You Gotta See This: Horizon League
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: a speed injection in the Horizon.
In the 2010 and 2011 NCAA tournaments, when America received its introduction to the Butler Bulldogs, they got a lot in the exchange: a feel-good underdog story two years running; an up-close view of the most impressive young coach (Brad Stevens) in the sport; proof that belief, guile and luck were sometimes enough; and proof that a mid-major really could win the whole enchilada one day, with the right breaks, or just a few more inches of backboard.
Whether basketball fans realized it or not, or even cared to, they also got a primer on Horizon League basketball. The Bulldogs won in the NCAA tournament two years running because they ran smart, focused offense and lockdown defense. One couldn't work without the other, and the pace was deliberate -- it allowed Butler to grind more talented and more athletic opponents into second-half dust, but it also kept opposing teams from using their athleticism on the break. Butler always beat you back on defense.
This is, by and large, the way the rest of the Horizon League has traditionally played its basketball. Deliberate, defensive. Last season, the Horizon League was its usual self -- except for Detroit, which cracked the vaunted 70-possessions-per-game mark, and Youngstown State, which finished at around 67 per. Five teams averaged fewer than 64 possessions per game. Six fell below 65, and Valparaiso finished at 65.4. This is not a fast league. Could it become one?
The question is worth asking thanks to, you guessed it, realignment. This season is former Summit member Oakland's inaugural campaign in the Horizon, and there are several reasons why this is an exciting change. For starters, it sets up the possibility of a fantastic local rivalry with Detroit (Oakland is in Rochester, Mich.). It adds another quality mid-major program, full stop -- Greg Kampe's team has been the toast of the Summit League for most of the last half-decade. But more than anything, the Grizzlies bring speed. Over the last four seasons, Kampe's teams have averaged 71.03 possessions per game. Oakland is a different kind of team than the usual Horizon squad, with a different philosophy. If Detroit plays just as fast this season (and it might not, having lost point guard Ray McCallum Jr. to the NBA draft), the rising possession tide could lift all HL boats. If not, then Oakland will be a singularly speedy oddity in an otherwise homogenous conference. Either option could prove interesting.
The Horizon League is in an interesting place now. Butler got so good it outgrew its old denizens, moving to the A-10 and now the new Big East, but according to Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings, the league was still the 11th-best top-to-bottom last season, just behind a now-decimated Conference USA. What Oakland can do for that overall league strength, and for the nightly entertainment value, is entirely worth watching.