Horizon League spotlight: Title still goes through Valparaiso
Defending regular season and tournament champion Valparaiso has claimed three of the past four regular season titles, so the combination of team strength and the rowdy crowds in claustrophobic seating at Athletics Recreation Center understandably makes visiting league opponents a little stressed out.
“I’d hate to play there if it wasn’t my home court,” said Crusaders junior forward Alec Peters, a national player of the year candidate.
Wisconsin Green Bay’s Resch Center and Oakland University’s Athletics Center O’rena was mentioned as well, but Detroit guard Anton Wilson had his own take on least inviting venues.
“Detroit,” he said.
Wilson’s Titans received a first-place vote in a poll of 43 coaches, media and sports information directors asking for preseason rankings of Horizon League clubs. Oakland got six first place nods and Valparaiso took the remaining 36. Milwaukee did not get a first place vote but earned enough high-placing votes to slot in third behind Valparaiso and Oakland.
Five things to watch this season in the Horizon League:
The league laid out the welcome mat for one new team and three new coaches. Northern Kentucky will bring an up-tempo style to the conference because that’s how John Brannen wants to play. Brannen gets his first Division I head coaching job after assisting at VCU (2006-09) and Alabama (2009-2015). Green Bay head coach Linc Darner joins the Phoenix after leading Florida Southern College to the Division II title, and Steve McClain left his post as associate head coach for Tom Crean’s Indiana program to lead the Illinois-Chicago.
Mark Adams' take: UIC has a new coach, new players and a new era but old expectations die hard unless the newcomers grow up really fast. ... Green Bay will rely on newcomers to contribute right away. Linc Darner had to recruit his own class as the Wardle class pretty much evaporated when he left for Bradley. ... This is NKU’s first run in the HL. It could be tough but also fun watching Jalen Billups.
Valparaiso, which returns 99% of its scoring and rebounding from last season and placed four players on the the preseason all-conference teams, remains the team to beat. Peters, the second-leading scorer among returning conference players (16.8 ppg), made the first team. Senior center and reigning league defensive player of the year Vashil Fernandez (98 blocked shots last season, more than twice as many as the league runner-up) drew second team honors alongside teammates Tevonn Walker and Darion Walker.
Mark Adams' take: This is the best Horizon League team since Butler left in 2012. Alec Peters and Valpo are my choice, but it was hard to pick against Kahlil Felder and Oakland. Oakland could win because they have Felder and coach Greg Kampe. ... Detroit has talent and coach Ray McCallum has a way of providing offensive freedom combined with defensive intensity. This will be a good team. ... Green Bay won 24 in two consecutive years for the first time since 1990-92. But coach Brian Wardle left for Bradley and league MVP Keifer Sykes graduated, so the Phoenix will rely on newcomers.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Oakland guard Kahlil Felder snared the league's preseason player of the year honor. The junior guard was the only player in the nation to average at least 17 points and 7 assists last season, and he leads all Horizon League returners in scoring and steals (66 last year) as well.
Mark Adams' take: One of my favorite players in the country ... Kahlil Felder is special. He is the only player last season who averaged 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 7.6 assist per game — at only 5-9.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sherron Dorsey-Walker and Martez Walker, who transferred from Iowa State and Texas, respectively, and both played at Felder’s high school alma mater. Martez Walker scored 16 points in Texas’s opening round win over Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament last season and 14 in a second round loss to Michigan. He is eligible to play in December pending the outcome of an assault charge. Also on the preseason first team were Milwaukee senior forward Matt Tiby, Detroit sophomore guard Paris Bass and Green Bay senior forward Jordan Fouse.
Mark Adams' take: Jalen Billups is Northern Kentucky's workhorse as the Norse begin play in the Horizon League. He averaged 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds last season. ... Wright State's J.T. Yoho played only 16 games and still led Raiders in scoring (15.6) and rebounding (6.4). ... Green Bay's Carrington Love registered 18 double-figure games.
GAMES TO WATCH
We'll start with the 10 Horizon League games ASN will televise this season, starting on Dec. 5 — including Valpo three times, Oakland three times and Milwaukee twice. What to expect? Veteran Horizon League coaches said the newcomers will find the league to be a defensive one, with no painfully long road trips and programs used to being the top sport on campus have been tough outs in the NCAA Tournament. They all had different thoughts on ways to show Brannen, Darner, and McClain what the Horizon League was all about, best summed up by Detroit coach Ray McCallum: “Beat 'em.”
Mark Adams' take: It's basketball season!
Vote: Who is your choice to win the Horizon League?
Above: Oakland guard Kahlil Felder, who averaged 17 points and 7 assists last season, was named preseason player of the year by the Horizon League. (Courtesy Jose Juarez/Oakland University)