|D'Aundray Brown and Cleveland State are in position to win the conference this season. (US Presswire)|
It doesn't seem likely that the Horizon will produce a national finalist for the third year in a row, but that doesn't mean the conference has taken a huge fall. Cleveland State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee have played well during non-conference play, and the league has had a few marquee clips against BCS-league teams.
And what about Butler, the aforementioned two-time national finalist? The Bulldogs are turning things around as we enter conference play. But the rest of the league won't let Brad Stevens' troops waltz to a yet another Horizon title.
Maximum Teams Capable of Making the NCAAs (And We're Very Serious About This): Four. Cleveland State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Butler, Detroit
The League's Most Memorable Moment So Far: It didn't take long for the conference to get back in the national spotlight. On the first Sunday of the season, Cleveland State -- in its first game without Norris Cole -- went into Vanderbilt and knocked off the top-10 Commodores, 71-58. The Horizon was back once again.
The Storyline You Were Too Busy to Notice: Valparaiso's Ryan Broekhoff might be the best player in the league. He doesn't play for one of the conference favorites, but Broekhoff is fifth in scoring and tops in rebounding. His offensive rating is 125.1, putting him in the top 90 nationally.
Coach feeling the heat: Jerry Slocum. Youngstown State has never finished above .500 during Slocum's seven-year tenure, including single-digit wins on four separate occasions. This year, though, the Penguins are 6-6 and on the way up.
Still unproven: Butler. No one has any clue what to expect from Butler in Horizon play. The Bulldogs have suffered seven losses already, but they also own wins over Purdue and Stanford in the last two weeks. Will they make another run at the conference championship, or are they just an also-ran this year?
Player of the Year and All-League Team: Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso (POY); D'Aundray Brown, Cleveland State; Kaylon Williams, UW-Milwaukee; Alec Brown, UW-Green Bay; Ray McCallum, Detroit
What I loved: Wisconsin-Milwaukee's ability to win despite injuries. The Panthers are 9-4, yet are still waiting for their full allotment of players. Tony Meier missed the first six games; Kyle Kelm was out two games with a separated shoulder; Ja'Rob McCallum has missed the last seven; and Shaq Boga is out.
What I hated: The disappointing starts by the favorites. Butler and Detroit are a combined 12-15 so far, despite entering the season as the two favorites to win the Horizon. Both teams have the talent to win the conference, though, so there is still time to bounce back. The two were still able to beat three BCS-league teams.
|1. Cleveland State|
What's Gone Quite Right: Despite the loss of Norris Cole, the Vikings are the favorite. They are defending extremely well, leading the nation in turnover percentage. D'Aundray Brown might be the best two-way player in the league.
New Year's Resolution(s): Take better shots -- and make them. The Vikings shoot only 32.7 percent from 3 and 46.4 percent from 2. Moreover, Jeremy Montgomery and Trevon Harmon take the highest percentage of shots and neither shoots better than 38 percent.
MVP: D'Aundray Brown. The senior guard missed last season with an injury, but he's helped make up for the loss of Cole. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding, and the 6-foot-4 Brown is also one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference.
Step Your Game Up: Jeremy Montgomery. Montgomery ranks third on the team in scoring, but he's shooting slightly over 30 percent from the field. He needs to be a consistent scorer for the Vikings, but he needs to be a lot more efficient -- and cut down on turnovers.
What's Gone Quite Right: The Bulldogs are starting to look better as we enter conference play, beating Purdue and Stanford in the last two weeks. Andrew Smith has been a major factor lately, going for 22 points and 10 boards in the two big victories.
New Year's Resolution(s): Become more consistent from the perimeter. Butler takes a good amount of 3-pointers, yet shoots just 27.8 percent from beyond the arc. No one in the rotation shoots better than 37.5 percent, yet they keep shooting 3s.
MVP: Khyle Marshall. No one has really separated himself from the pack, but Marshall is the team's most efficient scorer and is also a good rebounder. In conference play, he will need to be more consistent to truly take the expected step forward.
Step Your Game Up: Chase Stigall. He's taken the most shots on the team, but has only made 32.5 percent of them. He's been up and down lately, scoring in double-figures just twice in December. Stigall is also 15 for 55 from the field this month; that needs to improve.
What's Gone Quite Right: Detroit might have the most talented team in the conference, especially offensively. Chase Simon and Ray McCallum can each fill it up, and Eli Holman has been a factor since returning from suspension. This team has potential.
New Year's Resolution(s): Go inside more consistently. Eli Holman is a weapon that most of the Horizon does not possess. He's shooting 61 percent from the field and can dominate the paint, yet the Titans' guards would prefer to shoot 3s, where they make 25.8 percent.
MVP: Ray McCallum. He needs to improve his 3-point shooting, but McCallum has done everything else well. He's picked up his scoring lately, averaging 16.8 points in his last five games. He's also distributed well and even getting rebounds.
Step Your Game Up: Eli Holman. Chase Simon isn't going to stop being a volume scorer, so we have to look elsewhere. Holman had 21 points, seven boards and four blocks in his first game back, but has been inconsistent since. He needs to be a force around the rim.
What's Gone Quite Right: The Panthers are defending extremely well, contesting shots and guarding the perimeter closely. Offensively, Kaylon Williams has been the team's best playmaker, but several other players have been capable of scoring.
New Year's Resolution(s): Get healthy, stay healthy. As mentioned earlier, Milwaukee has been hit by the injury bug more than any other team in the league. When Ja'Rob McCallum and Shaq Boga return, though, this team has all the pieces to make a run.
MVP: Kaylon Williams. Williams leads the team in scoring and assists, and is also grabbing his fair share of rebounds. He needs to cut down on his turnovers and take better shots, but his ability to get points in a hurry is something the Panthers need.
