The Horizon League is shaping up to be a two-team race, with last year’s regular season co-champions Wright State and Northern Kentucky almost neck-and-neck for the top spot so far this season. Each team has arguments over the other, whether it be quality wins and a lack of bad losses or performance against mutual opponents. Both teams also have an All-Horizon League First Team pick out with injury. Wright State big man Loudon Love and Northern Kentucky wing Jalen Tate are both in the middle of extended absences due to injuries.
With the top two teams both missing stars, it’s hard to draw too much from the rankings at this time except that neither Wright State nor Northern Kentucky seems likely to wind up outside of the Top 2 when back at full strength. After the Top 2, things become even more of a mess with a lot of fairly evenly matched teams that have a lot of questions needing to be answered.
- Northern Kentucky (7-3) – If these rankings had come out any other week, the Norse would be in second place. While preseason favorite Wright State hadn’t done anything of note, they had pleased the statistical gods and remained solidly above NKU according to most metrics. In the last week, Northern Kentucky surged with the help of flourishing star Dantez Walton and seemed to be settling in as 1b., but Wright State secured a Top 100 win while NKU’s best result was a hard fought 66-60 loss at Arkansas. The Norse did get a 22-point win over a Miami (OH) team that Wright State has played twice and beaten by a combined 12 points. Then Wright State took a loss on Saturday and gave Northern Kentucky the slight edge. While the 1a. and 1b. designation is still probably appropriate, for now the Norse get the nod for the top spot.
- Wright State (7-3) – The Raiders appeared to lock up the top spot on the Power Rankings with a win over a talented Western Kentucky team led by 6-foot-10 projected NBA Draft pick Charles Bassey and former All-Horizon League guard Camron Justice. But the Raiders faltered in Saturday’s follow-up, an 84-77 loss at home against Indiana State. Wright State is in a bizarre position with a 7-3 record overall but a losing record at home. Adding to the strange nature of Wright State’s home results, the lone home victory of the year for the Raiders was the Top 100 win over Western Kentucky.
- Oakland (5-5) – There’s no better way to display the hard times the Horizon League has fallen on due to realignment than that this year’s Oakland team has looked like it’s solidly the third best team in the league. While Northern Kentucky has shown the ability to compete until the final few shots with a strong SEC team and Wright State has secured a win over one of the top teams in Conference USA, Oakland’s best results are arguably its close road losses to MAC contenders Toledo and Bowling Green. None of its losses are particularly bad, but none of its wins are very good either. A 24-point loss to Northern Illinois is an ugly result, but at least the Golden Grizzlies only have one blowout loss and at least it was to a team that the various ranking services consider better than anyone else in the Horizon but the two schools listed above OU.
Oakland occasionally beats its MAC foes and rarely gets blown out by them: third place.
That hurt to write.
- Green Bay (3-6) – Clearly things get a little messy after the Top 3. I’m willing to give the Phoenix some leeway with the ugly record because nobody outside of the league’s Top 2 would have a chance of getting through road games against Purdue New Mexico, Wisconsin and Xavier with a record better than 0-4. To add to that, Green Bay actually looked pretty good in each of those contests.
The concerning part is the other games the Phoenix have played. Saturday’s 93-80 loss to Eastern Illinois — in which Green Bay trailed by 24 at the half — showed that the beatdown Green Bay took to Colgate may not have been a fluke. One of the team’s two Division I victories of the year, an 85-84 win over Cal-State Northridge, did little to instill confidence. The Phoenix seem to play up to competition that they lack the talent to contend with for a full 40 minutes and struggle against comparable or inferior opponents.
If this troubling trend with the Phoenix only playing up to teams it doesn’t have the ability to beat continues, Green Bay may go into the new year with just its current pair of Division I wins. The team closes out its non-conference slate with games against UCF, Evansville, Division III Concordia (IL), and the Northern Illinois before beginning conference play with road games against Wright State and Northern Kentucky.
Green Bay is fourth in the league’s rankings according to KenPom, Sagarin, BPI, and Massey. While that may be because of the team’s tendency to hang around with the best teams it plays, it’s a better justification for a fourth place ranking than anything any other teams have to offer right now.
- UIC (4-6) – After being picked for a second place finish in the HoriZone Roundtable Preseason Poll and third in the Horizon League’s official Preseason Poll, UIC’s season has been a disaster. With big man Jordan Blount out until at least the new year, the Flames’ three-headed monster at guard was supposed to carry the team to the top of the Horizon League. So far, that doesn’t seem like a likely outcome. Preseason Second Team All-Horizon League pick Marcus Ottey has yet to play and Godwin Boahen has been a volume shooter who frequently struggled to get his shot going, which has doomed the Flames on several occasions. Boahen is shooting just 24.0% from the field in UIC’s six losses, compared to 46.3% in the team’s wins.
