By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: Butler has been the big boy in the Horizon League for some time and put the conference on the map with unpredicted runs in the NCAA Tournament two of the last three years. Things change however, and this season Butler will be playing in the Atlantic 10, which puts three teams in great position to capture this year's league title.
Valparaiso was crowned the Horizon League regular season champion last season and is well equipped for a title defense. The Crusaders were a bit of a surprise last season, but Bryce Drew's team is not going to be sneaking up on the competition this time around. Green Bay and Detroit are both viable contenders also as they both have a star player and efficient supporting casts. The Titans will try to ride the coat tails of Ray McCallum Jr. to their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
Cleveland State, Milwaukee, and Youngstown State all lost some firepower, but still have reasons to be optimistic. The Vikings have one of the league's most accomplished coaches in Gary Waters. The Panthers are welcoming a few promising recruits, and the Penguins have finally erased the losing culture in Youngstown.
Wright State is on a downward slope. Coach Billy Donlon's team will have trouble recovering from its off-year as it tries to replace its league's Newcomer of the Year.
UIC and Loyola both will try to overcome miserable seasons and make unprecedented runs at first place. The Flames lost their best post player but are returning four starters. The Ramblers return three starters and welcome a Big Ten transfer as they celebrate their 50th anniversary of their 1963 national championship.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Valparaiso
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Valparaiso, 2. Green Bay, 3. Detroit, 4. Cleveland State, 5. Milwaukee, 6. Youngstown State, 7. Wright State, 8. Illinois-Chicago, 9. Loyola-Chicago
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
VALPARAISO Former Crusaders' point guard Bryce Drew did a terrific job in leading his alma mater to a 22-12 overall finish, which included the program's first-ever regular season Horizon League title. Valpo had to settle for the NIT after being upset by Detroit in the conference tournament, but Drew's first year at the helm was an overall success. The Crusaders return Horizon League Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff (14.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Kevin Van Wijk (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) to their frontcourt. Indiana transfer Bobby Capobianco (6-9, 250) and Jamaican freshman Vashil Fernandez (6-10, 220) will provide depth and size in the post, something the team lacked a year ago. The Crusaders also have a deep, experienced backcourt which features Matt Kenney (7.3 ppg), Will Bogan (7.2 ppg), Ben Boggs (4.5 ppg), and Erik Buggs (3.4 apg). Valpo could be even more successful in the second year of Drew's system.
GREEN BAY The Phoenix squad that finished 15-15 overall last season returns four starters including one of the top NBA center prospects in the nation. Coach Brian Wardle transformed a team that was 3-6 in conference action and on a four-game losing streak into a feared opponent. Green Bay managed to win eight of its last 10 games to create a positive vibe around the program heading into Wardle's third season. The key to the team's success will be the lanky, 7-1 Alec Brown, who earned All-Horizon League honors after averaging 13.8 point and 8.1 boards per game as a sophomore. Also back in the frontcourt are power forward Brennan Cougill (9.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and sophomore swingman Josh Humphrey (6-5, 198). Green Bay has a talented and progressing point guard in sophomore Keifer Sykes (11.2 ppg, 3.4 apg). Opponents are unable to double team Brown or Sykes with Kam Cerroni's marksmanship and Horizon League leading accuracy from three-point range (46.5 percent) lurking on the perimeter. Green Bay showed what it can do down the stretch last season. With Brown in the middle, the Phoenix are never to be counted out.
DETROIT The Titans ran the table in the Horizon League Tournament for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1999. Detroit managed to finish 22-14 despite a 7-10 start to the season. Coach Ray McCallum did a great job of bringing his team together for a run to the Big Dance where they lost to Kansas in the second round. McCallum should be able to carry over last season's success with his son, Ray McCallum Jr., starting at point guard. The younger McCallum (15.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.9 apg) turned down offers from top tier programs out of high school and his strong performance on the way to his Horizon League Tournament MVP award showed he is a special player. Jason Calliste (6-2, 168) plays well opposite McCallum in Detroit's backcourt and netted 10.1 ppg. Nick Minnerath (6-9, 220) is back after a season-ending injury just five games into last season. The senior forward averaged 12.0 points and four rebounds per game before being sidelined. Doug Anderson (9.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Western Michigan transfer Juwan Howard Jr. (9.3 ppg) will see action in the frontcourt alongside Minnerath. Detroit may not be as loaded at the forward position as Valpo, but the younger McCallum seems to elevate his play when needed to deliver his team crucial victories.
CLEVELAND STATE The Vikings have been thriving and won 20 or more games in four of the six seasons they've played under Gary Waters. Cleveland State managed to finish second in the conference with a 12-6 league record and a 22-11 overall mark last year. The Vikings will have a difficult time duplicating that success with senior forward Tim Kamczyc (9.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg) as their only returning starter. Trey Harmon (12.6 ppg), Jeremy Montgomery (10.9 ppg), and D'Aundray Brown (10.8 ppg) all graduated and took their double-digit scoring averages out the door with them. CSU will need some scorers to emerge to fill the huge void left by their departures. Forward Anton Grady (8.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and guard Charlie Lee (4.1 ppg, 2.2 apg) are expected to move into the starting lineup and take over as the leaders of the program. The loss of four starters will be hard for Waters to overcome, but his creativity and drive seldom allows a losing record.