Step Your Game Up: Tony Meier. This is a player who was getting all-conference looks before the season. However, he missed the first six games of the season and has been inconsistent. Last time out, Meier went 0 for 10 from the field and had just two points.
What's Gone Quite Right: Offensively, the Crusaders have been solid. They're efficient around the rim, shooting 57.2 percent on 2-point attempts. Valpo has topped 80 points six times, and Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk could be the best forward duo in the league.
New Year's Resolution(s): Defend. On the flipside, the Crusaders' defense has been porous and extremely vulnerable. Teams are shooting nearly 39 percent from 3 against them, and they have allowed at least 80 points on four occasions. They can't just outscore teams.
MVP: Ryan Broekhoff. He might be the best player in the league so far. Broekhoff is a matchup nightmare, with the ability to score efficiently around the rim and also step out and knock down 3-pointers. He's also the leading rebounder in the conference. Step Your Game Up: Ben Boggs. The Virginia Tech transfer was expected to contribute immediately upon becoming eligible in mid-December. So far, though, he has shot 5 for 17 from the field and racked up 10 fouls and five turnovers. Needs to turn around.
|6. Green Bay|
What's Gone Quite Right: Green Bay has been solid on the defensive end so far, holding six teams to 61 points or fewer. Seven-foot-one center Alec Brown has taken a step forward, while 6-9 big man Brennan Cougill is coming on strong in recent games.
New Year's Resolution(s): Find perimeter scoring. Brown and Cougill are a solid duo down low, but the guards have been shooting the ball terribly so far. As a team, the Phoenix shoot 41 percent from 2 and just 29.4 percent from behind the arc. Green Bay needs balance.
MVP: Alec Brown. Brown's shooting numbers are down from last year, but he has improved his scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking ability. He had his best performance against Marquette, going for 22 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in the loss.
Step Your Game Up: Kiefer Sykes. I know he's only a freshman, but a team's point guard needs more than 1.7 assists per game. He's also shooting just 36.6 percent from the field, and he's averaging just 4.4 points in his last six games against Division-I opponents.
|7. Youngstown State|
What's Gone Quite Right: League coaches said before the season Youngstown State could be a sleeper -- and the Penguins are well on their way to their best campaign in a decade. Kendrick Perry and Blake Allen are an underrated duo, and the team can shoot from 3.
New Year's Resolution(s): Score inside the arc. Youngstown State is one of the most unbalanced teams in the country, getting just 40 percent of its points off 2-pointers. The Penguins also shoot just 39 percent inside the 3-point arc. Damian Eargle needs chances.
MVP: Kendrick Perry. The 6-foot guard is easily the player the Penguins rely on most, but he's backed that up by leading the team in scoring and assists. Against Buffalo earlier this season, Perry racked up 18 points, four rebounds, 10 assists and four steals.
Step Your Game Up: Ashen Ward. The senior guard's numbers are down across the board this year, and he's been even more invisible lately. In his last three games, Ward is 1 for 16 from the field, totaling four points and five turnovers.
|8. Wright State|
What's Gone Quite Right: The Raiders have taken a step back this season after going 19-14 last year. They are defending effectively and forcing turnovers at a high rate. North Carolina State transfer Julius Mays has provided a huge boost after sitting out.
New Year's Resolution(s): Find secondary options. Outside of Mays and Reggie Arceneaux, no one is averaging better than 6.8 points. Only one player on the team has an offensive rating over 100; it's been a major struggle this season for the Raiders.
MVP: Julius Mays. When the North Carolina State transfer asserts himself, the Raiders are a much better team. He had 28 points in a win over Idaho, and averaged 23.0 points against Charlotte and Florida. Expect his numbers to rise during conference play.
Step Your Game Up: Armond Battle. Battle is shooting just 30.5 percent from the field, yet might be the team's best inside option. He's also knocking down just 19 percent of his 3-point attempts. Battle has been more consistent lately, though.
What's Gone Quite Right: The Ramblers have won four in a row entering conference play, after getting off to a rough 1-7 start. Porter Moser has the team playing a slow-down system, emphasizing the defensive end of the floor. There's been mixed results.
New Year's Resolution(s): Become more diverse offensively. The Ramblers have yet to top 70 points this season, and they rank near the bottom of D-I in scoring. Ben Averkamp and Walt Gibler combine for more than 50 percent of the team's points; they need help.
MVP: Ben Averkamp. He could easily split this season award with Gibler, but we'll go with Averkamp because he leads the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. The 6-foot-8 forward is also averaging 24.3 points during the four-game winning streak.
Step Your Game Up: Chim Kadima. He's not playing terribly, but he's turning the ball over too much and also shooting just 34.7 percent from the field. He's shown flashes of being a capable offensive option; he just hasn't done it on a consistent basis.
What's Gone Quite Right: In Howard Moore's second season as head coach, the Flames are more than halfway to last season's win total. They do rebound the ball well, and Darrin Williams and Daniel Barnes are an underrated duo who leads the way offensively.
New Year's Resolution(s): Win the turnover battle. The Flames rank near the bottom of D-I with better than 17 turnovers per game, and also rank in the 300s in steals per game, with 5.0. That's not a ratio that bodes well against experienced Horizon teams.
MVP: Darrin Williams. He doesn't lead the team in scoring, but he's one of the more capable bigs in the conference. He shoots nearly 60 percent from the field, and continues to get better. In the last three games, Williams is averaging 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds.
Step Your Game Up: Marc Brown. The freshman from Texas was solid earlier in the year, but he's been struggling heading into league play. In his last four games, Brown is 6 for 22 from the field, 4 for 13 from 3, and averaging just 4.7 points.