The Flames looked even further from preseason projections before a 2-0 week that included a 13-point win over future Horizon League member Purdue Fort Wayne. It might be recency bias, but watching UIC easily beat a team that was fresh off of victories over Grand Canyon and the Eastern Illinois team that stomped Green Bay while the rest of the league lost has given UIC a sizeable boost.
- Youngstown State (5-5) – Youngstown State is a difficult team to get a read on. Despite 5 wins, it’s not clear if the Penguins will be any good this year because two of them are against non-Division I competition and the other three are against struggling Division I teams. Youngstown’s 11 point home win against Robert Morris is its only victory over a team in the KenPom Top 300. Its lone road victory is against South Carolina Upstate, one of the worst teams in Division I.
While Youngstown State may collapse when even the struggling Horizon League offers few opportunities to play teams ranked worse than 300, inconsistent play and serious injury concerns to teams below the Penguins allow the team a solid debut ranking.
- Milwaukee (5-4) – After it initially seemed like Milwaukee’s trip to the Bahamas would give us more information on what the Panthers could do this year, Milwaukee came out the other end of the Islands of the Bahamas Showcase looking about the same as it did going in. The Panthers still haven’t been blown out, but the team also hasn’t played a team that has shown itself to be dramatically different in talent. Evidence of this can be seen with the Kansas City team Milwaukee already beat this year emerging from the other side of the bracket. The Panthers also lost All-Everything guard Te’Jon Lucas to injury in the Bahamas.
While the team played admirably in a 56-53 loss at Drake — its strongest foe so far on paper — it’s probably a stretch to say that Tyler Behrendt can be relied on to score nine points in 10 minutes on a regular basis. Freshman Shae Mitchell’s first game with multiple baskets against Division I competition also helped alleviate the loss of Lucas.
The injury to Lucas is an obvious concern, and one we don’t have a lot of answers for yet. While we have timelines for the return of players like Loudon Love and Jalen Tate, it’s been two weeks since Lucas’ apparent leg injury and Milwaukee has yet to reveal how long he will be out of commission. Given that Milwaukee is being as forthcoming with information regarding Lucas as UIC has been with Ottey, this might be the high water mark for the Panthers after a start that had the team looking like it could finish in the top half of the Horizon League.
- Cleveland State (4-6) – Just a few weeks after IUPUI pulled off what is probably still the Horizon League’s best result with a 17-point win over USF, it’s looking like it may be the Jaguars’ fellow projected cellar-dweller that gets out of the bottom two spots in the conference. Somehow, the Vikings pulled off three straight wins before a pair of contests against top MAC teams pulled them back down to earth. After missing the team’s first three contests, Al Eichelberger returned for the Vikings, and he’s becoming a double-double machine. Eichelberger is averaging 13.1 points and 7.9 rebounds, with three double-doubles in 7 contests this year. While the Vikings probably won’t win any more non-conference games and the team opens conference play on the road, a surge out of nowhere is good enough to get them out of the league’s basement.
- Detroit Mercy (1-7) – As with Green Bay, a part of Detroit Mercy’s ugly record is the result of playing a grueling non-conference schedule. Four of the Titans’ first eight opponents grade out better than anyone in the Horizon League on KenPom. Two more rank in the Top 200, better than all but the Top 3 in this Power Ranking. The Titans won’t be playing a non-Division I opponent this year. In a lot of ways, the teams struggles are understandable, but that doesn’t excuse everything. Wyoming currently ranks 290 on KenPom out of 353 Division I schools. The Cowboys beat the Titans 76-49, with Horizon League Preseason Player of the Year Antoine Davis’ struggles being a primary factor. Davis made just 5 of his 23 attempts on the night, a 21.7% shooting night. His 1-for-11 three-point performance didn’t help matters.
It’s clear that the Titans will only go as far as Davis can carry them. In his best three-point shooting performance of the year, he went 4-for-10, scoring 23 points overall and lifting the Titans over one of last year’s NCAA Tournament Darlings UC-Irvine on a neutral court at the MGM Resorts Main Event. The game showed that while the Titans may not end up being quite what we thought they were, they’re still plenty capable of beating anyone in the league if Davis is having a good shooting night.
- IUPUI (2-8) – As it turns out, a potent scoring backcourt might not be enough to do more than play spoiler in the Horizon League. Just a few weeks after IUPUI looked like it could find its way out of the league’s basement following a 17-point win over USF, the Jaguars now look hapless. The team has yet to win a game since that stunning beatdown, and the season hit a low point Saturday with a 102-54 loss at Ball State. Ball State’s 19-point win over UIC last month looked like a sign that the Flames could be looking at a double-digit seed in the Horizon League tournament, but this weekend did a lot to show how much lower things could get for league teams.