IUPUI is the consensus favorite to win their second Horizon League championship in the last three seasons, according to a poll of the HoriZone Roundtable writers and podcast staff. The Jaguars, who won the title in 2019-20 but didn’t get to participate in the NCAA Tournament thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, beat out 2020-21 regular season co-champion Milwaukee for the top spot in our poll.
From there, things got pretty interesting, as what turned out to be a clearly-tiered vote began to take shape. Green Bay, Cleveland State, Oakland, and Northern Kentucky were the next four teams, although no two voters placed them in the same order. An extremely close point tally resulted – in fact, CSU, OU, NKU wound up in a three-way tie before a median-vote tiebreaker elevated the Vikings over the other two.
Youngstown State was a universal seventh-place selection, as the voters generally believe that the Penguins are a good team but hesitated to fully place YSU into the traffic jam just above them thanks to a heavy amount of roster turnover, including the transfers of leading scorers Mary Dunn and Nneka Obiazor.
As with the 3rd through 6th spots, 8th though 11th also produced a tightly-packed vote between teams that have mostly-promising futures. Proven coaches Kari Hoffman and Maria Marchesano are at the beginning of their rebuilds at Wright State and Purdue Fort Wayne, respectively. UIC once again has an extremely young team, but a deep one, while Robert Morris will once again lean heavily on Sol Castro while trying to re-generate the level of success the program experienced as an NEC member.
Detroit Mercy, which rather infamously lost its entire roster during the offseason thanks to the AnnMarie Gilbert situation, was picked to finish last.
|Purdue Fort Wayne
It’s hard to be as good as IUPUI yet still have valid reasons to carry a large chip around, but the Jaguars are in that precise situation. Two years ago, as mentioned, they were the Horizon League champions but were unable to compete in March Madness. The Jags then finished 11-3 in the Horizon League last season, the conference’s best winning percentage, but wound up fifth in the standings thanks to a unique formula that adapted things for pandemic realities and punished game cancellations. Nevertheless, the team made it to the tournament final but were felled by red-hot Wright State.
For 2021-22, IUPUI is in full “run it back” mode with most of their stars returning for one last chance at trophies and tournaments, including three-time Player of the Year Macee Williams, all-conference selection Rachel McLimore, and underrated Destiny Perkins, a former Akron Zip. Austin Parkinson also hauled in two high-end transfers in Madison Wise (Iowa State) and Rachel Kent (Saint Louis), further cementing the team’s place as conference favorites.
One of our writers picked Milwaukee first, which is sure to raise some eyebrows, but the more you look at it, the less crazy it sounds. The Panthers have the 18th-most suffocating defense in the nation (55.7 points per game last year), set an NCAA record for team free throw percentage, and tied for the conference regular season title with Wright State, a team that ran into a rebuilding situation during the offseason. They did lose the tournament semifinal to IUPUI, but also swept the Jags during the regular season and held them to 56 points on 36 percent shooting during the tournament loss. After all of that, of course, they beat the brakes off of Drake in the WNIT, something that typically has springboard potential for the following season. They return Megan Walstad and every significant contributor beyond Brandi Bisping and Bre Cera, and also brought in a very solid freshman class. So…why not?
You can’t really blame people for being ready to move on from 20 years of Green Bay dominance in search of a new shiny object. However, while the Phoenix did suffer through a down 2020-21 (by their standards, everyone should be so lucky to consider 15-7 and third place in the conference a down year) and aren’t a front-end favorite right now, there’s really no indication that the Kevin Borseth’s crew is going anywhere. They took a couple big hits with the graduation of Caitlyn Hibner and the grad transfer of Lyndsey Robson to UAB but still have reliable Sydney Levy (a one-time Milwaukee Panther) on board, as well as players like Jasmine Kondrakiewicz who are ready to excel in expanded roles. And, by the way, Green Bay is still feeding the machine like it always has: freshmen Callie Genke, Bailey Butler, and Maddy Schreiber were the second, third, and fourth ranked players in Wisconsin.
