The race for the three-seed in the Horizon League Tournament isn’t the biggest story heading into the final week of the season. It feels like the last time that was the case was the first half of league play, when Wright State seemed like the obvious team to beat and Northern Kentucky appeared to have overcome some early hiccups. With the Raiders falling 88-70 to Youngstown State on Friday and the Norse completing a weekend sweep, this Friday’s contest between the top two teams in the league will be for a regular season league title and an NIT automatic bid.
As for the race for the three-seed, Milwaukee officially dropped out of contention following an 0-2 weekend in Michigan. That leaves Green Bay, UIC and Youngstown State vying for the third seed in the league tournament and a potential bye into the quarterfinals should Detroit Mercy remain ineligible for the Horizon League Tournament.
- Wright State Raiders (24-6, 14-3 in Horizon League play)
After a lot of ups and downs, the Horizon League regular season is poised to end exactly as many expected it to before league play began: with Wright State visiting Northern Kentucky and a league title on the line. That outcome didn’t seem particularly likely even a week ago, as the Raiders held a two-game lead in the standings and appeared to be playing better basketball than travel partner NKU when the Norse lost 73-43 at home against UIC.
Following Wright State’s 88-70 loss to the Penguins, the team suddenly finds itself just a game ahead of Northern Kentucky with one game to play. Additionally, the loss caused WSU to split its season series with Youngstown while the Norse completed a season sweep. Since Northern Kentucky and Wright State had the same records against UIC, Green Bay, Oakland and Milwaukee; Youngstown State is the deciding factor in the tiebreaker if the Raiders lose on Friday. With a loss, Wright State will be the two-seed in the Horizon League tournament.
But NKU is a week removed from a far more embarrassing blowout loss. That and the lopsided head-to-head matchup at Wright State keeps the Raiders in first.
- Northern Kentucky Norse (21-8, 13-4)
It was a wildly productive week for the Norse. Heading into last week’s games, the team hadn’t even secured the two-seed in the Horizon League tournament and the double-bye into the league semifinals that goes along with it. Now Northern Kentucky controls its own destiny for a share of the regular season title, the top-seed in the league tournament and an automatic bid into the NIT should the Norse fail to win the league tournament.
- UIC Flames (14-15, 9-7)
UIC topped travel partner IUPUI to complete the first game of its three-game homestand to complete the regular season. With eight of its nine league wins coming in its last 11 games, UIC has been hotter than any team outside of the top two down the stretch. Add in that two of those wins were over remaining three-seed contenders Green Bay and Youngstown State and it becomes clear how the Flames have come close to matching preseason polls, albeit in a roundabout way.
Head Coach Steve McClain was once viewed as the full-time coach on the hottest seat in the conference, and while a losing record and a new athletic director may mean he still needs a strong finish to get rid of that title the team has at least given him a fighting chance.
Detroit Mercy and Oakland head to Chicago to finish off the regular season, and the Flames are the best positioned of the three teams to win out. While either UIC or Green Bay could get the three-seed if the teams end up tied, schedule ease gives UIC a slight edge here.
- Green Bay Phoenix (14-15, 9-7)
The fourth ranked team in our power rankings heading into the final weekend of the season is the only one that controls its own destiny for the three-seed. The Phoenix get knocked down to fourth because one of the team’s two remaining games is against fellow three-seed contender Youngstown State.
The Phoenix and Penguins played the best game of the Horizon League season the last time they faced off, with circus shots overriding solid defense down the stretch and Youngstown State winning 94-90 in overtime. With the potential bye on the line stakes will be even higher this time around, but hopefully we’ll be in for a game every bit as entertaining as the first one between these two teams.
- Youngstown State Penguins (16-13, 9-7)
The final remaining contender for the three-seed, Youngstown State has the most difficult schedule remaining, not just because the Penguins have to play a fellow three-seed contender, but because both of its remaining games are on the road.
With wins over Green Bay and Milwaukee this week, Youngstown would need UIC to falter against either Oakland or Detroit Mercy to secure the three-seed.
- Oakland Golden Grizzlies (7-9, 12-17)
Oakland has been a completely different team with Rashad Williams in the lineup. A team that was once discussed on the HoriZone Roundtable Podcast as potentially being worse than IUPUI can theoretically finish with a .500 record in Horizon League play.
Much of that has to do with Williams, who is averaging over 20 points per game in his 11 games with the Golden Grizzlies this year. While his scoring has obviously been helpful, the threat of his scoring may be the biggest benefit to Oakland. Having a prolific perimeter scorer has seemed to open things up for Xavier Hill-Mais in the paint. The 6-foot-7 senior forward has scored at least 20 points in his last five games and has four double-doubles in his last six games. On Sunday, he scored 35 points on 9-for-17 shooting and secured 13 rebounds.
Finding a way to get its post players space has been a significant problem for Oakland all year. It seems the problem may have been figured out just in time.
- Milwaukee Panthers (12-16, 7-9)
Just over a week ago, Milwaukee was in a great position to get the three-seed in the Horizon League tournament. With a win at home over Green Bay the Panthers would’ve been 5-0 against Youngstown State, UIC and the Phoenix while sitting ahead of the latter two in the standings. After three losses that looked like very possible wins before brutal scoring droughts, the Panthers are eliminated from the race for third and now potentially looking at a road game to start the Horizon League Tournament.
Sadly for Panther fans, this might not be the end of the free-fall. Youngstown State suddenly has much more to play for, and the Penguins’ travel partner Cleveland State already delivered Milwaukee its worst loss in Horizon League play. Both games are in Milwaukee, but 0-2 isn’t out of the question.
- Cleveland State Vikings (10-19, 6-10)
It still doesn’t feel right putting the Vikings so close to where the team was projected before the year, but for the time being the Vikings . Fortunately, the team will have the opportunity to force a move when it heads to Milwaukee. A win over the Panthers would complete a season sweep.
The Vikings did put my words about a lack of upset potential to the test on Sunday, taking league leader Wright State to overtime on a 35-foot buzzer beater before falling 81-74 in the extra session.
But a moral victory isn’t a victory. The Vikings will need to earn a rise in the rankings with a win. If Cleveland State can pull one off this week, Dennis Gates will have earned my vote for Horizon League Coach of the Year.
- Detroit Mercy Titans (7-22, 5-11)
The Titans ended a six-game losing skid on Sunday with a win over Milwaukee, but that isn’t nearly enough to justify moving the team up over a Cleveland State squad a little over a week removed from beating the Titans at Calihan Hall.
Detroit Mercy finishes its season on the road at UIC and IUPUI, but because of the questions about its postseason eligibility still looming it’s currently unclear if the Titans will be able to make any traction with the week’s results. Postseason ineligibility would make the Titans the first Horizon League team to finish playing for the year. While the team could be a threat to cause havoc if invited to the Horizon League Tournament, being unable to compete would eliminate all power that Antoine Davis and company have and drop the Titans to tenth.
- IUPUI Jaguars (6-23, 2-14)
There’s nothing new to add about IUPUI after the 77-72 loss at UIC. The team could pull a fluke win this week or in the Horizon League tournament thanks to Marcus Burk and Jaylen Minnett, but it wouldn’t move the needle much.
On the bright side for the Jaguars, we’ll know the status of Detroit Mercy’s Horizon League Tournament eligibility next week. If the initial ineligible ruling isn’t overturned, IUPUI moves out of tenth place by default!