Horizon League becoming bigger player in tournament scene

First-year Horizon League entry Valparaiso blew an eight-point halftime lead at home last Tuesday against Butler, the then-No. 11 team in the country. Despite losing in heartbreaking fashion on a last-minute 3 by Pete Campbell, Crusaders coach Homer Drew was in a surprisingly upbeat mood afterwards.

"I think what we're going to do next year is raise ticket prices," said a beaming Drew. "You guys have been entertained by some great basketball."

Anybody who tuned in that evening to ESPN2 certainly must have been entertained just as much. The game was a perfectly turned two-hour television thriller, played before a backdrop of more than 5,000 yellow-shirted, sign-wielding Valpo supporters -- the largest crowd to ever have witnessed a basketball game in school history. The nationally ranked Horizon League headliners against the newcomers in a new Hoosier State rivalry, going down to the wire; it turned out to be a perfect showcase for the league's season debut on national television.

"Was that a great game or what?" asked Horizon commissioner Jonathan LeCrone rhetorically. "Two great schools, really exciting atmosphere, quality game, and at the end all the coaches and competitors shook hands and went home. That, in my opinion, was the true epitome of college basketball, what the game should be all about."

The head of the Indianapolis-based conference is understandably biased, but there's no denying that Horizon League basketball has been well worth the price of admission in recent years. Butler's Sweet 16 performance in 2007 was just the latest NCAA salvo for a conference that enjoyed Wisconsin-Milwaukee's third-round run in 2005 and second-round appearance in 2006, and the Horizon broke through to multi-bid status a year ago (Wright State) for the second time in five seasons. This year, No. 10 Butler heads up a league with an impressive 53-42 (.558) nonconference record, which currently boasts three other teams in the RPI's top 100 -- any of which could force a second consecutive two-bid Horizon by beating the Bulldogs in next month's conference tourney.

"The league's really improved," said Brad Stevens, who was a six-year Bulldog assistant before stepping up to Butler's head job last summer. "It's different than it was five years ago, it wasn't as deep back then. Now, you can truly lose anywhere on any given night in our league. We almost did tonight."

But the public at large has only received small glimpses of an emergent league that's now an annual at-large threat, but that may be because folks don't know where to look. Along with Butler, the Horizon features 10 schools in some of the Midwest's biggest cities, thousands of passionate basketball fans, and a lot of new and daring ideas about how to run a college conference.

Two nights later at Cleveland State, the only two teams in the nation that have managed to beat Butler squared off for second place. The home-standing Vikings had won seven straight to open the season, but once the league adjusted and began driving at CSU's defense, the team quickly lost four straight. Wright State came in as simply the defending champions of the conference, having beaten Butler in a critical late-season showdown, then repeating the feat in the title game to force a second bid.

A Horizon League conference game won't appear on ESPN2 again until March 1 (when Wright travels to Valpo), but the league isn't waiting to get its product out to the people. The Wolstein Center's sidelines were teeming with young workers in black polo shirts with "HLN" printed on the back -- standing for the Horizon League Network. It's not available on cable and satellite outlets like the Big Ten Network -- but it's potentially available in many more households, via a broadband Internet connection.

The commissioner later said that the Internet-only network's birth was simply a matter of mathematics.

"We were finding that we had a really good product, but it wasn't resonating with some of our broadcast TV partners," LeCrone explained. "We were spending $2 million subsidizing TV, and we were getting a low return on the number of viewers. We figured that instead of getting 25 ballgames on, we could broadcast 400 events across all sports on the Internet for a quarter of the cost.

"So we told some former broadcast partners that we were going in a different direction. They said, 'Sure you are, buddy.'"

The league struck out on its own by gambling heavily on broadband delivery, and the Horizon's only remaining television partnership consists of two regular-season games and the championship on ESPN2 (as well as a package of games on ESPNU). All HLN broadcasts are currently free of charge, fully subsidized by the league. LeCrone maintains that the viewing experience is nearly as good as traditional television, and that over 500,000 people so far have tuned into the league's men's basketball broadcasts -- an audience equal to half a Nielsen ratings point.

And the HL's DIY approach has paid off in other ways, too.

"We can play our games when we want to," the commissioner said. "[HLN] also allows us to control the product more. If we want to play all our games on Thursday night at 7 p.m., we can. Which is a huge advantage, because we don't really want to play at 9:00 p.m., or at midnight, or noon on a Sunday. Television usually means fitting into a schedule, and a lot of those times don't really work for us."

And LeCrone says that the strategy has found league-wide support, instead of opposition from schools seeking increased exposure on traditional media.

"It's hard to get a group of 10 schools and their ADs, staffs and coaches to agree on anything," said LeCrone. "But this was the one thing in my 15 years that everybody's been on board for. The general reaction has been, 'We are so glad people will finally be able to see us play, it's been so long.'"

Point-and-click viewers, and nearly 3,000 green and black-clad attendees in Cleveland, were treated to a physical battle on Thursday in which the teams traded early runs in a low-scoring first half. And then, another thrilling finish in a league that's had plenty -- the Vikings, down 10 early in the second half, were stymied offensively down the stretch by the league champions, and Wright held the hosts off for a 55-49 win to run its winning streak to seven. CSU slumped to third place with its fifth straight loss.