Cleveland State might be the toughest read in the conference, with our staff picking them everywhere from third through sixth. By most measures, the Vikings have a ton of momentum. They got hot over the second half of last season, going 12-2 overall from January 23rd on including, of course, three wins and a championship at the Women’s Basketball Invitational, as well as two wins over Green Bay, a team that owned a 68-6 all-time record against CSU before those results. They play a free-flowing style, return almost everyone and brought in a strong portal class, along with athletic freshman Faith Burch.
The problem that’s giving everyone pause? The one player the Vikes did lose was Missouri State grad transfer Mariah White, who led the Horizon League in scoring and steals on the way to being first team all-conference as well as league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Newcomer Amele Ngwafang will join Nadia Dumas and Aminata Ly to give CSU one of the league’s best interiors, while Destiny Leo looks to take the reins as the go-to player.
Oakland might have the best backcourt in the conference, led by Kahlaijah Dean, a top scorer and distributor who, if the chips fall a certain way, is a darkhorse Player of the Year candidate. Dean has a perfect compliment in Alona Blackwell, a long player with double-double potential who can shoot as well, but is more of a slasher. Joining those two for this season is Aaliyah McQueen, a Flint, MI native and a former Illinois recruit who was once a three-star prospect and the 22nd-ranked wing in the class of 2020 according to Prospects Nation. The Grizzlies were already scoring and playing with a ton of pace, and they’re essentially stacking strength on strength, while Breanna Perry returns to offer balance from the post. OU has six other newcomers beyond McQueen, including Kennedie Montue, a shooter out of Robert Morris’ backyard and Miriam Ibezim, who averaged 19.5 rebounds per game over her career at Gates Chili High School in Rochester, NY.
Northern Kentucky is certainly flying under most radars right now. The Norse were absolutely crushed with COVID issues last season, and were out of action for nearly the entire month of January, ultimately finishing 7-5 in the Horizon League and losing to Wright State in the tournament quarterfinals. Still, Camryn Whitaker has a deep, high-upside team that may very well end up being in contention. It’s worth noting that NKU gave a top-ten Louisville team a very solid run in a New Year’s Day tilt immediately before their COVID pause, then emerged from it to sweep Milwaukee on the road. Former Cardinal Lindsey Duvall, arguably the conference’s most well-rounded player, is back as are sharpshooter Ivy Turner and Grayson Rose, one of the more capable bigs in the conference. Freshman point guard Kailee Davis was one of the top ten players in Michigan last year, while Trinity Thompson and Paige Hodgson were also highly rated and will supply plenty of power underneath.
The most unusual trend in our vote was Youngstown State. The Penguins are dealing with a healthy amount of uncertainty, but instead of that producing a wide range of opinions as one might expect, nearly everyone placed them seventh – ahead of the rebuilding teams, but behind all of the ones with better-documented reasons for optimism. Gone from last year’s 10-8 (9-7 HL) squad are arguably its two best players, Mary Dunn and Nneka Obiazor, who transferred to Pitt and UNLV respectively, after accounting for almost half of YSU’s points.
Preseason all-conference first team pick Chelsea Olson remains of course, and she’ll be joined by a bevy of intriguing newcomers like 6-4 Duquesne transfer Lindsey Linard, two-time DII national rebounding champ Lilly Ritz, floor leader Megan Callahan, who was poached from HL rival Robert Morris, highly-rated freshman combo guard Athena Hocevar, Farleigh Dickinson transfer Lindsey Mack, and Paige Shy, formerly of Marshall. There’s a distinct possibility that it all comes together beautifully and YSU climbs towards the top of the league but for now, “hedge” is the word.
No Horizon League team south of Detroit had a more interesting offseason than defending champion Wright State. After the Raiders topped IUPUI for the conference title and upset Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament, three-time coach of the year Katrina Merriweather left for Memphis and took her entire staff with her, along with Emani Jefferson and Tyler Frierson. Angel Baker, who generated national buzz through the postseason run, also departed, for Ole Miss. WSU eventually hired Cedarville’s Kari Hoffman as the new head coach, but not until the program went two months without anyone managing it during the key early offseason, putting the Raiders behind the eight ball. There is good news though: Hoffman is a proven winner who knows Southwest Ohio as well as anyone, and she scored an early success by pulling guard Jada Roberson back from the transfer portal. She, along with post player Shamarre Hale, will be counted on to absorb bigger roles while phase one of the rebuild plays out.
