With just two weeks to go in the regular season, the previously amorphous blob of the Horizon League pecking order has started to crystallize into a few clear tiers.
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IUPUI, as everyone already knows, is a really good team. When they play with a chip, however, they become flat-out scary. The Jaguars have three conference losses this season (two of which came through COVID forfeits, of course). Their subsequent games against the three teams credited with those wins are as follows: 74-55 versus Purdue Fort Wayne, 82-64 against Cleveland State and, on Saturday, 78-53 at Northern Kentucky, the only team of the three that beat IUPUI on the court. Three games, two against a couple of the better teams in the conference, and none were closer than 18 points. Yikes. Overall, the Jags have now won 13 in a row, though their final four games include their Wisconsin trip and, of course, a heavily-anticipated rematch with Youngstown State. IUPUI won the first game between the teams, in overtime after a miracle finish to regulation, so that might actually break in the Penguins’ favor the second time around.
Youngstown State delivered a championship-type performance at Cleveland State on Friday night, going into a rival’s building and trading blows with the Vikings for most of the game before ultimately dominating the last five minutes of the fourth quarter as well as the overtime period largely on their elite level defense. It remains kind of staggering how efficient the Guins are on the other side of the court though, particularly in terms of ball movement and finding open shooters. Against CSU, a good defensive team, they had 19 assists on 27 made field goals while Chelsea Olson, Mady Aulbach, and Megan Callahan led a three-point barrage that seemed to have a bomb loaded up every time the home team built a bit of momentum. Oh, by the way, Lilly Ritz also had a casual 17 and 18 in case CSU or any other opponent has the idea to throw a bunch of bodies towards the arc. After separating from Purdue Fort Wayne in the second half on Sunday, YSU has a 15-3 Horizon League record, tied with IUPUI for first place.
Though Green Bay received a pretty stiff challenge from Oakland on Thursday before ultimately sliding through with a 61-57 win, the Phoenix remain the hottest (yes, I know, the whole fire thing) team in the conference outside of IUPUI. UWGB has now won eight in a row overall, seven of those since their month-and-a-half long COVID hiatus ended. It hasn’t been a particularly fluffy streak either, with the likes of Youngstown State and Northern Kentucky included among the wins, along with a makeup rivalry win over Milwaukee on Monday. Hailey Oskey has emerged as the team’s go-to player as the season’s gone on with 12 consecutive double-digit scoring efforts, including a pair of 22-point efforts early in the winning streak. The real star however, has been the Phoenix defense: in a conference packed with solid defensive teams, Green Bay leads all of them with 53.8 points against per conference game and is second to IUPUI with an 80.9 defensive rating.
It’s hard to imagine Cleveland State’s weekend going much worse than it did. The Vikings began play on Friday with a home showdown against Youngstown State where, if CSU had won, talk of the conference regular season championship would have very much been fair play. Instead, of course, the Vikings couldn’t clamp down a game they led 61-55 with 4:24 to go, failing to score after that in regulation, then only offering slightly more than that in the overtime period. To make matters worse, they may have fallen victim to the old “don’t let this loss count twice” cliché when Robert Morris came into the Wolstein Center on Sunday and blew the Vikings’ doors off. Instead of a league title, CSU has likely been relegated to simply trying to earn a bye and a home quarterfinal game in the conference tournament, though the loss to RMU threw them back into fifth place, a spot where they’d (for the moment) have to travel to NKU in that round. And, of course, if chalk holds, the Vikings would then have to play IUPUI in the semifinals, which is less than ideal.
With departing conference member UIC expelled from postseason competition, Northern Kentucky (or whichever team finishes fifth, but NKU is the guess right now) can breathe a bit easier, because under the revised 11-team tournament format – the one used last year after Detroit Mercy shut down for the season – five teams receive a first-round bye instead of four. That’s significant, because this year, the first round and the quarterfinals are a mere two days apart (last year, it was a five-day gap) and with a clear top five at this point, I want those teams competing on equal footing. Of course, the good news pretty much ends right there for the Norse, who got absolutely thrashed by IUPUI in their clash on Saturday. In fact, the last three top-half teams NKU has faced (Cleveland State and Green Bay being the other two) have held Camryn Whitaker’s team under 60 as “suffocate Ivy Turner and Lindsey Duvall” seems to be an effective strategy against a team with less-than-great ball sharing numbers.
Rather quietly, Milwaukee has crept back into the thick of things – maybe not quite into bye territory, they’re still two games behind that in the loss column with the season quickly running out – but at least in the range of being able to create a manageable path through the conference tournament, one that avoids the top two seeds in the quarterfinal round. The flip side to things is that UWM has IUPUI, Green Bay, and Cleveland State in their final five games, so their newly-earned advantage over Oakland (and possibly even Robert Morris) is a bit tenuous unless they can find their way to another big win or two. Regardless, over the weekend, the Panthers cruised through their Detroit-area road trip, facing few issues from Detroit Mercy or Oakland and holding the two opponents to a combined 96 points. On Saturday against Oakland, Megan Walstad blew up to the tune of 26 points, helping her surpass 1000 for her career (with a potential two years to go beyond 2021-22), a well-earned milestone for one of the conference’s best all-around players.
Oakland continues to be an extremely tough read from the outside, because it seems like the Golden Grizzlies have a habit of playing to their opponent’s level. They’ll upset Youngstown State and play IUPUI and Green Bay tough, but then they’ll lose to Robert Morris and struggle to separate from UIC and Detroit Mercy. Their latest game, on Saturday, was a thudding 57-41 home loss to Milwaukee. A lot of the OU story continues to be Kahlaijah Dean, who hasn’t seemed like the same player she was before getting hurt – her minutes are down to the mid-20s and she’s 20-for-61 from the floor since returning (she was shooting 38.8 percent before the injury), to name a couple indicators. That can’t be the whole story, because OU was playing pretty well when she was out altogether, but it certainly doesn’t help. Breanne Beatty – that’s Jack-Jack to you – has filled a lot of the production gap, but they’ll need more consistency across the board to take the next step.
Robert Morris sort of put together the full package of why I’ve been so high on the Colonials for most of the year on Sunday in a 68-54 win at Cleveland State that didn’t feel that close (if I had to pick a moment, RMU’s game at Canisius on November 27th was when I jumped on their bandwagon). Their aggressive defense – up there with teams like Youngstown State and Green Bay in the Horizon League rankings for various statistics – stifled the Vikings to 15-for-45 from the floor for the game (and just 1-for-11 from three) while Ashya Klopfenstein and Sol Castro combined for nearly half of RMU’s shots and found plenty of room underneath. The win gave the Colonials a season sweep over the Vikings and added to a fairly impressive track record that also includes a win over Oakland a couple weeks ago. RMU opened the weekend by topping Purdue Fort Wayne 60-48, the sixth time this season they’ve held an opponent under 50 points.
Ultimately it doesn’t count for much, but Purdue Fort Wayne threw quite a scare into Youngstown State on Sunday, holding the Penguins to 25 first-half points before Callahan and company started ripping cord. Sylare Starks had 15 points for the Dons (including 3-for-5 from deep) as part of an ongoing bounceback from a January slump while Aubrey Stupp continued her evolution into one of the team’s frontline players. Ultimately, PFW didn’t have enough depth this year to withstand their several long-term injuries (and considering the importance of most of the players in question, few would), but there remains a lot to like about this program going forward. The Dons travel to Detroit Mercy and Oakland next weekend, and while Maria Marchesano’s team looks more or less locked into ninth place at this point, building some momentum ahead of a conference tournament game at Robert Morris or Oakland can’t be a bad thing.
Wright State began the week by being pummeled by Cleveland State on Monday, a game moved due to Winter Storm Landon, and if I’m being completely honest, the Raiders gave off the vibe of a team that had packed it in for the year. Then WSU abruptly proved me wrong, first by rallying from a big early deficit to tie IUPUI midway through the third quarter before losing by 13, then by hanging on for their third win of the year on Saturday, over UIC. Jada Wright (the school isn’t named after her, I checked) had a monster week with 35 rebounds and 11 blocked shots over the three games, while Jada Roberson has led the Raiders in scoring in each of their games over the last two weeks. After a series of ugly losses in the second half of January and running through the CSU game, Kari Hoffman at least has her team poised to close the season on a positive note.
Detroit Mercy didn’t have a ton to show for their weekend hosting the Wisconsin schools beyond another pair of double-digit losses, though I remain impressed with a team that, as far as I can tell from the outside, hasn’t quit on the season despite every available reason to do so – the thing’s almost over, they haven’t won a game (let alone anything bigger than that), leading scorer Sydney Searcy has been out since January 8th, and LaTayna Collins is still carrying an interim tag. The Titans play a rescheduled game at UIC tonight after the teams needed overtime in their first meeting which, along with a home game against Purdue Fort Wayne this weekend and a contest at Wright State next weekend, represent their likely last shots to win a game and possibly even climb out of the basement. Irene Murua has surged late in the season, including 16 points against Milwaukee, followed by ten points against Green Bay.
The biggest Horizon League news of last week, of course, was the conference’s enforcement of its bylaw allowing it to suspend departing schools from postseason competition (unless a year’s notice of the withdrawal was given) against UIC. There have been plenty of rage-filled words posted to the internet about the situation blaming either the conference or the school (the smart people, of course, had at least something to say about both), but to their credit, the Flames basketball teams seemed to come out with an appropriate-sized chip on their shoulders. The UIC men’s team upset first-place Cleveland State on Thursday, and while the women didn’t win, they did offer a closer-than-expected game against a possibly-looking-ahead NKU team before nearly coming back from 16 down early in the fourth quarter at Wright State. For a team with exactly, no question about it, five games left in their 2021-22 season, there’s at least the chance that the Flames turn one into their Final Four and pull off a surprising win.