The game was also a showcase for two of the league's new crop of accomplished head coaches. Brad Brownell of Wright State won the conference in his first try last season, after moving in from CAA stalwart UNC-Wilmington in the summer of 2006. Cleveland State's Gary Waters is generally credited as the architect of Kent State's winning program -- KSU is on the verge of 10 straight 20-victory seasons in the MAC, and Waters was there for the first three before moving on.

So both coaches can provide plenty of perspective on how the Horizon stacks up to their former leagues.

"There's a different talent level here than in the MAC," said Waters flatly. "When I was there, there were pros in that league, and there aren't any now. I think there are some potential pros on some of the teams in [the Horizon], everyone has two or three guys who can take it to another level on any night."

"The CAA isn't the only good mid-major league on the East coast but it's the primary one," Brownell said of his former conference home. "They're trying to compete with the Atlantic 10, and we're trying to compete with the Missouri Valley and the MAC ... it's a real squeeze for us, since there are three great leagues that are right on top of each other.

"At Wilmington, we were so far in the southern half that sometimes we didn't run into other teams on the recruiting trail. We're in a lot of great cities [in the Horizon League], we recruit against each other because we're so close. The rivalries are a little more intimate because we all know each other well and play each other twice."

The roster of Horizon League cities reads like an airport departure board, or perhaps the NFC Central. Indeed, seven of the league's 10 teams are located in cities with major-sport pro franchises.

"We sell that in recruiting," said Butler's Stevens. "When we travel, we don't go to small towns. We travel to Detroit, Milwaukee, to Cleveland, to Chicago. These are city-cities, places that have hosted NCAA regionals and Final Fours. It's a special deal."

And there's no league rivalry quite as special as that of Jesuit college Loyola (Ill.) and Illinois-Chicago, the University of Illinois satellite school located just eight miles south. The religious college and the secular university, different in just about every way, are bound together by a common conference -- recalling that age-old Chicago dichotomy.

"It's North Side and South Side," said LeCrone. "Cubs and White Sox ... does it get any better than that?"

On Saturday night, the latest installment of intraleague play in the Windy City -- Horizon League style -- was played out at Loyola's Gentile Center. As gusts lashed against the sides of the arena, creating subzero windchills outside, the interior of the low-slung gym was shirt-sleeve-hot. To counteract a full-throated blast from the Loyola student section, UIC had brought several busloads of fans and its full complement of cheerleaders to cheer on its heroes, to attempt to complete a sweep of the home-and-home series. All time, UIC leads 24-13, but Loyola has eliminated the Flames from the HL tournament twice in the last three seasons.

The two teams couldn't replicate their 78-68 two-overtime game played on the South Side last month. But behind senior guard Josh Mayo and his 21 points, the visiting Flames emerged with a close-fought five-point win in regulation, 60-55. A few of the overjoyed UIC supporters belted out a chorus of the White Sox standard "Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye" as the slump-shouldered Rambler Rowdies filed out of the Gentile Center. In response, Loyola fans pointed up at the wall, up at a giant banner commemorating the school's 1963 national championship, a run through Illinois, Duke and Cincinnati. Despite UIC's series success, the Flames certainly didn't have one of those yet.

"It's fun," said Mayo afterwards when asked about the rivalry and atmosphere. "We know we've got to come prepared. A lot of us know each other real well, we always look forward to these games. It's a lot of fun."

We want to support our coaches and ADs, provide them with the resources they need, and hopefully we'll have a long period of growth and stability. If we do that, we're going to have good success.

--Horizon commissioner Jonathan LeCrone

UIC head coach Jimmy Collins, however, begged to differ.

"It's not so tough for them," said the 11th-year Flames head coach. "They're running up and down the floor. But I'm standing over there at the end, near that group they have ... the Rowdy Ramblers, or whatever. Now that's not fun. That group was the only thing I could hear all night. They are so loud and feisty, but it makes for a great basketball atmosphere."

The league's commissioner notes, however, that there's a price for being a city league.

"The good news is we have two teams in Chicago," LeCrone noted. "The bad news is that we have two teams in Chicago. We're in these great markets, but we don't dominate the markets. Because at the end of the day, it is about market share. There's a lot of competition for sports dollars in the city of Chicago, start with the Bears and the Blackhawks, the Bulls.... Being in these larger cities differentiates us, like the [Missouri] Valley differentiates itself by being in the smaller cities and getting off-the-charts market share there. There's a bit of a difference between Carbondale, Illinois and Chicago."

The league faces other challenges: As a non-gridiron league, the Horizon lacks the extra cash that big-ticket football provides. It makes growing a homegrown network just a little harder, and as the success continues, there will be the ongoing issue of retaining coaches. Stevens received the job after Todd Lickliter parlayed last year's Sweet 16 run into the head job at Iowa.

"I'm not a big believer in churn," said LeCrone. "We want to support our coaches and ADs, provide them with the resources they need, and hopefully we'll have a long period of growth and stability. If we do that, we're going to have good success."

Despite the built-in obstacles, the Horizon League success formula is working. The conference keeps winning nonconference games, the respect of poll voters (Butler wasn't dropped from the poll after two conference losses), new fans and followers, and extra bids as well.

"It's been a season-long story now," said LeCrone. "In our two years of increased awareness for the conference, we've extended our success past the postseason. Getting two teams in the tournament, having teams go to the Sweet 16, people tend to forget that. "

Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.