By Chris Molicki
Last season, Northern Kentucky finished a dominant regular season run with a disappointing defeat to Cleveland St. in the Horizon League tournament. The Norse were the class of the conference and looked to do damage in the NCAA tournament, but that reality never materialized. This season, they remain the team to beat in the Horizon League, yet they may be weaker than last year. Could that lead to another surprise squad sneaking past them.
- Northern Kentucky: The Norse once again go through Drew McDonald in his senior year, but the loss of Lavone Holland was a big hit for this team. Sophomore Jalen Tate has stepped into his place and played pretty well, including a 25 point outburst over Illinois Chicago to start conference play. The offense has taken a slight step back this year, but John Brannan’s squad still excels at defending the three and defensive rebounding, showing they’ve maintained their identity. What happens in the conference tournament is anyone’s guess, but expect the Norse to once again roll through a weak conference.
- Wright St.: Scott Nagy’s team won the conference tournament last year, and they look like the biggest challengers to Northern Kentucky. Wright St. did a complete 180 from last year’s team: They were near the top 50 in defensive efficiency on Kenpom and graded poorly on offense, but now they’ve risen to an above average offensive team and a bad defensive team. This is most notable behind the arc, where the Raiders shoot 38.1% from three, but allow opponents to rain deep daggers at a 40.6% clip. Transfer Billy Wampler and Cole Gentry are a dangerous scoring duo, but it’s sophomore Loudon Love (who’s seen a downtick in minutes since conference play has started) who will be the x-factor for this team if they hope to make a run.
- IUPUI: This may be a controversial pick, but I think the Jaguars, who aren’t a sexy team by any means, could shock some people this season. They’re not really good on either side of the ball, but they’ve shown to do other things very well–they’re in the top 125 in both turnover and rebounding percentage on both sides of the ball. Vanderbilt transfer Camron Justice has been huge, averaging more the 20 points per game. Coach Jason Gardner is probably hoping to see more of an improvement from senior Evan Hall, but perhaps that will come in conference play (IUPUI has started in an 0-2 hole). If the Jags continue to play to their strengths, get to the free throw line, and ride Justice, this team has all the makings of a dark horse in a weak league.
- Green Bay: The Phoenix like to play fast, ranking 8th in tempo according to KenPom, and sometimes controlling the pace like that can be enough to make teams uncomfortable. However, their defense is troubling, and Green Bay can allow points just as quickly as they can score them. Sandy Cohen III leads the squad in his senior year, and JayQuan McCloud, who hasn’t played since 2016, has provided a stabilizing second option. The Phoenix are a good outside shooting team when Kam Hankerson and Cody Schwartz hit their shots. But on a cold night, a lot can go wrong with that defense.
- Illinois Chicago: The leaps by junior guards Marcus Ottey, Tarkus Ferguson, and Godwin Boahen have led to an offensive improvement for their Flames. Their once-vaunted defense, however, is a thing of the past. UIC has allowed 70+ points to every DI team they’ve played this year, sans Incarnate Word, who ranks 347th in KenPom. Some of that may be due to their fast style of play, but this offense is not good enough to make this a winning formula. The Flames can get hot (I’m sorry, it was right there) and go on a hot-shooting run at any time, but I expect an up and down conference season for Steve McClain’s team.
- Oakland: It’s a down year for Greg Kampe’s Oakland squad, who saw four seniors, including star Kendrick Nunn, depart from the team this offseason. That’s led to an entirely different team and style of play: The team is actually better offensively, shooting and making a ton of threes playing at a much slower pace, but their defense has been one of the worst in all of college basketball. Both Xavier Hill-Mais and Jaevin Cumberland have made massive leaps this year, and the top five scorers on this team all shoot better than 35% from three. I just have a hard time trusting a team ranked 347th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Like the Flames above them, they have the ability to go on a run due to their offensive prowess, but they’re more volatile on the other end of the floor.
- Detroit: The Titans have improved on their god-awful defense to be simply just bad, and that jump could mean quite a bit. Mike Davis has his team slowing down the pace, defending the three-point line, and forcing turnovers in his first year, and it’s helped Detroit get off to a 2-0 road start in conference play (granted both wins were over teams lower on this list). Freshman Antoine Davis has been incredible, averaging over 25 points per game, and he’ll need to keep it up if the Titans want to contend in this league. Their next five games are at home, so it’s not crazy to be talking about Detroit in the thick of the Horizon League race.
- Cleveland St.: Another team that’s gone from atrocious to below average, the Vikings shoot it well from deep and defend the three-ball even better, two things that are crucial in the sport today. They rely heavily on versatile sophomores Tyree Appleby and Stefan Kenic. The problem with Cleveland St. is that they’re a pretty putrid rebounding team, often putting themselves at a big disadvantage against the opposition. They were tested a bit in non-conference play against Ohio St., Toledo, and Davidson, but it may be hard to pull out of the hole they’ve put themselves in: 0-2 at home against the 6th and 7th best teams to start conference play (according to these rankings).
- Milwaukee: A decent defensive team last year, Milwaukee has regressed quite a bit. This team used to be stellar at defensive rebounding, defending the paint, and keeping opponents off the free throw line, but that’s no longer the case after losing several key players. Instead, transfers Darius Roy and DeAndre Abram will try to pull this team back to relevance in the conference, but even in a weak league, I don’t see that happening.
- Youngstown St.: The Penguins were a trainwreck defensively last year, and that’s only improved slightly this year. They are again a top 30 offensive rebounding team, but that’s the only thing they do even remotely well. Across the board, this is one of the worst teams in the nation, and they’re likely to be a punching bag in their own conference.