2. Joey Miller - Miller (6-3) is a versatile combo guard that can play the one, two or even three spot and could cause some defensive mismatches. He started 24 games last season at Eastern Illinois where he played for his father, Mike Miller, before the elder Miller was relieved of his duties at the end of the season.
Joey set the single-game scoring record for an EIU freshman with a 28-point showing against Tennessee-Martin last season. He brings depth and versatility to the UIC backcourt.
3. Matt Gorski - A former three-star recruit out of high school and the nation's 26th-ranked center, Gorski (7-0) committed to UIC out of prep school after drawing interest from Hofstra and UAB. Considering Crittle averaged under 18 minutes per game last season at UCF, Gorski and sophomore Will Simonton could see plenty of minutes off the bench this season.
Projected starting five: Gary Talton (PG), Daniel Barnes (SG), Marc Brown (G/SF) Hayden Humes (PF), Josh Crittle (C)
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. Colorado State, Dec. 8 - The Rams are one of the top teams in a stacked Mountain West Conference. After appearing in the NCAA tournament last season, CSU returns five of their top six scorers, four starters and All-MWC guard Wes Eikmeier.
2. At Northwestern, Dec. 1 - Not since the 2005-2006 season have the Flames traveled to Evanston to face their Big Ten rival in Chicago. This will be a big battle in the front court as both teams bring a lot of size to the table.
3. UC-Riverside, Nov. 11 - First of all, this is an intriguingl mid-major matchup the likes of which is usually reserved for BracketBuster play. The Highlanders (No. 284) were ranked just six spots higher than UIC (290) in Ken Pomeroy's season-ending team rankings and return just one starter.
Secondly, Miller's father, the former head coach at Eastern Illinois, is now an assistant coach at UC-Riverside. Joey will be playing against and not for his father for the first time. I bet that's how this one got on the schedule.
1. Overall depth. The Flames ranked 307th in the nation last season in bench minutes. Barnes (78 percent), Humes (76.4) and Talton (76.1) all were ranked among the top 500 minute-earners in the nation. This year they'll have the confidence and support of a bench that isn't mostly composed of freshman or first-year players. Miller, Simonton, Gorski, sophomore guard Jay parker and freshman Jake Wiegand bring lots of depth.
2. Talton's development. Not since Spencer Stewart have the Flames had a pure point guard running the show that can dish assists with the league's best PGs.
3. Pressure. Moore's seat is getting warm, and his players must feel the pressure to perform. Afterall, with this recruiting class, this Flames team is 100 percent Moore-fashioned. The swing offense better be second nature at this point.
1. Shooting. UIC was 10th and seventh respectively in 2-point and 3-point shooting last season in the Horizon League.
2. Tempo. Not since Ken Pomeroy started keeping track — back in 2002 — have the Flames played as slowly as they did last season. Averaging 64.9 possessions per game can have its advantages, but moreso it shows a lack of offensive direction and opponents will have no problem keeping pace. The average pace for D-I teams last season was 66.1 ppg.
3. Turnovers/Turnover creation. UIC ranked dead last in creating turnovers last season, and was seventh in giving up TOs. Most of the worst offenders are gone, but Talton could tighten his game a little.
It's showtime at the Pavilion.
With so many minutes, possessions and scoring back, and with so many pieces coming in to fill in the gaps, and with so many tough roster cuts made, I had no problem ranking the Flames at No. 6. The ingredients are there, now it's in the Moore's hands to fine tune the recipe and squeeze the most out of this solid squad.
No. 7 Milwaukee
Last season: Milwaukee had its second 20-win season in three years and accepted an invitation to the CBI tournament where they were bounced by TCU in the first round. The Panthers were one of three teams tied for third in the Horizon League standings last season with their 11-7 record.
The Panthers ranked fifth in offensive efficiency (0.983 points scored per possession) and third in defensive efficiency (.958 ppp).
Coach: The 2011 Horizon League Coach of the year, Rob Jeter (121-103), returns for his eighth season at the Panthers' helm. He reportedly interviewed for coaching positions at Penn State, Bradley and Nebraska in the offseason but chose to stay with his team.
