Top Horizon League storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. It was an offseason of upheaval for the Horizon League, as Valparaiso left for the Missouri Valley (with much acrimony) and was replaced by IUPUI from the Summit League. It was hardly a fair trade for the Horizon’s overall profile.

2. In addition to a new team, three new coaches join the league, with Pat Baldwin taking over at Milwaukee, Jerrod Calhoun at Youngstown State and Dennis Felton at Cleveland State.

3. Legendary Oakland coach Greg Kampe had a rough personal offseason, as infected kidney stones led to sepsis, and Kampe was in a very dire situation medically before thankfully making a full recovery in August. His Golden Grizzlies squad is loaded this year and should easily be the class of the league.

4. Dikembe Dixson returns for UIC after a torn ACL. Dixson is an NBA level talent, and his presence alone catapults the Flames into a contender.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Oakland– After Greg Kampe’s legitimate brush with death in the offseason, he likely has a refreshed outlook on life, and his Oakland team could be one of the best he’s had in his 34 seasons at the helm. Kampe returns a cadre of key seniors, bolstered by a talented high-major transfer looking for a second chance (a Kampe specialty). The senior class, led by 6-foot-6 wing Martez Walker (a slasher and volume shooter who needs to focus more on the slashing aspect, where he’s an impossible matchup for opposing 2s and 3s in this league) and do-everything power forward Jalen Hayes (Kampe’s most versatile defender, best rebounder and overall rock), is joined by Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn, a super talented 6-foot-5 combo guard who Kampe can even use at the point. That trio is easily the best in the outside/inside combo in the league and should be lethal in Kampe’s "grab a miss and go" transition offense. Additionally, Brailen Neely and Nick Daniels give Kampe two legitimate point guard options, with both spearheading a pesky perimeter defense that led the league in steal rate. Neely plays at the speed Kampe prefers and is a better passer, but Daniels has the much better jump shot and is a senior. Jaevin Cumberland and Chris Palombizio provide depth and capable shooting in the backcourt, while 6-foot-8 James Beck could make an immediate impact on the wing with his length and athleticism, especially given Kampe’s transition-heavy system. The frontcourt received a major boost recently, with Isaiah Brock deciding to return to the team after initially leaving to focus on academics. Brock is the linchpin of Kampe’s interior defense, posting the league’s second-highest block rate last year. The frontcourt has serviceable depth as well, with 6-foot-ll Brad Brechting and 6-foot-7 Xavier Hills-Mais both capable rebounders and rim protectors. With depth and versatility, this is an Oakland team perfectly suited to for Kampe’s offensive attack. However, the real key to Oakland’s success this year is that this team actually defends. Dating back to the 2001-2002 season (the first year of the KenPom era), no Kampe team had posted a defensive efficiency sub-1.00 points per possession – until last season. Oakland held Horizon opponents to .96 points per possession, the best mark in the league, also marking the first time a Kampe defense was atop that category whether it was in the Horizon, Summit or the bygone Mid-Continent. With Daniels and Neely defending on the perimeter and Brock and Hayes inside, there’s no reason to think that number will dip this year, especially given the overall talent level of the league with Valpo bidding the Horizon adieu. While the defense should remain at a high level, the offense should improve with the addition of Nunn. Last year’s Oakland team posted their worst offensive efficiency rating since 2009-10 (a year that they won the Summit), and the Grizz still went 14-4. OU is unquestionably the team to beat in the Horizon.

2. Northern Kentucky– The defending champion Norse should remain a contender thanks to an efficient spread pick and roll offense that posted the league’s second-best efficiency mark, the main reason the Norse were able to win seven of their last eight regular season games and sweep through an upset-laden Horizon tournament field. John Brannen’s squad returns four starters and a key reserve from a season-ending injury. Led by Lavonne Holland at the point and Drew McDonald as an efficient stretch big, NKU has a solid inside-out duo in Brannen’s high-volume 3-point attack. Holland was third in assist rate in the Horizon, while McDonald was a tough cover for opposing 5s thanks to hitting 40 percent from 3 in league play. 6-foot-5 wing Carson Williams had the league’s third-highest free throw rate and represents the slasher in Brannen’s offense. If Williams develops a respectable jump shot (he’s attempted only two 3-pointers), he’ll have a massive sophomore season. Mason Faulkner also returns to the backcourt as Brannen’s best perimeter defender, while Jordan Garnett and Dantez Walton provide depth around Holland on the wing. The only significant loss for NKU was sharpshooter Cole Murray, and his efficient 3-point production was a major component of the offense. Williams has to up his offensive game in that regard, but the return of Jalen Tate should be key as well. Tate missed most of last year with a broken hand, and the 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman should see the bulk of Murray’s minutes. The frontcourt has some major issues with depth and rim protection. Beside McDonald is 6-foot-6 Jeff Garrett, a decent rebounder with limited offensive game. Outside of that, 7-foot freshman Chris Vogt is the only real option to provide rim protection, which means Williams is likely going to play out of position at the 4 again. NKU is the defending champ and has a collective head full of confidence, but there are some fairly substantial issues ahead, namely depth and interior/transition defense, where the Norse can get torched thanks to a reliance on a four-out, 3-point reliant scheme and crashing the offensive glass. Brannen experimented with a morphing matchup zone last year, and with the deficiencies on that end of the floor, I would expect to see it a lot more simply to keep teams from attacking the rim at will.

3. UIC– There’s certainly reason for plenty of optimism in Chicago, as Steve McClain led the nation’s youngest team (per KenPom) to a 12-win improvement, all while losing arguably the league’s best player in Dikembe Dixson after just nine games. The Flames competed in the CBI and won two games to provide some momentum for this year, and they of course return Dixson. Dixson is a three-level scorer with NBA interest. He instantly makes UIC contender this year, even with KJ Santos leaving the team. It was of course a small sample size, but it appeared Dixson was poised to become a more efficient offensive threat instead of simply a volume shooter and scorer. He also looked like a more committed defender on the wing as well. The backcourt around Dixson is deep and talented as well. Tarkus Ferguson posted the league’s second-highest assist rate, and at 6-foot-4 he’s a brutal matchup for the smaller defenders who are usually on the ball in the Horizon League. He’s joined by a trio of shooter/slashers in Godwin Boahen (McClain’s best perimeter threat), Marcus Ottey (the best penetrator of the group and a secondary ball handler) and Dominique Matthews (perhaps the most talented of the deep sophomore class). The biggest beneficiary of Dixson’s injury was senior center Tai Odiase, who significantly improved his post game on the offensive end, increasing his efficiency from a 102 ORtg as a sophomore to 113 as a junior. Odiase was already the league’s best interior defender, as he posted the league’s highest block rate last year, but his improved offensive game made him one of the best two-way players in the league. Clint Robinson provides solid minutes off the bench and Jordan Blount, a freshman from Ireland, and JUCO Naradain James should be paint enforcers and glass eaters, but neither is capable of replacing Santos’ offensive production and talent level at the 4. With Dixson back alongside Ferguson to lead McClain’s transition heavy attack, the Flames should improve upon the league’s second-lowest offensive efficiency rating. While funneling opponents into Odiase is a part of McClain’s scheme, and transition-heavy offenses tend to give up a lot on the other end, the perimeter needs to improve significantly on the defensive end if the Flames truly want to battle with Oakland and NKU for the Horizon title. Otherwise, this looks like a two-team race.

4. Detroit– The Titans have arguably the highest ceiling in the league, and Bacari Alexander’s second season should see dramatic improvement thanks to Jaleel Hogan’s decision to return after flirting with UAB and academic ineligibility and the additions of freshman Jermaine Jackson and transfers Kameron Chatman, who Alexander recruited as a Beilein assistant, and Roschon Prince (LBSU). The additions of Jackson and Chatman were aided of course by the fact that their fathers are on Alexander’s staff. Alexander also has a high-powered backcourt in Josh McFolley and Corey Allen capable of running his transition-reliant offense. The Titans played fast in a league that plays fast, averaging 75 possessions in league play after Alexander switched to a full-court press, and there’s a chance they play even faster once Jackson gets acclimated to the college game. Jackson and McFolley can play together as dual ball handlers, flanked by the sharpshooting Allen, who hit 44 percent of his 3-pointers last year. Chatman on the wing is a huge addition because of his ability to play 2-4, while DeShawndre Black is another capable ball handler and one of Alexander’s best perimeter defenders. With the return of Hogan and the addition of Prince, the frontcourt is a strength as well. Hogan is a load on the block and turned in one of the best individual offensive performances of the year when he went for 39 on 17-24 shooting against Isaiah Brock (albeit an injured Brock) and the league’s best defensive team in Oakland. Prince adds some much needed rebounding tenacity and draws a ton of contact in the paint. Gerald Blackshear is a steady veteran presence in the paint, while Isaiah Jones is healthy and provides bulk and depth on the frontcourt. Malik Eichler is a 7-footer capable of being used in pick and pop situations, while freshman Jack Ballantyne could be an underrated addition by Alexander. Detroit is deep and talented at every position, but they have to improve dramatically defensively. The pressure defense will allow a lot of easy buckets, but allowing teams to post 1.12 points per possession in league play again will lead to another bottom half Horizon finish.

5. Wright State– The Raiders lose leading scorer Mark Alstork and a few other key pieces, but Scott Nagy is the best coach in the league with a proven spread pick and roll offensive system that maximizes the talent of his backcourt. The issue for the Raiders last year was twofold: lack of a point guard and lack of an interior presence, particularly defensively. Unfortunately, neither of those situations appears to be resolved. Justin Mitchell should once again play out of position at the point, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yes, the Raiders had horrific turnover issues with him on the ball, but he’s the best offensive player Nagy has, and his 3-point reliant, pick and roll offense has to run through Mitchell. Mitchell also led the league in defensive rebounding rate while posting the fourth-highest assist rate. He’s as valuable a player as there is in the Horizon League, and he’ll have some help come December when former South Dakota State point guard Cole Gentry becomes eligible. Gentry should fit in right away with knowledge of Nagy’s system. Freshman Tyler Mitchell should also see minutes on the ball. Mitchell/Gentry will be flanked by Grant Benzinger off the ball, one of the league’s most lethal perimeter threats, hitting 43 percent of his 3-point attempts in Horizon play. The wings and the frontcourt will be a major question mark for Nagy. A pair of 6-foot-6 freshmen in Everett Winchester, perhaps the most talented member of Nagy’s incoming class, and Jaylon Hall will have to contribute right away, particularly since Mark Hughes is the only returning option at the 3. In the frontcourt, former walk-on Parker Ernsthausen is the only regular returning who stands over 6-foot-4. That’s a problem, as he’s serviceable offensively in Nagy’s system but isn’t a strong defender, particularly at the rim where WSU was routinely gashed. Nagy will ask a lot of hefty 6-foot-9 freshman Loudon Love. Love was primarily a football talent, but a knee injury in his senior year made him return to basketball. The problem is that he hasn’t played a competitive basketball game in two-plus years. Nagy’s coaching and Mitchell’s all-around ability will keep WSU competitive. If Gentry can move Mitchell off the ball more when he’s eligible and Love/Winchester can provide anything near the rim an either end, the Raiders will be more than competitive. Think of it this way: WSU posted 1.07 points per possession, good for third in the league, despite having the second-highest turnover rate, no interior presence and a makeshift point guard. Scott Nagy can coach.

6. Youngstown State– Jerrod Calhoun comes in to take Jerry Slocum’s seat, and he inherits a team capable of competing right away. Under Slocum, the Penguins annually played at one of the fastest tempos in the country. That shouldn’t change under Calhoun, but what should change dramatically is the defensive intensity. Calhoun comes from the Bob Huggins tree, and while it takes some time to implement a full-court press, there will be plenty of pressure defense formed in Youngstown this year. Calhoun used it at Fairmont State, turning them into a high-octance D2 power. He has a talented, veteran backcourt at his disposal, led by Cam Morse, an extremely high volume, if slightly inefficient, scorer in Slocum’s spread pick and roll sets and transition-heavy offense. Morse is flanked by steady senior point guard Francisco Santiago and slashing sophomore wing Braun Hartfield. Devin Haygood returns as the only proven frontcourt commodity, and Calhoun will be relying heavily on a slew of JUCOs and freshmen, and I’m not going to pretend to have more than a slightly educated guess on how that rotation will shake. Regardless, Calhoun’s system will dictate they all play in some capacity. The most intriguing options in that group will be 7-footer Alex Wilbourn, who could turn into a rim protector on the back end of the press, and Tyree Robinson, a Jaleel Hogan style player who was an essential frontcourt presence for JUCO power Odessa CC at just 6-foot-5. Robinson was originally slated for New Mexico State but changed course when Paul Weir left for UNM and he was blocked by the school from following him. Michael Akuchie is the most interesting freshman addition, capable of playing on the wing or in the paint. He could be starting immediately alongside Haygood. All in all, Calhoun’s hire was off the national spotlight, but he’s likely as good of a hire as there was in low/mid-majordom. It was a huge score for Jim Tressel, as he appeared to be the lead candidate for Cleveland State given that Calhoun played there under Rollie Massimino. At West Virginia and Fairmont State, Calhoun was traversing the Eastern Ohio to Western Pennsylvania landscape for talent, so he knows the area well, and CSU passing him over will likely come back to bite them. Calhoun should have YSU in the upper half of the league sooner rather than later, and his style is going to bring casual fans back in after years of Slocum’s mediocrity.

7. Green Bay– No one has more minutes and scoring to replace in the Horizon than Linc Darner, but with his "RP40" system (Relentless Pressure 40 Minutes), the Phoenix will still be one of the league’s more volatile teams, capable of beating anyone in the league on any given night. Khalil Small is the only returnee of consequence, but he’s a perfect building block for Darner off the ball, as he’s the embodiment of RP40 with his relentless downhill rim attacking, essential for a team that was fourth in transition field goal attempt rate. Given Darner’s style, everyone on the roster is likely to get a crack at regular minutes, but of the freshmen, PJ Pipes should immediately slot in on the ball and has the potential to put up big numbers in RP40. Additionally, Manny Patterson is a three-star recruit who brings the athleticism and versatility to the 4 that’s essential for Darner. JUCOs TJ Parham and Sukhjot Bains should see a lot of minutes immediately, especially as Darner waits on the eligibility of Marquette transfer Sandy Cohen, who should be available for the second semester. Cohen immediately becomes one of the more talented wings in the league, capable of playing 2-4. Parham is likely Darner’s best immediate option in the frontcourt, while Bains is going to be relied upon on the wing. Kameron Hankerson should be a presence on the wing as well as one of Darner’s precious few veterans, and he can shoot the ball. It’s clearly a rebuilding year for Darner, but the system should keep them as one of the biggest matchup headaches in the league.

8. Milwaukee– Another year, another new coach for the Panthers. Pat Baldwin comes in from Northwestern’s bench (after stops at a variety of mid-majors) to replace LaVall Jordan, whom Butler is taking a chance on to continue "The Way" after he registered just four Horizon wins in his first head coaching season. One has to wonder if Jordan is the choice if the Panthers don’t make that run to the Horizon title game, even despite his Butler pedigree. Anyway, Baldwin probably continues along Jordan’s path with this roster, which means one of the slowest tempos in the country and high reliance on the 3-point shot. (Despite Baldwin’s statements to the contrary in terms of tempo, I simply don’t see him playing significantly faster given his previous coaching stops and the limitations of this roster.) The key returnee for Baldwin is Brock Stull, who turned in a breakout season off the ball, hitting 40 percent of his 3-pointers while turning in the league’s fifth-highest rebounding rate despite being a 6-foot-4 shooting guard. He also proved to be a skilled passer when defenses hedged hard on him off the pick and roll. On the ball, Baldwin has two options with Jeremiah Bell and August Haas. Both turned in inefficient first seasons, but Haas has the skill set of a pass-first point guard, and he’s just a sophomore with plenty of room to grow. Bryce Barnes provides some depth and plus perimeter defense as a sophomore, while Jeremy Johnson and freshman Carson Warren-Newsome slot in at the wings. Newsome is a sharpshooting 6-foot-5 wing who should make an immediate impact. The frontcourt is led by Brett Prahl and Bryce Nze. Both are limited offensively but efficient at the rim when they get the ball on the block. Prahl is the better defender, but Nze is an absolute monster on the glass, especially offensively in a 3-point heavy attack, and this offense can probably use all the "hidden points" they can get. JUCO Vance Johnson provides some much needed versatility and athleticism in the frontcourt, as neither of the Prahls nor Nze can guard on the perimeter against a stretch 4. Baldwin wasn’t necessarily a splash hire, but he knows how to coach and will have Milwaukee competitive in a year where essentially 3-10 are in flux.

