Horizon ShootAround: The end of Butler's reign?

Updated: August 20, 2008

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Cleveland State's J'Nathan Bullock will try to rip the Horizon title from Butler.

High Waters

There will be no sneaking up on anyone this season. That's what has Gary Waters a little concerned.

Because even though his Cleveland State team went from 10-21 two years ago to 21-13 last season, reaching the postseason for the first time in 20 years, Waters knows this season will be different for the Vikings.

"It's a little scary," he said. "This team has never faced this kind of pressure before. They've never been in a situation where you have to bring your A-game every time you step on the floor."

After all, it's one thing to win when there aren't high expectations, or when Butler is hogging the Horizon League headlines. It's an entirely different thing to win when you're supposed to. And Cleveland State is certainly supposed to win this season.

More than 20 years have passed since Cleveland State made its lone, but memorable, NCAA tournament appearance. In 1986, the Vikings upset Indiana -- which would win the title a year later -- and Saint Joseph's to become the first 14-seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen. There, Cleveland State lost to Navy, featuring David Robinson, by a single point.

If the Vikings can return to the NCAA tournament this season, it will likely because of three reasons: forward J'Nathan Bullock, guard Cedric Jackson and Waters.

We can go inside, we can go outside, we can run and jump. We have two or three dimensions to our team.

--Gary Waters

In Bullock and Jackson, Cleveland State has the best one-two, inside- outside combination in the Horizon League. Bullock, who averaged 14.8 points per game last season, is a difficult matchup because he can play either forward spot. Put a big guy on him and Bullock will use his quickness. Try a smaller guy and Bullock will use his strength to overpower him.

Jackson, who started his collegiate career at St. John's, effectively took over the point-guard position for the Vikings last season. While he sees the floor well enough to average just shy of five rebounds per game, Jackson is quick enough to beat defenders off of the dribble and get into the paint.

"We can go inside, we can go outside, we can run and jump," Waters said. "We have two or three dimensions to our team."

And even though Cleveland State returns four starters from a year ago, there's little question about the importance of Bullock and Jackson.

"If we have a serious injury to one of those two," Waters said, "we're basically stopped."

While Cleveland State -- a program that went 4-25 as recently as the 2003-04 season -- has the potential to return to the national scene this season, so does Waters.

Less than a decade ago, Waters was one of the hot mid-major coaches in college basketball -- less than an hour southeast of Cleveland State's campus. Under Waters, Kent State reached the NCAA tournament in 1999 and 2001. A year later -- after Waters left for Rutgers -- Stan Heath took Kent State to the Elite Eight.

Waters made Rutgers more competitive and got the Scarlet Knights to the NIT three times, but he couldn't reach the NCAA tournament. In 2006, Waters resigned from Rutgers with the idea of coming back to the Midwest. He wasn't out of work for long.

Waters said he doesn't regret his move to Rutgers, but admits he is in a more comfortable position now.

"With recruiting being as important as it is, you need to be in a region that you know," Waters said. "When I got the job here, high school coaches and AAU coaches were calling me right away. It wasn't that way at Rutgers."

At Cleveland State, it didn't take that long for Waters to make his mark. In just his second season, he had the Vikings playing the kind of tough defense that was a key in Kent State's rise.

Last season, Cleveland State led the Horizon League in steals and rebound margin. The Vikings were near the top of the conference in most other defensive categories. That ability to guard masked two of CSU's biggest flaws. Amazingly, the Vikings were able to win seven of their final nine regular-season games despite being among the worst perimeter shooting teams in the Horizon League. In addition, Cleveland State didn't get as much offensive production from the center position as it would like.

Waters hopes his team will be improved in those areas this season. But even if that isn't the case, the Vikings still have Bullock and Jackson.

And that might be enough to get Cleveland State to the top of the Horizon League.

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

What's next for Butler?
Darian Townes

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

How will Butler replace standout guard A.J. Graves and Co.?

The easy thing is to simply say that Butler is going to slide backward and end up somewhere in the middle of the Horizon League pack. Because as good as the Bulldogs were last season -- a top 10 national ranking, the first Horizon League team to win 30 games and the best record of any school in Indiana regardless of conference affiliation -- this Butler team is going to be much different. The senior quintet of A.J. Graves, Mike Green, Drew Streicher, Julian Betko and Pete Campbell has departed. All they did was start 309 career games at Butler and combine for 48.8 points per game as seniors.

Second-year Butler coach Brad Stevens will certainly have his hands full. He won't have a senior on his roster. His returning players combined to average 20 points per game -- and that's not a typo. And the Bulldogs will be a bit on the small side. The good news is a recruiting class that is very good. Three guys to put in your memory bank: 6-7 forward Garrett Butcher, 6-7 forward Gordon Hayward and 6-2 guard Shelvin Mack. All three should play major minutes.