Returning minutes: 52.27% (7th) Returning possessions: 44.91% (8th) Returning scoring: 49.66% (7th) Returning starters: 3
1. James Haarsma (33 games/33 starts/1.27 points per possession) - One of two returning starting seniors, 6-7 Haarsma runs Milwaukee's front court with scary efficiency. He ranked third among all Horizon League returners in scoring efficiency (1.27 ppp), and his offensive rating last season (111.6) ranked ninth among all conference players.
Why? Haarsma doesn't miss much, either when he drives or when he shoots. He downed 56.8 percent of his shots from inside the arc last season and 42.5 percent from outside. But even misses sometimes wouldn't stop him. Haarsma pulled down 10.9 percent of offensive boards to lead the Panthers.
He's versatile, efficient and relentless, and he should be considered among the league's top forwards.
2. Paris Gulley (34/29/1.11) - Even though he started at shooting guard for most of last season, after starter Ja'Rob McCallum went down, Gulley thrived in the shadow of senior point guard and assists-extraordinaire Kaylon Williams, and so he didn't get much attention. This season the 6-2 senior is the deserved leader in the Panthers' back court.
Gulley ranks fourth among all returning Horizon League players in turnover rate with a TO in just 14.3 percent of his possessions. And although some might think that Tony Meier was the Panthers' greatest threat from three last season, Gulley was. He downed 59 of 148 tries (39.9 percent) to lead the team.
3. Kyle Kelm (32/20/1.09) - Kelm is the third returning starter. The 6-9 junior big man missed a couple of outings last season with a shoulder injury but developed well in the low-post. He's an asset on the defensive end that will have to pick up his block rate (2.3 percent) to make up for the departed Ryan Allen.
4. Ryan Haggerty (32/0/0.95) - Haggerty was a reserve as a junior that filled in for Tony Meier and James Haarsma off the bench. When on the floor, Haggerty received less possessions (10.6 percent) than any other Panther. Despite averaging more than 10 minutes per game over the course of the season, the 6-8 forward took just 47 shots. He'll have an expanded role this season.
1. Kaylon Williams (33/31) - Williams broke every assists record in place at Milwaukee as their starting point guard for the past two seasons, and he was named to the League's Second Team at the conclusion of last season. His 2011-2012 assist rate (43.8 percent) ranked fifth nationally, just behind Iona's Scott Machado.
Big shoes to fill.
2. Ryan Allen (34/34) - Milwaukee's other departed starter, Allen was named to the All-Horizon defensive team last season for his shot-blocking ability and presence. He's playing on the Chicago Bulls' training camp roster in the preseason.
3. Tony Meier (28/15) - Meier played the part of go-to wing when either the shot-clock was dwindling or the team needed some quick offensive possessions to make up ground. He turned nasty looks into decent shots as a true professional. Meier led the team in effective field goal percentage (59.8 percent) and attempted far more threes (167) than twos (57). Another tough role to fill.
4. Ja'Rob McCallum (6/6) - McCallum, the nephew of Detroit head coach Ray McCallum, started the first six games of last season before a wrist injury ended his campaign. He transferred to IUPUI, securing Gulley's continued starting role.
1. Jordan Aaron - Jeter told reporters at the Horizon League media day that Aaron is a candidate to take over the starting point guard job in Williams' absence, noting that the 5-10 New York native is speedier than his predecessor. Aaron is a JUCO transfer that chose the Panthers over Wichita State, Creighton, Utah State, Iona and Hofstra.
He's also miles from fitting the Williams mold. In his last junior college season, Aaron logged less than four assists per game and attempted 11.3 shots per game. That kind of scoring attitude will take some adjustment for Milwaukee's returners.
2. Thierno Niang - A native of Senegal, Niang is Jeter's other JUCO recruit on this season's roster, and he brings more depth to the backfield. Niang is also a point guard, but it sounds like Jeter wants him more for his defensive presence. "Bobo" as he's called, probably will play behind Aaron, and could compete for the starting PG role.
3. J.J. Panoske - After red-shirting last season, Panoske finally will take the floor for Milwaukee. The 6-10 big, a Wisconsin native, turned down offers from the likes of Colorado State, Evansville and Toledo to play for Jeter. He's a shot-blocker first with the potential to develop into a solid offensive low-post, and I imagine he'll get significant minutes playing behind Kelm this season.
Projected starting five: Aaron, Gulley, Kelm, Haarsma, Haggerty
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. Davidson on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. - People can't wait to see what Southern Conference powerhouse Davidson is going to do this season with most of its lineup, including DeMon Brooks and Jake Cohen, returning. Their road to another NCAA Tournament berth runs through Milwaukee. This will be a magical mid-major game that is required Horizon League viewing.
2. At Wisconsin on Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. - The Panthers came close in 2006 in this annual showdown. It'll be broadcast on the Big Ten Network this year.
3. At South Carolina on Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. - The Gamecocks are young and middling in the SEC. This is a chance at a win over a BCS team for the Panthers, and it'll be on TV.
1. The Klotsche Center. The renovated on-campus arena will be the home for the Panthers this season, and it's the smallest in the conference. A waiver had to be granted from the Horizon League before the team could play in the 3,400-seat facility since the league normally enforces a 5,000-seat minimum.
The Milwaukee student section had been a boisterous sixth-man now for some time at the almost 11,000-seat U.S. Cellular Arena. The cramped quarters of the Klotsche Center will only intensify the effect for visiting players and fans. Intimidating? Absolutely.
2. Front court size. The addition of Panoske and the health and senior-status of 6-9 Christian Wolf and 6-8 Ryan Haggerty along with junior starter Kelm means the Panthers finally have a solid rotation of bigs that can compete for a full 40 minutes.
3. Haarsma. Haarsma. Haarsma. Listen. He's going to dominate this season, and with Meier gone, Jeter will want every minute he can squeze out of him. Haarsma logged the second-least amount of minutes (66.4 percent) among the starting five last season. I expect more.
1. The point guard job. With Williams gone, the identity of not only the back court but the entire Panthers offense is changed. Last season 9.32 percent of every Milwaukee possession included a Kaylon Williams assist, and 19.5 percent of their possessions otherwise ended with Williams. That doesn't look like much, mostly because there's no point of comparison for those numbers, but it's really a huge part of their offensive fingerprint.
Williams was the hub, and now he's gone. The Panthers are starting over on offense, and either Aaron or Niang will have to deal with some push-back from the returners.
2. Pressure. The Panthers have two Horizon League regular season titles under Jeter, but haven't made it past the first round in any postseason tournaments since his rookie year, back in 2006. Should we expect more from a coach who seems to have high-major aspirations?
3. Defensive voids. The Panthers lost an All-Horizon Defensive namee in Ryan Allen along with both of their top turnover-producers in the backfield in Williams and McCallum. Oh and the leader in defensive rebounding rate last season, Meier (17.4 percent), he's gone too. Changes have to be made.
I don't think a lot of people will agree with Milwaukee at No. 7. The Horizon League media didn't when they voted a few weeks back, but I think they're generally too accustomed to Milwaukee's bounce backs and years in the league's upper half. Picking teams based on how many starters they return is silly, but is often the case.
I hesitated to pick the Panthers too high. When any team has to replace 55.1 percent (over half!) of its possessions and is counting on untested JUCO recruits to take over perhaps the most important spot on the floor, the point position, both as starters and reserves, everything is a gamble. Sure, there are some really tip-top pieces on this team, but the Panthers will only be as strong as their weakest link.
Certainly one must consider, however, that Jeter has been doing this for a long time with a lot of success. He knows what's coming, and his fans believe in him.
No. 8 Loyola
Last season: After losing a trio of their most productive starters, and in the midst of a coaching change, the Ramblers staggered to the finish line last season with a 7-23 record that included just one Horizon League victory.
The Ramblers may have finished last in the season standings but they ranked ninth in both offensive (0.935 points scored per possession) and defensive (1.027 ppp) efficiency.
Coach: Porter Moser is now in his sophomore season as head coach. Already he's making his recruiting presence known in Chicago with some big gets, but he has yet to show that his team can win.
Returning minutes: 55.49% (fifth) Returning possessions: 55.91% (fifth) Returning scoring: 57.72% (fifth) Returning starters: 4
1. Ben Averkamp (28 games/27 starts/1.04 points per possession) - Big Ben is again the face for another young Ramblers team. The 6-8 senior forward logged more minutes (79.4 percent), possessions (28.3 percent) and more shots (33.4 percent) than any other Rambler last year, and was named to the All-Horizon Second Team at the end of the season.
His assist rate (22.8 percent) was also high for a front court player and increased year-to-year along with his defensive rebounding rate (19.7 percent). Thanks to an incoming refined backcourt field for this season, Averkamp should be able to focus on his inside game. Loyola needs blocks, boards and big layups from their big man to make up for the loss of Walt Gibler.
2. Jordan Hicks (20/16/0.99) - Hicks, the team's only other senior, missed 10 games with a foot injury last season that added to a growing collection of injuries over the years. His shooting stroke started to come around towards the end of last season, and his versatile 6-6 size should prove useful in Moser's liquid lineup — if he stays healthy.
3. Joe Crisman (26/25/0.91) - As a freshman starting in the two-guard spot, Crisman turned some heads last season.
He's a fun-to-watch scrappy inside-outside player that just needs to slow down and pick his looks a little better. Crisman made more attempts from range than any other Rambler last season (90), but only 26 found their mark. That's a lot of wasted possessions, especially given his low (13.6 percent) assist rate. He's had another year and some gametime in Italy with a shortened 24-second shot clock that may have helped improve his game.
4. Christian Thomas (30/14/0.94) - Thomas filled the role of poor-man's Gibler last season. He's a solid inside-the-arc shooter that coughed up too many turnovers and didn't effectively use his 6-5 size in the post.
1. Walt Gibler - Although he missed five games due to injury, Gibler still was able to add his name to Loyola's career 1,000/500 club last season. He led the team in both offensive (9.2 percent) and defensive (19.8 percent) rebounding rates last season, and his presence underneath will be difficult to replace.
Gibler now plays professionally for Germany's Leitershofen team.
2. Denzel Brito - Loyola's starting point guard transferred to a different Loyola team — the one in Maryland — for this season. It's possible that the sophomore just didn't want to have to play behind incoming transfer point guard Cully Payne, but his father told the Wareham Courier that Brito was told he would be "the 13th guy on a 12-man roster."
Either way, Brito and his sixth-ranked assist rate among Horizon League point guards are gone.
3. Chim Kadima - Kadima earned starting nods in 12 games as a fill-in last season but didn't contribute much of note. He'll be playing this season for D-II St. Leo University in Florida.
1. Cully Payne - At long last, the former starting point guard from Todd Lickliter's Iowa team makes his debut in the Windy City, of which he is a suburban native.
As a freshman Payne handed out assists at a 26 percent clip (seventh among Big Ten players that year) and was named to Sporting News' All-Big Ten Freshman Team, but Payne suffered a season-ending sports hernia just five games into his sophomore year and then transferred. He's the obvious choice to lead the Ramblers' young back court.
2. Nick Osborne - Osborne passed up Big Ten offers as well as scholarships at Miami, Ball St. and Fordham to play at Loyola after wrapping up his junior season at Muncie Central in Indiana where he averaged a double-double per game.
Osborne's 6-8 size and strength will be an asset inside. He should receive significant minutes in his freshman season, and maybe he'll vie for Thomas' starting job.
3. Jeff "KeKe" White - A native of Peoria, Illinois, White (6-1) ranked 16th in Joe Henricksen's annual list of Illinois recruits. He had offers from Bradley, Southern Illinois and Missouri State.
He'll be a solid reserver in the backfield, but should focus on shoring up his athleticism in the meantime.
4. Tanner Williams - Williams was ranked 21st on the above recruiting list. The 6-6 big comes from western Illinois, and has been praised for his athleticism and play-making ability. It's likely that he won't see any significant minutes this season though.
Projected starting five:
Payne, Crisman, Averkamp, Hicks, Osborne
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. Vs. Mississippi State on Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. - As some have noted, the Bulldogs are not going to be good this season. So, a shot at a real live SEC team at home should be welcomed. This game will even be carried on ESPNU, although not live.
2. At DePaul on Dec. 29 at 1 p.m. - The local forced rivalry continues. This really could be a good game this season though. The Blue Demons won the last two by double-digit margins.
3. At Michigan State on Dec. 8 at 1 p.m. - I wonder how much the Spartans are paying for this win. It means coverage and TV for the Ramblers.
1. Cully Payne. He could be one of the league's most dominant point guards in a conference known for solid guard play. But Moser is aware that's it's been almost two year since Payne has played a D-I opponent.