MILWAUKEE The Panthers pushed through an up-and-down, injury-plagued season to finish with a 20-11 record and a trip to the CBI Postseason Tournament. Coach Rob Jeter continued his defensive-minded philosophy and his team limited their opponents to only 62.5 ppg and 29 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Milwaukee lost a few important aspects of the 20-win team, but senior forward James Haarsma (10.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is back to lead the charge. Kyle Kelm (7.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) complements Haarsma very well from the other forward slot. Paris Gulley (8.5 ppg) is the only returning starter from the backcourt. Gulley hit 39.9 percent from three-point range and was second on the team with 52 makes from long distance. Junior college transfer Jordan Aaron (5-10) is expected to be the Panthers' next starting point guard. The Panthers have a good one-two punch at forward with Haarsma and Kelm, but their unproven guards could hold them back.
YOUNGSTOWN STATE The Penguins were unable to post a winning record in his first six seasons with the team, but the seventh year was the charm for coach Jerry Slocum. YSU, which ranked first in the Horizon League by making 38.1 percent of its three-point attempts, finished 16-15 overall. The 16 victories were the most in a season for the Penguins since 2001. Although YSU lost two starters from last year's team that took a step in the right direction, Kendrick Perry (16.8 ppg, 3.9 apg), Damian Eargle (11.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.7 bpg), and Blake Allen (12.8 ppg, 3.0 apg) are all back in the fold. Newcomers Ryan Weber (6-7, 200), Kamren Belin (6-7, 225), and Bobby Hain (6-10, 235) will all battle for time at the open forward positions. Perry may be the best offensive player in Horizon League, while Eargle is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Still, YSU will need production out of its newly added role players to generate a consecutive winning season.
WRIGHT STATE Coach Billy Donlon watched his squad finish with a disappointing 13-19 overall record for the program's first losing record in six years. To make matters worse, Horizon League Newcomer of the Year Julius Mays (14.1 ppg) transferred to Kentucky and Armond Battle (6.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg) graduated. The Raiders were second to last in scoring offense in the conference last season with just 58.0 ppg. That mark will be hard to improve upon with zero players with double-digit scoring averages returning. Sophomore guard Reggie Arceneaux (5-9, 160), who averaged 8.5 ppg as a rookie, could become the go-to-guy in the offense, but he will need to cut down on his turnovers. Newcomers Joe Bramanti and Antonio Drummond should both see immediate action in the WSU backcourt. Forwards Cole Darling (6.3 ppg) and A.J. Pacher (5.4 ppg) are threats inside and out on the offensive end, but are not up to par on the defensive end. The loss of Mays will be tough for Wright State to overcome. Donlon needs a new consistent scoring threat to surface or the Raiders will have a rocky journey through the 2012-2013 season.
ILLINOIS-CHICAGO The Flames are primed to improve upon their 8-22 finish as four starters return to the lineup. UIC had the least effective defense in the Horizon League last season as it allowed 67.8 ppg. Coach Howard Moore is just 15-46 and has yet to win a conference road game in two seasons at the helm of the program. UIC will have trouble finding someone to replace Darrin Williams' 6-9, 269 frame in the middle. Hayden Humes (6-8, 215) played well at forward with averages of 8.2 ppg and 5.6 rpg, while converting a team-best 41.8 percent of his three-point attempts in his first season at UIC last year. Little used, 6-10 sophomore Will Simonton (0.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg) is the leading candidate to start in the middle. The UIC backcourt starts two experienced seniors in Gary Talton (11.6 ppg) and Danny Barnes (10.4 ppg). Talton led the team with 99 assists last season. The Flames have an interesting nucleus with Humes, Talton, and Barnes. UIC should be able to improve upon last season's win total with the trio back.
LOYOLA-CHICAGO Porter Moser will hope his second season with the Ramblers goes much smoother than the 7-23 nightmare his inaugural year provided. Loyola finished last in the conference with a 1-17 mark versus Horizon League foes as well. Moser's underachieving team returned its leading scorer Ben Averkamp (15.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg). Also back is Joe Crisman (6-4, 195), who averaged 8.5 ppg last season as a freshman. Newcomers Jeff "Keke" White, Devon Turk, and Kody Williams are all expected to make an immediate impact in Loyola's backcourt. Junior guard Cully Payne averaged 8.6 ppg as a freshman at Iowa before a season-ending injury ended his sophomore season after just five games. Payne set out last season as per transfer rules and could make a big impact in his return to action. The Iowa transfer could be a difference-maker and take some of the pressure off of Averkamp. Loyola still has a mountain to climb before it will be competing for the league crown.