Horizon League Tournament Preview: Will the Detroit Curse Continue?
© C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports
The Horizon Conference tournament, also known as Motor City Madness, has had bizarre results since moving to Detroit two seasons ago. In fact, the top two seeds have failed to win a single game (0-4). Northern Kentucky and Wright State will attempt to reverse the Detroit curse in the 2018 tournament, which starts Friday at Little Caesar’s Arena.
Here is a quick trivia question before we dive into this year’s field: Name the only past or present Horizon school to ever win a national championship. Despite having Butler and Xavier as past members, the only Horizon team to ever win it all was Loyola Chicago (now in the Valley) in 1963.
2018 Horizon League Tournament Overview
All 10 teams in the league make the conference tournament, with the top six seeds receiving first-round byes. Defending champion Northern Kentucky is the betting favorite to cut down the nets.
Let’s jump into the favorites and potential sleepers within the Horizon League bracket before finishing up with ATS predictions for Friday’s two Horizon games.
Who Should Win
Northern Kentucky +102
The defending Horizon champs return an experienced roster, featuring an outstanding senior PG in Lavone Holland and a mobile big in Drew McDonald. NKU is built on its defense, limiting Horizon opponents to .92 points per possession (ppp). That elite defense is led by freshman Jalen Tate, who is one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in mid-major basketball.
Offensively, the Norse run a lot of cut-and-fill motion to exploit McDonald’s ability when facing the rim. Forcing opposing bigs to defend outside the paint is at the heart of what the Norse do on offense. As a result, the Norse have the league’s most efficient 2-point offense.
Coach John Brannen (pictured above) recently made a personnel switch, subbing in versatile defender Dantez Walton for Carson Williams at the 4 against IUPUI. NKU responded with its best defensive effort in some time, as the Norse switched on absolutely every screen against IUPUI’s flex motion.
The Norse will face the winner of the 8/9 matchup between Cleveland State and Youngstown State. They shouldn’t be too concerned, as they went 4-0 against those two teams, winning all four by double digits. CSU and YSU just played a double OT game to close out the regular season that the Vikings pulled out, thanks to 11-17 shooting from 3. YSU employs a full-court pressure scheme that first-year coach Jerrod Calhoun copied from West Virginia, but it will play zone defense in the half court. CSU’s press offense hasn’t been particularly effective, but it can score against YSU’s zone. Cleveland State led the Horizon League in 3-point shooting rate, and wing Bobby Word has been on fire of late, hitting 12 of his last 18 attempts from deep.
If Not NKU, Then…
Wright State +255
The Raiders swept Northern Kentucky in the regular season, but laid an egg at IUPUI with a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed. Wright State has the league’s best coach in Scott Nagy and hangs its hat on the defensive end, where it is led by an elite ball screen defender in Mark Hughes. If the Raiders are upset before the Horizon title game, it will be because of their offense.
Nagy lacks quality shooters in his spread pick-and-roll offense outside of Grant Benzinger, but he did make an interesting switch in the final game of the season. After the IUPUI debacle, he went with a smaller lineup, giving freshman Everett Winchester more time over 6-11 Parker Ernsthausen. That in turn filtered more offense through star freshman center Loudon Love in the high post. That change resulted in 88 points in 78 possessions against Illinois-Chicago.
The Raiders will first face the winner of the first-round matchup between No. 7 seed Green Bay and No. 10 seed Detroit. GB swept the season series in two 80-plus-possession games that featured little to no defense. Both teams press full court, but neither has been successful in generating turnovers. Green Bay did finish the season on a high note, sweeping the Michigan trip, which included a win over Detroit on the final day of the season. It’s been a long, bizarre year for Detroit, which started with coach Bacari Alexander serving a long suspension for verbally abusing a player. Detroit has talent with Jermaine Jackson and Michigan transfer Kam Chatman, but academic suspensions and injuries have kept the Titans from putting their full roster on the floor at any point this season.
Wright State would much rather face Detroit, as Green Bay’s Sandy Cohen has been on an absolute tear of late (67 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 assists in his last two games). Plus, the Raiders had to rally from a double-digit deficit in their last meeting vs. the Phoenix. Given the up-and-down pressing style of Green Bay and Detroit, neither is really ideal for a WSU team with a short bench trying to conserve energy in a tournament setting.
Few teams in the country have been a bigger disappointment than Greg Kampe’s Grizzlies. Yes, injuries have been a major factor. The loss of Martez Walker (the only guy playing defense on the team) particularly hurts. However, the Grizz weren’t very good when they were healthy, either. They were certainly not playing like a fringe top 25 team, which they were hyped as in the preseason.
Having said that, the No. 4 seed still has one of the country’s most dominant scorers in Illinois castoff Kendrick Nunn. Nunn averages 26.4 points per game, second to only Trae Young. Thanks to the unstoppable Nunn in Kampe’s spread-out dribble drive offense, the Grizz led the league in offensive efficiency. Unfortunately, Oakland doesn’t have a single solid perimeter defender, and Isaiah Brock has been a sieve defensively in the post.
Oakland, which will have a nice fan contingent in Detroit, faces No. 5 seed IUPUI in the quarterfinals. The Jaguars had a surprisingly decent debut season in the Horizon League, and have won three of their last four games. The Jags own the league’s least efficient offense, but guards Ron Patterson, DJ McCall, and TJ Henderson extend pressure in the half court as well as any team in the league. IUPUI thrives off of its ability to generate turnovers, which it produces at the league’s highest rate. The fact that IUPUI scored 1.10 ppp in its recent win over Oakland is a testament to the state of the Grizz defense.
Can Nunn and senior forward Jalen Hayes carry the Grizzlies to three wins in three days? Absolutely. But a team that lost to Youngstown State, IUPUI and twice to Green Bay doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
Most Intriguing Matchup
UIC vs. Milwaukee
No. 3 seed Illinois-Chicago was a different team after Tarkus Ferguson returned at point guard in early January. He’s an elite, long-armed defender in ball screens with plus-court vision on the other end. With Ferguson running the offense, forward Dikembe Dixson started to round into form, helping UIC rattle off seven straight wins during the heart of conference play. However, it lost two straight to close out the regular season (albeit to NKU and Wright State). The Flames are an underrated defensive team, thanks to Ferguson on the perimeter and Tai Odiase at the rim. UIC doesn’t gamble defensively, preferring to funnel offenses into the league’s best shot blocker in Odiase.
UIC will face No. 6 seed Milwaukee, a team it overwhelmed with athleticism in a regular-season sweep. The Panthers are a poor offensive team with an above-average defense. On paper, the Panthers’ burn offense should give UIC issues, but Ferguson dominated the smaller Milwaukee guards.
Oddly enough, Wright State is probably rooting to see the higher seed Flames. It swept UIC, but lost both games against Milwaukee, as ultra-quick guard Jeremiah Bell gave the slower WSU backcourt fits.
Friday ATS Predictions
Green Bay -3.5 (top ATS prediction)
Cleveland State -1.5
Northern Kentucky over Wright State
Photo credit: C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports