Northern Kentucky was dealt a significant blow this week when three-time Horizon League Player of the Week Dantez Walton was injured. Early indications are that Walton will miss two to three weeks with the injury. While losing the early favorite for League Player of the Year is difficult enough to manage, the apparent reason for Walton’s rise to prominence was an injury to preseason First Team All-League wing Jalen Tate. With Tate still sidelined, the Norse needed someone to step up on the road against a UNC-Greensboro team that’s arguably the second best unit Northern Kentucky has faced this year.
That didn’t happen. The Norse lost 67-50.
Enter overwhelming preseason Horizon League favorite Wright State. Wright State has had to rely on contributions from unexpected sources this year as well. With Marist grad transfer Aleksandar Dozic already out for the season with a back injury and Tate’s fellow Preseason First Team All-League pick Loudon Love sidelined following a hard fall in a 72-70 loss against La Salle in the Gulf Coast Showcase, the Raiders have relied on a wildly inexperienced front court to get them to league play. To this point, the Raiders’ youngsters have delivered. Grant Basile stepped up as the post player Wright State needed to help the team to what was its marquee win of the year over Western Kentucky before WKU lost its star big man Charles Bassey for season. This week, it was freshman Tanner Holden delivering a Horizon League Player of the Week caliber performance. Holden averaged 23.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game on 85 percent shooting from the field in two victories, one a on the road over MAC contender Toledo.
In the rest of this week’s rankings, the race for third place has never been closer and there are suddenly four teams vying for it. The bottom of the league rankings remained unchanged after eight place Cleveland State did the most to move the needle.
- Wright State (10-3) Wright State’s win over Toledo looks like it might end up being the Horizon League’s best win of non-conference play on paper thanks to the injury to Bassey. This week, it was freshman Tanner Holden stepping up to bring the Raiders an excellent non-conference win. Holden went for 27 points and 17 rebounds on 9-for-10 shooting in the win. When combined with his 19 point, 8 rebound performance on 8-for-10 shooting against Mississippi Valley State, Holden made a strong case for League Player of the Week.
- Northern Kentucky (8-4) While there’s no shame in a road loss to a 10-3 UNC-Greensboro team with two buzzer-beater defeats and a 12-point loss to Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the loss of Walton was more than enough to tip the scales when you consider the razor-thin margin between Northern Kentucky and Wright State so far this season. Throw in Wright State’s excellent road win and there is no doubt about how the top two shake out right now. With that said, travel partners Wright State and Northern Kentucky begin Horizon League play at home on Friday against the Wisconsin schools before heading to Michigan in early January. With two home games and a game against struggling Detroit Mercy to start Horizon League play, it’s possible that none of the team’s injuries will matter. The Norse may be 3-0 in league play as they return to full strength.
- Oakland (5-8) For the first time this season, this spot required more than a couple seconds of thought. While a competitive midweek matchup with Syracuse at the Carrier Dome was one of the better the league has seen against a power conference opponent, Saturday’s collapse at home against Fairfield burned up a lot of that goodwill. The Golden Grizzlies lost 61-59 in overtime in a game it led by as many as 13 in the final five minutes. For now
- UIC (5-8) Finally back at full strength following the returns of Marcus Ottey and Jordan Blount, it was obvious that there was a difference between the Flames team we had seen all season and the one that took the court this week. While UIC had a choke of its own — blowing an eight point lead at Illinois State with just over three minutes to play — the fact that the Flames probably should’ve won on the road against a solid opponent, then turned around and beat a good UC-Irvine team is enough to keep the fourth spot for now.
- Green Bay (5-8) After a string of games where Green Bay buried itself under an insurmountable deficit with poor defense, it looked like the Phoenix might enter the new year with just two division one wins. An 85-84 upset road victory over Northern Illinois righted the ship. With the injury to NKU’s Walton, there’s a non-zero chance the Phoenix will be able to double the previous win prediction, and in the process dramatically shake up these rankings.
- Youngstown State (7-6) It almost feels wrong putting Youngstown this low in the power rankings after how they performed in a game I previously wrote off as too difficult for them to compete in. The Penguins hosted nationally ranked West Virginia and kept the game competitive throughout. YSU led with just over 14 minutes to play, and didn’t trail by double-digits until the final 39 seconds in a 75-64 loss. While solid results by the two teams ahead of them keep the Penguins in the bottom half of the rankings for now, the margin is razor thin and even third place is within reach.
- Milwaukee (5-7) Milwaukee really needed to beat Eastern Illinois last week. The Horizon League’s Panthers entered the game favored, but fell behind early and never fully recovered. With that game sandwiched between a trip to Kansas and another to Wisconsin, it was likely going to be the last good chance Pat Baldwin’s team had to secure a win before the new year. That held true when Milwaukee lost at Wisconsin 83-64 on Saturday. While the Panthers previously wound up on the bottom of the UIC-Green Bay-Youngstown tier due to a lack of confidence in the team’s ability to finish off close games, it now has a tier all to itself as the other teams have stepped up with big performances while the Panthers struggle.
- Cleveland State (4-9) In the Horizon League’s second most surprising home game of the week, the Vikings hosted 10-1 DePaul. Cleveland State had a two-on-one layup blocked while trailing 60-59 with just over three minutes to play that seemed to turn the tide in a game Vikings fans were unexpectedly hopeful about down the stretch. While Cleveland State eventually fell 73-65, the loss was encouraging for a team that didn’t appear to have the firepower to hang with vastly superior teams like IUPUI has with Marcus Burk and Detroit Mercy has with Antoine Davis. If the Vikings can perform like this in league play, a drop to 10 might not be inevitable.
- IUPUI (4-9) Losing to Fresno State by 31 was obviously a bad look for the Jaguars, but the team still boasts a dominating win at South Florida and a solid win over future Horizon League member Purdue Fort Wayne. That’s good enough to keep ninth place for now.
- Detroit Mercy (2-10) The Titans finally broke a seven-game losing streak with a 81-55 win over SIU-Edwardsville. In the process, Antoine Davis put up a season-high 35 points on an efficient 11-for-20 shooting from the field. But Edwardsville lost to Chicago State last week. This doesn’t move the needle.