UIC is a solid futures play if you’re into that sort of thing, because the Flames remain one of the Horizon League’s youngest teams. Last season, they were led by a deep and talented freshman class headlined by breakout star Jaida McCloud, a member of the Horizon League’s All-Freshman Team last year, while Kristian Young was among the top 15 in points, rebounds, and assists…but then again, neither of them, nor the rest of a rookie group that included twins Keona and Kennady Schenck (though the latter was held out for the year) as well as Lindsey Rogers, could stop the bleeding during a 3-16 (1-13 HL) season. Still, UIC hasn’t had to absorb a ton of hits beyond that record. Lightly-used Jealissa Presswood was the team’s only senior, and Daijah Smith’s departure is old news at this point. Tasha Pointer now has another large group of newcomers on board, including East Carolina grad transfer guard Justice Gee for veteran leadership, while freshmen Leah Yarbrough and Ky Dempsey-Toney and juco arrival Isabel Gonzalez offer some much-needed size.
After enjoying life as one of the NEC’s top teams for quite a bit, Robert Morris landed in the Horizon League with a thud last season. The competition level was part of that, sure, but so was losing a stud like Nneka Ezeigbo in the middle, a departure that’s probably still impacting the roster. The Colonials then retooled around Argentina’s Sol Castro and while Castro was very good, RMU just couldn’t manage any sustained offense, ranking 301st in the nation with just 56.6 points per game. A big part of that: they didn’t get to the line (326th in free throw rate), and they also kept putting the other team there (329th in opponent free throw rate). Stats like that do offer some hope for internal improvement, as does the remaining presence of Nina Augustin, Natalie Villaflor and Esther Castedo from the NEC glory days. RMU’s always-diverse roster includes freshmen from Ohio, Delaware, Tennessee, California, Canada, England, and Spain. The Californian (guard Simone Morris) is a player to watch, as is the Ohioan (post player Danielle Vuletich).
Purdue Fort Wayne posted a dreadful 1-22 overall record in 2020-21, but did end the season trending in the right direction. After suffering six 20+ point defeats in their first ten games, the Dons gave Cleveland State all they wanted on February 13th, grabbed their win against Robert Morris a week later, and nearly upset Youngstown State in the Horizon League tournament.
None of that was enough to spare head coach Niecee Nelson, and Maria Marchesano will take over this season after leading Mount St. Mary’s to the NCAA Tournament last year. PFW isn’t ready yet, and leading scorer Sierra Bell is now at George Washington, but they do have foundational pieces in guards Riley Ott and Shayla Sellers, central figures in one of the league’s more underrated backcourts. Sylare Starks left Detroit Mercy to return to her hometown, and she averaged 10.1 points per game while being named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team at UDM in 2019-20. The rookie class is impressive as well, headlined by Ott’s sister Ryin, along with power forward Jazzlyn Linbo and guard Amellia Bromenschenkel.
It’s not necessary to re-hash the AnnMarie Gilbert saga at this point, other than to say that Detroit Mercy losing every single player on last year’s roster from a team that was struggling last year before shutting things down, along with every coach except for now-interim head coach LaTanya Collins, sealed the Titans’ fate as our last-place team. Still, it wasn’t the stone-cold lock that it might have been in July when everyone was wondering how they would even assemble a roster relatively late in the offseason. Collins has pulled off the improbable, pulling together a well-qualified coaching staff and a roster of DI-level players, including seven transfers. That group is highlighted by former Morgan State Bear Sydney Searcy, who started her career at Florida, Janna Lewis, a promising player at NKU who could never shake the injury bug, and Tori Powell, a key contributor at UNC Greensboro. It might not be enough to collect a ton of wins this season, but getting the program back on its feet so quickly is a heroic accomplishment.
Miss anything from Preview Week? Check it all out below:
Cleveland State • Wright State • Milwaukee • Detroit Mercy
Northern Kentucky • Oakland • Purdue Fort Wayne • Youngstown State
UIC • Robert Morris • Green Bay • IUPUI
Green Bay (WBB) • Cleveland State (WBB)