By Mike Ivcic
UltimateCapper Contributing Writer
A week and a half of conference tournaments kicks off Tuesday, and the Horizon League tournament will begin with four games, all at campus sites. The league is a clear-cut “top-half, bottom-half” league, with five teams at 11-7 or better and the other five teams 7-11 or worse. Butler enters as the only team with an at-large potential, meaning any shot at the conference landing two bids will require one of the other teams knocking off the Bulldogs on their home floor. Loyola is the only team to do that this season, so odds are this will be a one bid league. Green Bay will join Butler with a bye until the semifinals, as the Horizon power-protects its top two seeds, while the remaining eight teams will have to win two games to join them.
1. Butler (25-4, 15-3) – Winning two games at home will guarantee this team a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, though they should be in either way. They are one of the youngest teams in the country, but the freshmen have responded to the additional playing time by stepping up in crucial moments. The Bulldogs have non-conference wins over Davidson and Xavier and a three point loss at Ohio State, while their conference losses came at Green Bay and Milwaukee, as well as the aforementioned home loss to Loyola. Since the tournament will be played in Indiana and not Wisconsin, the Bulldogs should come away with the title.
2. Green Bay (22-9, 13-5) – Green Bay earned the other bye, finishing one game better than Cleveland State and Wright State. As such, they’ll play their first tournament game Sunday, likely against a Cleveland State team that will have played Saturday as well. Those two teams split the season series, each defending their home court, so the extra day of rest could prove to be the difference. The Phoenix have four players averaging double figures in scoring, but they’re coming off a 67-66 loss at Wright State in the regular season finale and they haven’t played past the conference tournament this decade, so they’ll have to learn to win the pressure games quickly if they want the NCAA instead of the NIT.
3. Cleveland State (21-10, 12-6) – Speaking of a team with postseason experience, Cleveland State is hoping to learn from last year’s NIT loss at Dayton to launch them into the better tournament. After what should be an easy win at home over last place Detroit on Tuesday, they’ll get either Youngstown State or Loyola prior to their anticipated matchup with Green Bay. They won’t score as much as the Phoenix, but they do defend better, allowing only 59.2 points per game. They’ll have to hold their opponents to right around there in order to pull the upsets and earn the auto bid.
4. Wright State (18-12, 12-6) – The Raiders beat Butler in Dayton two years ago to capture the tournament championship, but this time they’ll have knock off the Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse in the semis to reclaim the title. They lost their first six games this season before rebounding nicely in conference play, but they’ll have possibly the toughest tournament road of any of the five upper tier teams, having to go through Valparaiso and then likely Milwaukee before meeting Butler. They’ll need to improve on their 59.7 points per game average if they want to pull a few upsets.
5. Milwaukee (16-13, 11-7) – Milwaukee comes in on a bit of a down note, having lost five of their final seven games, but one of those two wins did come against Butler, which has to give the Panthers some confidence. They’ll get Loyola at home to start before meeting the Raiders in Indy if the bracket holds true to form. Milwaukee beat Loyola twice and split the season series with both Wright State and Butler, so the path to the finals is not impossible. Known for pulling upsets in the NCAA tournament in the early part of the decade under now-Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, the Panthers will look to keep up their scoring pace (67.6 ppg) while improving on their scoring defense (also 67.6 ppg).
6. Youngstown State (11-18, 7-11)
7. Illinois-Chicago (15-14, 7-11)
8. Loyola (14-17, 6-12)
9. Valparaiso (9-21, 5-13)
10. Detroit (7-22, 2-16)
Youngstown State will host Illinois Chicago with the winner advancing to the weekend in Indy, likely against Cleveland State. Youngstown took both regular season contests against Ill-Chi and split with the Vikings, giving them the best shot at breaking the bracket out of the bottom five. With the first round at campus sites, any other team winning a tournament game will have to do so on the road, which would truly be a shocker for this tournament.
Analysis: The bracket will hold true in the first two rounds, but look for Cleveland State to take out a slumping Green Bay team in the semis to meet Butler in the finals next Tuesday. Ultimately, however, this will be a one-bid league.
Final Regular Season Standings
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