By Chris Molicki
Everyone’s looking for that mid-major sleeper who can actually pull off the upset in March. Luckily, The Brunch has the answer: Northern Kentucky. The Norse are the premier team in the Horizon League. Sure the conference is ugly at the bottom, but there are plenty of teams that have what it takes to win on any given night.
One unique thing about the Horizon League is that the schedule imbalance can get a bit extreme. Teams can play up to four or five straight road or home games. This can be grueling, but may benefit a team come March. In the NCAA tournament, schools have to play multiple games in short time frames away from home. Horizon teams can bring a special toughness to the table, and they won’t be going down without a fight.
But it all starts and ends with the Norse.
Northern Kentucky: The Norse sport three of the conference’s best players in Drew McDonald, Carson Williams, and Lavone Holland III, all of whom average at least 13 points and 4 rebounds per game. They’re very balanced, ranking in the top 100 in KenPom in both Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and they like to control the pace of the game by forcing turnovers and taking care of the ball themselves. Northern Kentucky routinely blows out teams, flexing their muscles in margin of victory, but they can’t let up–other challengers await. Their biggest test of the season comes Friday night against the next team on this list.
Wright St.: Not many expected the Raiders to be this high in the standings, but they’re 11-3 and a game behind Northern Kentucky. After starting off conference play 7-0, they’ve come back down to Earth a bit, getting swept by Milwaukee and losing to Cleveland St. But Scott Nagy’s squad is one of the best defenses in the nation in just about every facet, and it’s an absolute chore for teams to score on them. Losing Justin Mitchell hurts, and the team will need to lean on Grant Benzinger and Loudon Love more than ever. If they want any shot at the conference title, they need to beat the Norse on Friday in what will be must-see TV (game is on ESPNU).
Illinois-Chicago: I talked up the Flames on The Brunch, and they promptly went and lost to one of the worst teams in the nation, Cleveland St. This is life in college basketball. Despite the slip-up, Illinois-Chicago has been playing some great basketball and has played better than anyone expected. Despite the inability to force turnovers and get offensive rebounds, their defense has been very good all year. On top of that, Horizon League play has helped the offense come alive. But what impresses me most about Steve McClain’s squad is their ability to win on the road. The Flames have already won six conference road games, including a stretch of three in a row with no trip back home in between. They’ve also played at Kentucky. Too often are weak college basketball teams exposed in March because they struggle away from home, but it won’t happen to Illinois-Chicago–they’ve got six players averaging at least 9 points per game, so they can afford off nights but some of their guys.
Oakland: Many thought the Golden Grizzlies would be the cream of the Horizon crop, but it’s been a disappointing season by those standards. Despite inspiring road wins at Northern Kentucky and Illinois-Chicago, they sit at 8-5 in conference play and haven’t looked like the dominant force that they were expected to be. Greg Kampe’s team has played some tough teams (Michigan St., Kansas, Syracuse), but that hasn’t resulted in the peak many were expecting. Oakland can score with anyone–they have Kendrick Nunn (26.1 points per game), Jalen Hayes (19.1 points per game), and Martez Walker (17.6 points per game) leading the way. However, their defense has been a sieve, ranking 241st according to kenpom.com. The Golden Grizzlies have an easy schedule the rest of the way and are capable of getting hot and riding that to the NCAA tournament. I just have a hard time believing that will happen.
Milwaukee: I must say, I’m impressed with the Panthers. They went 1-4 on an early season road trip just to come home and get steamrolled by Northern Kentucky. They followed that by going 4-1 on their homestand before playing the Norse super tough on the road. They could have packed it in after the admirable effort, but instead they won at Wright St. just two days later, completing a sweep of the Raiders. It’s hard to tell who the real Milwaukee is with these home-road splits. I’d venture to say they’re frauds because of their underwhelming kenpom numbers across the board (except for defensive rebounding, which they rank sixth in the country). But at the very least, don’t write off Pat Baldwin’s squad just yet.
Hold Your Nose
Green Bay: There’s quite the drop-off between top half of the Horizon and the bottom half. To be fair to the Phoenix, they’re clearly better than the rest of the teams in this tier. But they’re 3-10 in 2018, including losses to…nearly every other team in this tier. Green Bay has been the victim of the schedule imbalance here. After a 2-1 homestand with a win over Oakland, they lost four straight on the road. Then, after a 3-2 homestand with the only losses being to Northern Kentucky and Wright St., they lost three more on the road. I get the degree of difficulty but their offense has been one of the worst in the nation, and their defense isn’t much better. Their last home game is Friday against Illinois-Chicago. Is that their last chance for a win this season?
IUPUI: I’ve wanted to believe in IUPUI not being a dumpster fire. The Jaguars force turnovers and eat o-boards better than most teams in the country, and those are two extremely underrated qualities in college basketball. But they’ve been abysmal elsewhere, ranking 285th on offense and 307th on defense according to kenpom.com. Jason Gardner’s team has had a rough first year in the Horizon league, including getting swept by Youngstown St. Like the remaining teams, IUPUI is virtually helpless against the league’s best.
Cleveland St.: I’ll start off nicely: The Vikings have managed to pull off some surprise wins, including over Wright St. and more recently at Illinois-Chicago. Sadly, that’s about all they’ve done, with only four other wins ALL SEASON against Division I competition. Kenny Carpenter and Bobby Word make this a senior-led team, but a team that hovers around 300th in the country on both sides of the ball isn’t going to garner many wins.
Youngstown St.: It does amaze me how some of these putrid teams can have one really good trait, like Youngstown St. being 21st in the NCAAs in offensive rebounding. That’s negated by being terrible in every other aspect and having a bottom-ten defense in all of college basketball. The Penguins started off conference play 3-0. Since then, they’ve lost 9 of 11, all but one of them by double digits. Cameron Morse has two Horizon Player of the Week awards, but the senior is the lone bright spot in a lost season.
Detroit: Detroit (or Detroit Mercy, whatever you want to call it) has been a bad, bad team for a while now. They’ve had some players with academic issues this year, and their only redeemable skill is free throw shooting, which every college basketball team should be good at in my personal opinion. It’s literally a free shot…anyways, it’s gotten dark here toward the end of the preview, so let’s end on a high note. The Titans should have their four leading scorers return next year, and their coach’s name is Bacari Alexander. That’s cool, right?