Still, Payne will be an asset for shaping young guards like Crisman and redshirt freshman Milton Doyle.
2. Italy Trip. The team traveled to Italy over the summer to get some much-needed practice time under their belts. They won three of four games against professional teams there. Early starts can't hurt.
3. Big and talented recruiting class. Moser brought in seven newcomers this year, and was only able to do so by freeing up roster spots in the offseason. Kody Williams, a JUCO point guard, joins six freshman to form Moser's first real recruiting class at Loyola.
It's clear too that Moser had size in mind with this class. Three recruits, including Osborne, are 6-8 or taller.
1. They're young. It'll be an asset down the road, but for now Loyola's two seniors — Averkamp and Hicks — will have to lead a decidedly young squad through some difficult times.
2. Shooting woes. The Ramblers were eighth in the Horizon League in shooting percentage from both inside and outside the arc last season, and Gibler, one of their best shooters, is gone. Somebody will have to step up. Fortunately Christian Thomas (57.6% eFG%) was a bright spot last season here, and Hicks can be a streaky shooter as well.
3. Uptempo? Moser said before last season started and before he lost a lot of his roster to injuries that he wanted to play uptempo basketball. The Ramblers instead averaged less than 61 possessions per game to become the slowest team in the Horizon League. Payne and some athletic recruits could make uptempo basketball a reality this season, but I'm not holding my breath.
So far Moser has done everything right in his second season. He's brought in a great recruiting class to shore up his team; he took them to Italy to get some early time together, and he has made some difficult roster decisions.
This Loyola squad, while still young, has real potential. Payne fixes up their backfield problems from a year ago — both defensively and offensively, and Osborne should be a real threat for them inside. It's also easy to forget the utility that Hicks brings if he can stay healthy. Crisman said in his blog today that Moser is focusing on defense in practice.
Things can only go wrong from here. Let's hope they don't.
No. 10 Wright State
Last season: An 18-point loss to Butler in the Horizon League tournament brought an end to the Raiders' 13-19 season in February. WSU won seven conference outings to finish 7-11 and eighth in the league.
The Raiders boasted an above-average defensive efficiency (0.972 points allowed per possession) that ranked fourth in the Horizon, but their offense couldn't take advantage. WSU ranked dead last in offensive efficiency (0.917 ppp).
Coach: Billy Donlon (32-33) embarks on his third season as head coach. His larger-than-life personality should be an energizing force for another very young Wright State team.
Returning minutes: 42.85% (10th) Returning possessions: 49.31% (7th) Returning scoring: 44.43% (8th) Returning starters: 2
1. Julius Mays - The Raiders will have to fight to escape from the narrative surrounding Mays' offseason exit.
The 2012 Horizon League newcomer of the year, WSU's dominant scoring threat in the backfield and their would-be top returning scorer chose to abandon his team for greener pastures in the offseason. Donlon, never at a loss of words, questioned Mays' loyalty after the grad student decided to spend his final year of eligibility playing for John Calipari at Kentucky.
The absence of Mays' rangy shooting stroke (42.4 percent from three), knack for sending assists inside and high possession rate (23.7 percent) will be a tough two-guard slot to fill.
2. Armond Battle - Battle graduated and apparently decided against returning for his final season of eligibility. He played in just over half of WSU's available minutes last season, but provided defensive presence off the bench.
3. Vance Hall - Hall started in 17 games as a sophomore, and did a lot with his very low 11.7 percent possession rate. Players like him really show the value of tempo-free stats. While Hall may only have scored 4.5 points per game as a sophomore, his offensive rating (111.2) ranked 10th in the Horizon League, and he scored 1.21 points per player possession last season — a number that would have pegged him ninth among the league's top returning efficient scorers.
Hall will be playing alongside former Raiders red-shirt Alex Pritchett at D-II Bellarmine University this season.
1. Reggie Arceneaux - One of the Horizon's shortest players, 5-9 Arceneaux is one of two returning starting sophomore point guards (along with Green Bay's Keifer Sykes). He's poised to build on a solid rookie campaign.
Although his 0.8 assist to turnover ratio has much to be desired, he has Gary Talton-like skill for driving to the post. With Mays gone, Arceneaux's three-point percentage (34.7 percent) could be troublesome.
