|Ray McCallum Sr., left, and his son, Ray, won the Horizon tourney last year and are loaded again this year. (US Presswire)|
After back-to-back national championship game appearances for the Horizon League, the conference took a step back last season. No team won more than 22 games overall, and it received a No. 15 in the NCAA tournament.
It ended up being the tip of the iceberg for what was a disappointing year for the league.
The Horizon will never look the same. Butler, the team responsible for those title-game appearances, has moved on to the Atlantic 10, leaving behind a conference in which it won five of the last six championships. The Bulldogs only finished tied for third a season ago, but Brad Stevens' program still was the face of the league. It kept national eyes focused on the Horizon and brought tons of extra revenue to the league.
With the Bulldogs gone, look for Valparaiso to be the team to watch. The Crusaders won the regular-season championship last season and return all five starters. All-conference forwards Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk lead the way as they combined to average 29 points and 13.7 rebounds per game. Four transfers, including three from high-major schools, will also provide a major boost for coach Bryce Drew.
Detroit took a while to mesh, but the Titans made a run to the NCAA tournament after winning 10 of their final 11 games. Preseason Player of the Year Ray McCallum has the ability to carry the team, and his 19.8 point-per-game performance in the conference tournament could be indicative of what he will do this season. Athletic Doug Anderson and a healthy Nick Minnerath provide balance up front.
With only one senior, Green Bay could be the favorite in 2013-14 and the Phoenix won't go down easily this season. Alec Brown at 7-foot-1 is a potential NBA player. He teams down low with underrated Brennan Cougill. Kiefer Sykes leads the perimeter.
Outside of those three teams, the race should be wide-open. Cleveland State only brings back one starter (although league coaches all insist Anton Grady is primed for a big year), and Milwaukee has just one double-figure scorer. A surprise team could be Youngstown State, which doesn't have a winning tradition but does have all-conference guard Kendrick Perry and two other starters returning.
Keep an eye on Loyola-Chicago. Sure, the Ramblers won just one league game last season. But Iowa transfer Cully Payne and all-Horizon forward Ben Averkamp could be one of the best inside-outside tandems in the league.
There's no Butler, but don't overlook the Horizon this season.
“The loss of Butler takes away some of that national notoriety. As all of us recruited in the past, it was always nice to throw out Butler for instant recognition. But which teams can take some of the spotlight and put it on themselves? Valparaiso has a tremendous frontcourt, but the question is how will they incorporate the newcomers; are they going to play 10 guys? I think Detroit is going to be more like how they were at the end of the season, when Ray McCallum took ownership of that team. What makes Alec Brown a defensive matchup for you, you can't put a plodder on him and you can't put a smaller guy on him. At this level, he's a tough match. And I never count out Cleveland State or Milwaukee.
“Our league is so dynamic. McCallum is projected as a first-round pick, Alec Brown can be a first-round pick. And we get calls all the time about Ryan Broekhoff and Kendrick Perry. How many leagues have that? After Valpo and Detroit, I would not be shocked to see any combination. It's gonna be a lot of fun. The teams are so close.”
The league's best:
- Preseason Player of the Year: Ray McCallum, Detroit. The coach's son could have played in any conference in the country. Continues to get better, and averaged 15.4 points and 4.0 assists.
- Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso. If not for McCallum, Broekhoff would get more national attention. Australia native put up 14.9 points and 8.5 boards.
- Alec Brown, Green Bay. Don't be surprised to find this big man in the NBA one day. Can be dominant; averaged 13.8 points, 8.2 boards and 3 blocks.
- Kendrick Perry, Youngstown State. Had a breakout season last year, leading the conference in scoring with 16.8 points per game.
- Kevin Van Wijk, Valparaiso. Playing second fiddle to Broekhoff, Van Wijk is efficient around the rim. Put up 14.1 points and 5.2 boards down low.
Numbers to know:
Five: Butler had won five conference titles in a row before finishing third last season. With the Bulldogs gone, is there another team ready to become a Horizon dynasty?
11: Before last season, Youngstown State had gone 11 years without a winning record. The Penguins could be poised to make it two above-.500 campaigns in a row.
3,400: Milwaukee is moving into the on-campus Klotsche Center after playing most of its home games at U.S. Cellular Arena for the past nine seasons. Klotsche holds 3,400; U.S. Cellular holds 12,700.
Previously in previews:
No. 15 -- The Ivy League
No. 16 -- Summit League
No. 17 -- MAC
No. 18 -- Atlantic Sun
No. 19 -- Sun Belt
No. 20 -- MAAC
No. 21 -- Patriot League
No. 22 -- Ohio Valley
No. 23 -- Big West
No. 24 -- SoCon
No. 25 -- NEC
No. 26 -- Big South
No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC