It’s finally March and conference tournament time is upon us–the precursor to March Madness. Here’s another conference tournament preview to whet your pallet.
When and Where: March 5-12; First Round: campus sites; Quarterfinals and Semifinals: Valparaiso, Indiana; Finals: highest remaining seed
The Front Runners: It’s clear that the two teams atop the league, Valparaiso (13-3 Horizon) and No. 2 seed Detroit (12-4), are the favorites. Valpo, in just it’s second year in the Horizon, once again won the regular season crown but look to displace the Titans as the conference’s rep in the NCAA Tournament. Both teams will have double-byes into semifinals. The Crusaders can straight shoot it, making 48.7% of their shots while holding opponents to just 41.1% shooting. Valpo’s leading scorer, senior Ryan Broekhoff, is shooting 45.5%, which puts him sixth on the team based on players averaging at least 12 minutes, so any one on the floor can knock down shots for head coach Bryce Drew‘s squad. They’ve won eight of nine games entering the tournament. Detroit has struggled of late and enters the tournament 4-3 over their past seven. Ray McCallum, the tournament MVP from a year ago, will look to put on another show this season as a rematch of last year’s Valpo-Detroit finals seems likely once again.
The Best of the Rest: Unlike a year ago, when the Horizon featured five teams with 20+ wins, this is looking like a top-heavy field. No. 3 Wright State (10-6) got swept by Valpo but split their season series with the Titans, earning a 64-62 win at Detroit. The Raiders also feature the league’s stingiest defense, allowing just 59.1 ppg on the year. The No. 4 Green Bay Phoenix (10-6) had the same limited success against the two top teams, getting swept by the Crusaders while splitting with Detroit. Sophomore guard Keifer Sykes (15.4 ppg) is fourth in the league in scoring thanks to his aggressive style of offense. Sykes gets to the line quite often (174 FTA) and knocks down 82.1% of his free throws, good for 30.7% of his points. After these two, it’s a jumbled mess of teams not really capable of making much noise.
Who to Watch For: McCollum is the league’s leading scorer (19.2 ppg) and Broekhoff is third (15.9 ppg), but the wild-card could be Detroit’s three-point bomber Jason Calliste. The junior puts up six threes a game, connecting on 36.8 percent while averaging 14.2 ppg, third on the team. Detroit’s offense is electric and rank 5th in Division I in points per game (78.9) but allow 71 ppg, so a track meet may ensue whenever they’re on the court.
Who’ll Be Dancing?: It’s almost too close to call but I’ll give the edge to the home team Valparaiso, who is 13-2 at home. The two split the season series with each winning on the other’s home court but a 7-9 road mark will be the kiss of death for the Titans. It’s tempting to go with McCallum and the high-octane Detroit offense, I think the home crowd will tip the scales, something they couldn’t do last year. The Horizon is a one-bid league with the winner likely earning a 13- or 14-seed. Regardless who comes out of this league, it’s likely they’ll go one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament.