Next up in the conference preview series: A league that has inexplicably yielded consecutive national championship game appearances. Ladies and gentlemen, your look at the Horizon League; or to my fellow old-timers out there, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
1) Wisconsin-Milwaukee - Bruce Pearl, we hardly knew ye. That's what fans of the Panthers could be saying if coach Rob Jeter's team lives up to expectations this season, as virtually everyone from last year's incarnation of UWM basketball comes back for an encore. All five starters will get one more year together, led by leading scorer and rebounder Anthony Hill. Senior forward Tony Meier is the Panthers' top distance threat after last year's 44 percent clip from beyond the arc, and 6-3 point guard Kaylon Williams looks to improve on a season in which he averaged over five assists and just as many rebounds per game.
2) Detroit - The Titans will be showcased early in the year on ESPN when they host St. John's on the December night in which their court will be named after Dick Vitale, and head coach Ray McCallum's son is back for his sophomore season. If last year's rookie campaign was any indication, Ray Jr. will be one to expect great things from. He only averaged five rebounds and five assists every game while tying for the team lead in scoring. What makes Detroit even more dangerous is the post presence of 6-10 senior center Eli Holman. A threat offensively (11.8 points per game last year while also shooting 61 percent from the field) and defensively, (9.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots per game) Holman creates mismatches simply by taking the court. Canadian import Jason Calliste, the team's top three-point shooter last season at 40 percent, is also back for his junior season as the Titans' shooting guard.
3) Butler - Every time I mention Butler on Twitter, (@DalyDoseOfHoops for those interested) I am criticized to no end for my opinion(s) toward the alma mater of my friend and colleague John Minko. Let me clarify my stance on Butler: It's not the program that I dislike, but rather the aura of invincibility that has been bestowed upon head coach Brad Stevens for leading the Bulldogs to the national championship game in consecutive years, where they lost to Duke on Gordon Hayward's last-second miss in 2010 and to Connecticut last year when the team shot a robust 19 percent from the field. About to turn 35 next month, Stevens has become the media's golden boy simply for this aforementioned occasion, when in fact any coach of any program could do this given the right circumstances. Anyway, I digress. Saint Stevens will not have it easy this season, as Butler will finally have to replace three of their most gifted players in warrior Shelvin Mack, dominating post presence Matt Howard, and unsung hero Shawn Vanzant. Center Andrew Smith, who broke out when moved into the starting lineup last year, is now a junior; and will have the daunting task of picking up where Howard left off while simultaneously looking to create nightmares for opposing matchups inside. In the backcourt, senior Ronald Nored remains as the only starter from both national championship games; and will have junior Chase Stigall sharing the backcourt with him while sophomore swingman Khyle Marshall should become a full-time starter this year.
4) Cleveland State - Former Rutgers head man Gary Waters won 27 games with the Vikings last year, but did not get an NCAA Tournament bid after Butler won the Horizon League tournament. It will only get harder for Waters to coach this year's team to the same result after do-everything guard Norris Cole was selected in June's NBA draft, but Trevon Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery return to the Viking backcourt to pick up the pieces. An undersized Cleveland State frontline will need 6-7 junior forward Tim Kamczyc to step up on both sides of the ball to remain within the top half of the conference.
5) Valparaiso - Had Brandon Wood not transferred to Michigan State, the Crusaders would be higher on this list. That's how good the point guard who will now have the task of replacing the great Kalin Lucas was for Valpo. Australian import Ryan Broekhoff is the top returning scorer and leading rebounder from last year's team as well as the top three-point shooter, with a 45 percent clip from long range a season ago.
6) Wisconsin-Green Bay - The Phoenix lose both of their leading scorers, but 7-1 center Alec Brown will embark on his second season after a rookie campaign in which he averaged ten points, two blocks, and just over five rebounds per game. Sharpshooter Steve Baker is a senior this year, and will most likely be the top returning guard on a team that also brings back forwards Jarvis Williams (no relation to the former Miami Dolphins safety) and Daniel Turner.
7) Loyola (Illinois) - The Ramblers will forever be known as the team that participated in the most insignificant broadcast of my career; a November 25th, 2008 Preseason NIT affair at Carnesecca Arena that Frank Qasim shared the call with me for on WSJU, and a grand total of 959 were on hand for the Johnnies' 73-54 victory in which Norm Roberts' team let Loyola pull to within one early in the second half before driving away. New head coach Porter Moser has four players that were active for that aforementioned contest: Guard Courtney Stanley, forwards Walt Gibler and Jordan Hicks, and reserve center John Benkoske. Of the current Rambler unit, it's 6-8 junior forward Ben Averkamp who makes the motor run; but Hicks will be back after having his season cut short due to a broken foot just nine games in last year.
8) Wright State - The Raiders have only one senior on their team this year, Cameroon native Johann Mpondo; who was a full-time starter last year, but only averaged three points and just as many rebounds per game last season. Sharpshooter Cole Darling, whose average productivity was only one point greater, is the top returning scorer for second-year head coach Billy Donlon.
9) Youngstown State - The Penguins bring back leading rebounder Damian Eargle to a team that only won two Horizon League games a year ago, and sophomore Kendrick Perry also returns to run the show at point guard after averaging four assists per game as a freshman. Shooting guard Blake Allen, the most proficient three-point shooter for Youngstown State last season, is back for his junior campaign.
10) Illinois-Chicago - Winners of just seven games overall last season, the Flames' biggest triumph was their victory against the University of Illinois on a neutral court in December. Senior center Darrin Williams is the top returning scorer, but must improve on an average of 4.9 points per game to avoid the Flames' chances being extinguished before the season even starts.