9. IUPUI– Jason Gardner’s Jaguars could be in a for a rough year in their first Horizon season, even in another overall down year for the league. Gardner lost his top three scorers from last year but does have some intriguing talent coming in to help key returnees Ron Patterson, Evan Hall, DJ McCall and TJ Henderson. As a young coach, Gardner has already shown a propensity for a spread pick and roll offense reliant on interchangeable ball handlers surrounded by shooters. Former IU and Syracuse shooter (and local Broadripple High legend) Patterson should be the primary beneficiary of all the departed scoring options. Patterson shot a sparkling 45 percent from 3-point range in Summit play last year. He’s also Gardner’s best perimeter defender in a defensive system that really puts on emphasis on wreaking havoc on opposing ball handlers (IUPUI led the Summit League in turnover rate last year). Henderson is another excellent shooter and perimeter defender who should be Gardner’s primary ball handler this year. Toledo transfer Nick Rogers and freshman Jaylen Minnett will play immediately as the secondary ballhandler that Gardner prefers in his offense. Minnett particularly brings a lot of promise. I had the opportunity to see him several times at Terre Haute South, where he showed outstanding scoring ability as a combo guard. Gardner really scored by landing Minnett over his hometown team, Indiana State. DJ McCall is a slasher on the wing and a key for Gardner because of his defensive versatility on the perimeter. The frontcourt isn’t a point of emphasis for the backcourt oriented Gardner, and he’ll rely on the hard working but limited Evan Hall and Aaron Brennan for the bulk of the paint production. Brennan particularly will be relied upon in Matt O’Leary’s pick and pop role. Loyola Chicago transfer Maurice Kirby should be a factor on the frontline as well. Gardner is a coach on the rise, but the Jags have some offensive holes to fill in their first year in the Horizon. The Valpo for IUPUI trade obviously doesn’t benefit the league overall, but Gardner is building a solid program and Indy is a good market for the Horizon to enter.

10. Cleveland State– Gary Waters stepped aside as CSU’s head coach while remaining with the program in some capacity and brought in his friend Dennis Felton in an attempt to retain some talent during the transition. Alas, it was mostly to no avail, as leading-everything Rob Edwards ended up transferring out. Felton is a fine coach, most known for building Western Kentucky into a mid-major monster, and didn’t really get a fair shake at Georgia while trying to clean up after Jim Harrick’s scandal-ridden tenure. First and foremost, Felton is a defensive coach known for his ball pressure schemes. Even his bad teams at Georgia were very good defensively, and that defense will have to lead to offense, because this CSU team was horrific (.97 points per possession in league play) on that end of the floor. Kasheem Thomas had a solid freshman year at the point and will be Felton’s building block this year. Volume 3-point shooter Bobby Word has to improve his shooting a few ticks, but that seems unlikely given the dearth of options to keep defenses from keying in on him. Northern Illinois grad transfer Dontel Highsmith’s career has been altered by a slew of knee injuries, but he’ll immediate step in as one of Felton’s primary scoring options, as will 6-foot-5 veteran wing Kenny Carpenter. Fellow senior Terrell Hales is Felton’s best perimeter defender and will be a key to his pressure schemes. Tyree Appleby is the most exciting member of Felton’s freshmen class; he could provide a dual point guard look in an offense that will likely be four out simply because of the total lack of frontcourt options outside of senior Derek Sloan. 6-foot-9 Serbian freshman Stefan Kenic foreshadows the likely future of CSU basketball under Felton, as Felton is likely to look abroad to build the program, especially with few connections in the Mid-Atlantic area. Kenic is a prototypical Euro big with the ability to shoot and pass. Felton already had a propensity to press with his defense, and he takes over a team that was more than decent at it under Waters, and that should be the calling card of the Vikings as he rebuilds.

FINAL OUTLOOK: Oakland is the clear team to beat with a high ceiling given their offensive struggles last year and room to improve with Nunn in the fold. They’ll be an upset darling in March. NKU, UIC and Detroit all have postseason potential, with Wright State on the fringe.

HORIZON LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dikembe Dixson, UIC

ALL HORIZON FIRST TEAM:
Dixembe Dixson, UIC
Kendrick Nunn, Oakland
Martez Walker, Oakland
Jalen Hayes, Oakland
Cameron Morse, Youngstown St

ALL HORIZON SECOND TEAM:
Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky
Justin Mitchell, Wright St
Brock Stull, Milwaukee
Jaleel Hogan, Detroit
Tai Odiase, UIC

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