Friday, January 2, 2009

2009 Has Arrived...So Has the Horizon League

With the holidays, and 2008 for that matter, now in the rear-view mirror...it's time to once again focus our attention on what is shaping up to be a highly-competitive regular season race in the Horizon League.

The information from our end will be coming fast and furious from here on out...whether it be here, or throughout the week on HLN. Highlights, top plays, interviews with coaches, blogging (live, with video), and perhaps even some live chat sessions (with guests) are all on tap over the next few months.

With all of that fresh in our minds, and league play upon us, there's no better time than now to take a look at what's at stake in the Horizon League over the next couple months. And trust me, there's plenty at stake.

Entering Saturday's slate of league contests, the Horizon League carries a rank of #10 in the country, when looking at conference RPIs. This number, as much as almost anything, puts the Horizon League on an inside track toward multiple bids in the NCAA Tournament when March rolls around. I'm not talking about the type of multiple bids the Horizon League has seen in the past, where there's an upset in the HL Tournament title game and two teams make the field of 65...I'm talking about two legit "locks" (or at least 1 lock and 1 bubble team) regardless of how the league tournament shakes out. Now, RPI isn't everything, but it certainly helps. A stronger league, with individual teams holding stronger RPIs, keeps the damage to a minimum when going through two rounds of league play. You already know all of this though. Right?

How about raw numbers...as in an actual win-loss record. After all, it's the only tangible number that can be used to evaluate teams (or conferences)...and frankly, if you don't win games you aren't going anywhere. The Horizon League is looking pretty strong thus far, boasting a (47-42) record in non-league games against D1 competition. To put this in context, conferences like the Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10, and Conference USA also have winning records out-of-conference, while the West Coast Conference is under .500, and the Colonial is exactly .500 at (63-63). Each of these leagues are either just above or just below the Horizon League in the current conference RPI rankings, and has a similar profile of teams. What's also impressive about the HL's non-league slate, is that they have a winning record against some of these similar conferences. (3-2) vs. the Atlantic 10, (5-3) vs. the Missouri Valley, and (11-9) vs. the Mid-American could go a long way come March...and wins against the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, and SEC only bolster the Horizon League's chances for two bids. I'm not the only one who feels this way. Take, for example, this recent excerpt from a post on Tuesday at The Mid-Majority:
Horizon League: Life in this year's top mid-major conference just got more complicated. In last night's G!O!T!N!, Wright State clamped down on Syracuse-beating preseason favorite Cleveland State 72-61 to send the Vikings into a 1-2 hole. The three remaining undefeateds are 2-0 Butler (off beating UAB in a minor Red Line Upset) and Green Bay. Your surprise conference leader is 3-0 Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which posted an impressive 71-66 win over Illinois-Chicago last night.
While this type of praise is certainly a step in the right direction, it also sheds some light on which "type" of league-race could end up resulting in just one NCAA Tournament bid, or multiple bids.

If you look at last season's race in the Atlantic 10, just 4 games separated 2nd place Temple (11-5) from the (7-9) 11th place trio of Rhode Island, Duquesne, and St. Louis. Seven teams won 20+ games through the A-10 Tournament, but only 3 made the Big Dance. Why, you ask? Several teams had high-profile wins to their name but aside from Xavier, no one else separated themselves from the rest of the pack in league play.

On the flip side, look at what happened last season in the Sun Belt...a much lower rated league when it comes to RPI rankings. Western Kentucky and South Alabama made statements during league play by both finishing (16-2), five games ahead of their closest competitors. And when South Alabama stubbed it's toe in the Sun Belt semis against Middle Tennessee...the Jaguars still secured an at-large bid, despite having a mere (1-3) record against non-conference RPI top-100 teams. Two wins against Western Kentucky (2008 RPI: 39) during the regular season proved to carry a lot of weight for South Alabama...although, we all know what happened to them in the NCAA Tournament. Rick Pitino, you...of all people...should be ashamed.

So what does this all mean for the 2008-2009 version of the Horizon League? Well, at this point, it appears that Butler, Cleveland State, and UIC (possibly) have had success that seems to be at-large worthy. Sorry Green Bay, but the non-league schedule just isn't strong enough. The Bulldogs and Vikings each have at least one signature win...while UIC could benefit from wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech if they can both move toward respectability in the SEC and ACC. For these purposes, lets focus on Butler and Cleveland State. If these two teams can take care of business the next couple of months and finish, say, 3-to-5 games ahead of the rest of the field...while winning their BracketBuster games...they could have NCAA Tournament bids already wrapped up before Horizon League Tournament play begins. The schedule sets up nice as well, as Butler and Cleveland State won't face off again until February 28th...the last day of the regular season.

Let the games begin (again)!

2 comments:

  1. The Horizon should get love this year, but you never know. Thanks for the info, great analysis.

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  2. I'm going to go ahead and have a wet dream: say Milwaukee runs the table and wins out for the rest of the regular season, goes 18-0 in conference and wins 2 non-cons (SIU-E and the BBuster). Does UWM get an at-large bid?

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