Nowhere in the country is the margin between good fortune and bad luck thinner than in the Horizon League. The first conference tournament in America to kick off also gives us one of the more unique scenarios in Championship Week. Three teams have stood out above the pack all season in conference play, Milwaukee, Butler and Cleveland State. All three finished with a 13-5 conference record and thus each took a share of the conference title. However due to the tiebreaking process and the vagaries of the Horizon Tournament seeding, Milwaukee and Butler will get a two-round bye into the tournament’s semifinals.
The decision to switch to the new format of seeding, in which the best teams are given a better chance of actually representing the conference in the NCAA Tournament is part of a trend we are seeing all around the smaller tournaments in college basketball. And normally it makes sense, as the best teams usually have a distinct advantage over their opponents. But this year, when all three of the top teams finished the regular season tied, it seems downright cruel.
The No. 1 seed in the tournament is Milwaukee and it will have home court advantage throughout the proceedings. The Panthers came into conference play reeling at 5-7, after taking a number of embarrassing losses. But after losing on the road to Valparaiso, Milwaukee reeled off 9 wins in its last 10 games, finding a rhythm based upon the balanced scoring of its entire team. The Panthers are led by Anthony Hill and Tone Boyle, but in each game a different player has stepped up to help steal big victories, such as on the road against Butler and Cleveland State. The most important thing Milwaukee did the entire season was win the tiebreaker at the end, ensuring that a win in the semifinals will keep the Panthers from having to travel to Indianapolis for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Even thought it is the No. 2 seed overall, some experts are still predicting that Butler could sneak into the NCAA Tournament field as an at-large (I disagree). The Bulldogs have been largely disappointing, but have two of the three best players in the conference in Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard. Butler has risen from the ashes with seven straight wins to play its way into a number of mock brackets. Because of the bye it receives, it will likely face a semifinal game against Cleveland State that could determine its NCAA fate.
Cleveland State is the unlucky team without the bye, but it does have the advantage of potentially being the best overall team with the best overall player in the conference. Norris Cole is a dynamic scorer, averaging 21.6 points a game and he finished the season on a flurry. He scored 27 points or more in 4 of the last 6 games and has become unguardable by his Horizon League opponents. If the Vikings are to win the tournament, they will likely need to beat both Butler and Milwaukee on the road, after two games against lesser opponents at home. It will be a tall order.
Both Valparaiso and Detroit could play the role of spoiler and each has victories over the top three in the conference. Neither can win the overall title, but both could beat Milwaukee in the semifinals.
PREDICTION: The winner of Butler-Cleveland State will have to overcome the Horizon tiebreaker and win on the road in Milwaukee. Because both teams are better than the Panthers, whichever one makes the final, makes the NCAA Tournament.
- Norris Cole: Cleveland State
- Shelvin Mack: Butler
- Matt Howard: Butler
Conference RPI: 11
Kenpom.com Conference Rating: 11
Sagarin Conference Ranking: 10
NCAA Tournament Locks: None
NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams: Butler
Last NCAA Tournament Appearance:
Milwaukee: 2006 (lost to Florida in 2nd Round)
Butler: 2010 (lost in National Championship to Duke)
Cleveland State: 2009 (lost to Arizona in 2nd Round)
Valparaiso: 2004 (lost in first round to Gonzaga)
Detroit: 1999 (lost in 2nd round to Ohio State)
Wright State: 2007 (lost in first round to Pittsburgh)
Green Bay: 1996 (lost in first round to Virginia Tech)
Loyola: 1985 (lost in Sweet 16 to Georgetown)
Youngstown State: Never been to NCAA Tournament
Illinois-Chicago: 2004 (lost in first round to Kansas)
Posted by MATT JONES
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