2. Cole Darling - WSU's lone frontcourt returning starter will certainly take on a larger role for his junior season. The 6-8 forward was among the Raiders' top possessors last season (21.6 percent) while maintaining a low 16.4 percent turnover rate. He'll be depended on for more of a scoring presence this season.
3. Matt Vest - Various injuries kept the 6-5 guard sidelined off-and-on last season allowing him just six starts. The junior should be a candidate to fill Mays' shoes.
4. A.J. Pacher - Pacher could be Donlon's diamond in the rough. The 6-10 big man may finally be ready for prime time after struggling to stay on the court with foul issues the last two seasons and with injuries last season.
Pacher posted solid offensive (11.8 percent) and defensive (19.7 percent) rebounding rates as a sophomore, and earned more possessions when he was on the floor (27.3 percent) than any other Raiders player. What's more, the Raiders' bigs coach, Clayton Bates, has moved on. Maybe Donlon is pushing for an increased role for his bigs this season.
Regardless, with more minutes, better feeds and less possessions wasted on three-pointers, Pacher could be WSU's impact player this season.
1. Jerran Young - A Texas native, Young ranked 93rd in Brad Winton's 2012 JUCO recruiting rankings and was previously committed to Doc Sadler and Nebraska. The 6-6 forward was once a high jumper and could be doing a lot of dunking this season. I think he'll battle with sophomore Tavares Sledge for the open frontcourt starting job.
2. Bobo Drummond - Drummond was formerly committed to Southern Illinois before their coaching change, but was pleased to get the chance to play alongside fellow Wright State recruit and friend Jacoby Roddy (who will miss some time after having knee surgery). Both grew up in Peoria, Illinois.
The 5-10 pure point guard could play behind Arceneaux this season. He was rated as a three-star recruit by Scout and was reportedly watched by Illinois, Cincinnati and Xavier.
3. Miles Dixon - A former starter at Houston Baptist University, Dixon had been playing at Blinn Community College after a broken foot ended his time at HBU. The 6-1 guard apparently is back to full health and ready to help out in the backcourt.
Projected starting five:
Areceneaux, Darling, Vest, Pacher, Young
Marquee matchups (full schedule here):
1. At Cincinnati, Dec. 22 - Televised and everything (in Ohio anyway).
2. At Idaho, Nov. 9 - This game was an overtime winner for the Raiders last season.
3. Miami (Ohio), Dec. 19 - A decent rivalry game. The Raiders won by two, 51-49, last season.
1. Scheduling. The Raiders' non-conference schedule may be road-heavy (5 of their opening 6 games aren't even in the state of Ohio), but it's packed with some very winnable matchups. For a team still in its youth, confidence and cohesiveness will be key, and the schedule will help.
Eastern Illinois, North Carolina AT&T, Morehead State and the Virginia Military Institute should ensure the Raiders at least a couple wins. Wright State didn't get greedy, and that's great.
2. Frontcourt. Pacher, Darling and Young bring a wealth of talent, size and experience to the Raiders' frontcourt. They should seriously cause teams problems.
3. Donlon. The guy has an unwavering passion for everything Wright State and Horizon League basketball. He showed it to the reporters at the Horizon League media day, and I have to imagine it has a huge impression on his young players. Who wouldn't want to win games for a hardluck guy like Donlon?
1. They're really young — again. After losing four starters before last season and three this time, Wright State repeats as the nation's sixth-youngest team. There are no seniors on the roster anywhere and six juniors. Depth has to seriously be a concern.
2. Mays is gone. And his numbers will be hard to replicate, especially for a team that has struggled offensively.
3. Steals leaders also are gone. Wright State was the fourth-best team in the nation at forcing turnovers last season. Opponents coughed the ball up in over a quarter of their possessions. The problem is, all three of the Raiders' steals leaders (Mays, Battle and John Balwigaire) are gone.
Donlon's been through a lot in his short career. Back-to-back super young teams make it seem like the program isn't maturing, and injuries, transfers and early exits have again put the young coach in the same situation.
The Raiders may not compete for the top half of the league, but if Donlon can instill in his players a sense of tradition, loyalty and respect for what he's trying to build, he could end up with a battle-tested and seriously competitive for the start of the 2013-2014 season.