Horizon League Tournament: Preview & Predictions

March 3rd, 2009

This is one in a series of conference tournament previews, in which I run down all the teams involved, giving a brief statistical review and presenting the log5 projections, using in-conference offensive and defensive efficiency. The basic log5 methodology comes from Bill James, and this is an area Ken Pomeroy has looked at in the past as well. I claim nothing new in the application, but obviously with slightly different methodologies, these numbers may differ from others you find.  I don’t claim to be an expert on any particular conference, and I’m sure there are some mis-characterizations on some players I’ve seen sparingly at best, so please add your thoughts in the comments. Anyway, with no further ado, the preview follows below:


Horizon League Championship

The Horizon league utilizes a two-round bye, in which the bottom 8 teams battle for spots in the semifinals, where the top 2 seeds are waiting for them. First round games are hosted at campus sites, the quarters and semis are in the #1 seeds’ building, and the highest remaining seed hosts the final.


Tournament Odds














Green Bay






Cleveland St.






Wright St.












Youngstown St.






Illinois Chicago






Loyola Chicago


















Only two teams look to have any legitimate shot of stopping Butler and causing consternation across the bubble, Green Bay and Cleveland St. There’s also a pretty clear drop-off below the #5 seed, with the bottom five having little chance to even make the final.


#1 – Butler Bulldogs (25-4, 15-3) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.153

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2008 (2nd Round)


There’s no Horizon team that’s as complete as the Bulldogs, who have the conference’s best defense and one of its best attacks. They make more than 50% of their shots from inside the arc, and get a lot of points from the free throw line, but turn the ball over more than a ‘traditional’ Butler team. Butler’s defense is spectacular at stopping shots, holding opponents to 36% from the field and 30% from three.


Players to watch:

6-8 FR Gordon Hayward, 13.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 61.7 eFG% - Hayward has been one of the nation’s best freshmen, and looks like the kind of player power conference programs will be kicking themselves over the years to come. He doesn’t lead Butler in scoring or rebounding, but is easily the team’s most efficient option, a good inside guy who shoots 46% from behind the arc and over 80% from the free throw line. He’s also a solid defender, averaging better than a block and a steal, and should be a player to watch throughout the month of March.


6-8 SO Matt Howard, 14.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 55.6 eFG% - Another key to Butler’s successful season, Howard is a good inside scorer who does his best work at the free throw line; he’s 7th in the nation in free throw rate, and hits them at a 77% clip. He’s also the team’s best rebounder, and one of the Horizon’s best shot blockers.


#2 – Green Bay Phoenix (22-9, 13-5) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.103

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1996 (1st Round)


Green Bay is as good a shooting team as you’ll find in the country, the only team in the top 5 nationally in both three-point and free-throw shooting. It’s also pretty solid inside, and manages to hold on to the ball, all of which adds up to the conference’s best offense. When the Phoenix get on a roll, they can put up some frightening offensive numbers, which is good, because their defense hasn’t been particularly strong. They are the worst team in the Horizon on the defensive glass, and are only average at defending shots, so they need all the points they can get.


Players to watch:

6-8 SR Ryan Tillema, 17.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG,60.3 eFG% - Tillema missed the first month of the season, and despite starting only 5 games, he leads the Horizon in scoring. He’s a 44% three-point shooter, and is an excellent ball control guard, turning the ball over just 30 times all season.  


6-4 JR Troy Cotton, 12.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 58.4 eFG% - Cotton is the Phoenix’s most-frequent three-point shooter, and at 42% he’s a very dangerous long-distance option. Like Tillema, he doesn’t turn the ball over much, and is an incredibly efficient offensive player.



#3 – Cleveland St. Vikings (21-10, 12-6) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.093

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1986 (Sweet Sixteen)


The Vikings’ season may best be remembered for some close finishes, falling on a buzzer-beating three against Butler and winning on a miraculous half-court shot at Syracuse. An eight-game winning streak towards the close of the conference season got them into the battle for a second seed, but they couldn’t clinch it, forcing them to play two extra games. The Vikings are the most inside-oriented team in the tournament, a good thing, given their poor three point shooting. They also struggle to defend the outside shot, but make up for it by leading the league in shot-blocking and forcing turnovers.


Players to watch:

6-5, SR J’Nathan Bullock, 15.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 47.7 eFG% - Bullock is a critical player for the Vikings, leading them in both scoring and rebounding. He’s a solid player who does a lot well, but doesn’t have any particular area where he’s a dominant force. His  


6-3, SR Cedric Jackson, 9.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.4 APG, 3.0 SPG, 41.3 eFG% - Almost all of Jackson’s value comes when he’s not shooting the ball, and the Vikings should try to avoid possessions ending in his hands. He makes up for his shooting by leading the conference in assists and steals, while also being a good rebounder.



#4 – Wright St. Raiders (18-12, 12-6) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.068

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2007 (1st Round)


Wright St. had an 0-6 start to the season, including dropping its first two conference games, but rebounded to reach a 7-3 conference record before picking up a few tough losses down the stretch. The Raiders defend better than any non-Butler team in the HL, holding opponents below 38% from the field, and forcing turnovers at an impressive rate. They play at a pretty slow pace, and are somewhat vulnerable to the three, but their problems tend to come from the offensive end. Wright St. simply doesn’t make many shots, just 41% from the field, and compounds that by getting very few of their misses back. It does manage to get shots up, as it rarely turns it over, but that doesn’t end up producing a lot of points.


Players to watch:

6-7 JR Cory Cooperwood, 9.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 49.0 eFG% - Cooperwood’s stats fit Wright St.’s profile really well: he’s only a decent scorer by many team’s standards, but he’s the Raiders’ most efficient offensive player. He’s also an effective defender, recording good block and steal rates, and is easily the Raiders’ best rebounder.


6-5 JR Todd Brown, 11.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 49.5 eFG% - Brown plays more minutes than any other Raider, and is the only serious three-point threat on the team, a 43% shooter from behind the arc. 39% from two, though, means he that he should try and stick to the outside shot.



#5 – Milwaukee Panthers (16-13, 11-7) ; Efficiency Margin: +0.024

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2006 (2nd Round)


Milwaukee looked to be serious challengers for the conference title when it sat at 7-1 in mid-January, but it closed the season with a 4-6 record, and was unable to parlay a big win over Butler into a top 4 seed. The Panthers shoot a terrible percentage from the field, but have put together a decent offense anyways. They rebound well and take a lot of threes, which they make at a decent clip. Their performance inside the arc is their Achilles heel, as they hit just 43% of inside shots. Defensively, Milwaukee is again around league average, and unlike the offense, it is stronger inside than outside. It is also one of the nation’s weakest teams at forcing turnovers.


Players to watch:

6-7 JR James Eayrs, 11.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 50.6 eFG% - One of my favorite moments of the season was watching ‘Big Lumber’ hit the game-tying three against Green Bay, a game that really started an uptick in his minutes and his level of play. He’s 6-7, 340 pounds, and an solid three-point shooter, not the most common sight. He’s good on the glass and at the free throw line, but his biggest asset is his play behind the arc.


6-3 SR Avery Smith, 11.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.2 SPG, 42.9 eFG% - Smith does just about everything but make shots, leading the team in assists  and steals and sitting second in scoring and rebounds. His problem is his shooting percentages, which are terrible, 39% overall and just 29% from behind the arc.



#6 – Youngstown St. Penguins (11-18, 7-11) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.055

Last NCAA Tournament bid: None


Outside of a four-game stretch that saw it beat both Chicago schools and both Wisconsin schools, Youngstown has struggled to find any consistency, getting some very nice wins, but dropping a lot of games against the bottom teams in the league as well. The Penguins are good three point shooters, but most of their offense comes from inside the arc. They also do quite poorly on turnover margin, forcing few themselves while committing more than most league teams. Their one defensive strength is on the perimeter, where they hold opponents below 33% on three-point attempts. When the ball goes inside, though, they usuallly have trouble getting stops.


Players to watch:

6-7 JR Sirlester Martin, 9.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 44.1 eFG% - Martin is second in the Horizon in rebounding, and while he’s only fourth on the team in scoring, he’s part of a fairly even group of scorers around the 10 PPG mark. Martin’s problem is shooting, as he hits just 43% of his two attempts.


6-2 JR DeAndre Mays, 10.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.4 APG, 43.4 eFG% - Mays’ overall percentages aren’t great, but he’s a solid lead guard, with a good assist rate and the ability to hit the long distance shot.



#7 – UIC Flames (15-14, 7-11) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.036

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2004 (1st Round)


The Flames are the last team that  are close to even in in-conference efficiency margin, and the last team with a significant chance of making the semifinals. A good start and strong finish to the season for UIC were ruined by a 4-11 stretch in the first month and a half of the conference season. This is a quality shooting team, making a good percentage of free throws and threes, but with most of its shots coming from insie, where the Flames shoot just 43%, the offense as a whole isn’t too strong. Interestingly, their opponents tend to have success from outside as well, making a lot of threes and rarely turning the ball over. The Flames’ defensive system leads to opponents taking a large number of threes, and since UIC doesn’t stop enough of them from being made, it has the conference’s second worst defense.


Players to watch:

5-11, SR Josh Mayo, 16.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.4 APG, 48.6 eFG% - Mayo is part of one of the conference’s best inside-outside combinations, and is second in the Horizon in scoring. The senior guard shoots an almost identical percentage from two and from three, both around 40%, and is excellent at the free throw line, where he shoots 86%. He’s not the primary ball distribution guard, but does manage to average more than 3 assists.


7-0, SR Scott VanderMeer, 10.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 41.2 eFG% - VanderMeer is the conference’s best pure big man, a dominant shot-blocker and rebounder. What’s surprising about him is his shooting percentage, which is certainly not as high as you’d expect from a 7-footer.


#8 – Loyola Chicago Ramblers (14-17, 6-12) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.118

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1985 (Sweet Sixteen)


The Ramblers came up with the Horizon’s most surprising result of the year when they snapped a six-game losing streak by being the only HL team to win a regular season game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. They were incredibly efficient on the offensive end in that game, which is the only way they can realistically win with the conference’s worst defense. Horizon opponents have shredded Loyola, shooting over 50% from two, and 46% overall. Loyola also has a worse offense than any team ahead of them in the standings, explaining why there is such a big gap to the bottom three teams. They are the conference’s worst at making shots, but are very good offensive rebounders, and don’t turn it over much.


Players to watch:

6-1, SR J.R. Blount, 13.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.3 APG, 39.9 eFG% - Blount leads the Ramblers in scoring and assists, but this isn’t really a good thing, as he is quite a poor percentage player, shooting under 40% from the field and struggling with turnovers.


6-8, SR Darrin Williams, 7.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 51.4 eFG% - Williams is only Loyola’s fifth ranked scorer, but is really the only player who shoots decently, at 51%. He’s  also a good rebounder and shot blocker, and the Ramblers need him to play well in the post.


#9 – Valparaiso Crusaders (9-21, 5-13) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.090

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 2004 (1st Round)


The Crusaders are the perfect example of why this time of year is so magical, as more than a decade later the Valpo name is still associated with its huge tourney upset in 1998. This edition will have pulled a big upset if it even manages to make the semifinals, as they’ve had a tough season, though they have won two of their last three. Valpo’s offensive struggles have come despite their solid shooting; the problem has been in getting possessions, as they are near the bottom of the league in turnovers and rebounding. Defensively, the Crusaders are pretty mediocre, with he only bright spot being their ability to force turnovers.


Players to watch:

6-9, SR Urule Igbavboa, 12.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.9 BPG, 50.2 eFG% - Igbavboa has taken a larger role in the Valpo offense in his senior year, and seen his efficiency drop from a successful 07-08 season. Still, he’s a versatile player with a lot of talents, leading the Crusaders in scoring, blocks and rebounding and chipping in with some assists as well. He is at his best when he can get to the free throw-line, where he earns a lot of points despite a mediocre percentage.


6-3, SO Howard Little, 9.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 54.7 eFG% -  Little is the rare Crusader who is a serious threat from behind the arc, and while he doesn’t take a lot of shots, he’s efficient enough to sit second on the team in scoring. He’s also a pretty good rebounder, and leads the team in steals.


#10 – Detroit Titans (7-22, 2-16) ; Efficiency Margin: -0.142

Last NCAA Tournament bid: 1999 (2nd Round)


It may be as cheesy as it gets, but ‘Mercy’ is an appropriate name for the Titans, given their woeful performance with the ball, one of the worst in-conference offensive showings in the nation. Consider that if they were as good defending against the Horizon average as Memphis have been against Conference USA (which is pretty damn good, if you didn’t know), they’d probably still be a .500 team.  Given this, it’s a miracle that they managed to stay within single digits of Butler in both games against the Bulldogs. Interestingly, they manage to be terrible offensively while still making a decent field goal percentage, which should tell you everything you need to know about how useful that stat is in isolation. The problem is twofold, turnovers and three-point shooting. When you make just 25% of long-range attempts, and give the ball up once every four times down the floor, it’s hard to find possessions in which the ball ends up in the basket. Defensively, Detroit are actually decent, mostly because they force turnovers themselves and do well on the glass.


Players to watch:

5-11 JR Woody Payne, 8.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 2.2 SPG, 45.7 eFG% - Payne is a bit of an oddity, a 5-11 player who takes very few threes, and doesn’t do well on those he does attempt. He’s a decent point guard, leading the team in assists, having one of the best steal rates in the country, and only occasionally struggling with turnovers.


6-7 JR Thomas Kennedy, 11.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 47.5 eFG% -  The Titans’ leading scorer, Kennedy could actually be an efficient player if he cut out the three-pointers, on which he shoots just 24%. He’s an OK rebounder, but nothing special, and doesn’t contribute enough in any other area to make up for his poor shot selection.


My statistical all-Horizon League team:

Butler SO G Matt Howard, 14.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 55.6 eFG%

UIC SR G Josh Mayo, 16.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.4 APG, 48.6 eFG%

Green Bay SR G Ryan Tillema, 16.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG,59.4 eFG%

Butler FR G/F Gordon Hayward, 13.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 61.7 eFG%

Cleveland St. SR F J’Nathan Bullock, 15.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 47.7 eFG%