Wright could be, well, right
While Cleveland State seems to be a pretty clear favorite in the Horizon League, it wouldn't be surprising to see Wright State in the mix at the end of the season. That's partly because the Raiders return three starters, including all-Horizon guard Vaughn Duggins. But much of it is because of the guy on the sidelines. When Wright State and Paul Biancardi parted ways because of his role in alleged NCAA violations when he was at Ohio State, the Raiders could have taken a step back. Instead, the school found itself with the right job at the right time and landed Brad Brownell from UNC Wilmington. In two years at Wright State, Brownell has gone 44-20 overall and 25-9 in Horizon League play. Not surprisingly, Wright State signed Brownell to a six-year contract extension over the summer, extending his contract through the 2013-14 season.

A pretty good exit strategy
Let's just say that new Detroit coach Ray McCallum is fortunate. Because if there is a person that currently represents disregard for the NCAA rulebook more than anyone else, it's former Oklahoma and Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson. Sampson, after all, got the Sooners on probation, and the Indiana case for impermissible phone calls to recruits is still pending.

So what did McCallum do before landing at Detroit? He worked with Sampson at both Oklahoma and Indiana. While McCallum wasn't implicated in any of the NCAA's numerous reports regarding Sampson's behavior, too often an entire staff is painted with a broad brush. It isn't surprising that McCallum, a Midwest guy who had success at Ball State, got a job somewhere. But that he landed as a head coach instead of an assistant somewhere remains surprising.

Take two
When a program leaves one conference and moves into a league with more talent and more competition, it's never really clear what's going to happen. That was the case when Valparaiso left the Mid-Continent (now the Summit League) and moved to the Horizon before the start of last season. Because even though Valpo was the face of the Mid-Con, there was no certainty about how the Crusaders would fare against better competition. Coach Homer Drew's team struggled early in the season, losing six of seven league games at one point, but got better. The Crusaders won their last three regular-season games and then beat Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wright State in the Horizon tournament.

Making a move?
In recent years, there have been several occasions in which Wisconsin-Green Bay looked ready to become a legitimate Horizon League contender. But for one reason or another, it hasn't happened for the Phoenix. Last season, UWGB finished 15-15 and finished lower in the standings than predicted. This season, there are reasons to think that Tod Kowalczyk's team will be better. Green Bay returns its top seven scorers from a year ago, four of whom will be seniors. Forward Mike Schachtner and guard Ryan Tillema combined to average 28.3 points per game last season. There are clearly increased expectations from the school's administration. UWGB athletic director Ken Bothof told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that the Phoenix are "no longer a young team."



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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Jeff Shelman
Special to ESPN.com

Horizon League
One certainty for Butler this season is that Matt Howard is going to be a serious part of the Bulldogs' offense. Despite joining a team that was dominated by seniors, Howard averaged 12.3 points per game as a freshman and scored the most points ever (417 points) by a Butler freshman. Howard, who started 26 of Butler's final 27 games, also became the first freshman in school history to score 400 points and grab 175 rebounds. The other returning players for Butler averaged a combined 7.7 points per game.

Cleveland St.Cleveland State
One of the things Vikings coach Gary Waters was looking for during his team's late-summer trip to Spain was a consistent third scorer. Clearly J'Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson -- who combined to average 28.7 points per game a year ago -- aren't surprises. But after those two, no other returning player averaged more than 5 points per game. Clearly there will be coaches who will simply try to shut down Cleveland State's top two. If that happens, either center Chris Moore or guards D'Aundray Brown or Norris Cole will have to score.

New Titans coach Ray McCallum has significant work to do to rebuild a Detroit program that won only seven games and went 3-21 after Dec. 1. Second team all-Horizon guard Jon Goode (and his 19.3 ppg) is gone, but the four other Titans that averaged more than five points per game are back. Forward Chris Hayes is the team's leading returning scorer (10.6 ppg). McCallum also has a pair of junior college transfers in Xavier Keeling and Thomas Kennedy.

Last season was supposed to be spent near the bottom of the Horizon League standings. Instead, the Flames turned out to be the conference's biggest surprise with an 18-18 overall record and 9-9 league mark. The bad news entering '08-09: Jimmy Collins' team won't sneak up on anybody. The good news: UIC has its top three scorers back from a year ago and two of the league's more interesting players. Guard Josh Mayo averaged 17.1 ppg last season and was a first-team all-Horizon selection. Also returning is 7-footer Scott VanderMeer, who made a significant step in his progress last season. VanderMeer became much more of an offensive threat (9.3 ppg) and had nine double-figure rebounding games.

LoyolaLoyola (Ill.)
The Ramblers will test the theory that in conferences outside of the top handful, experience is sometimes the difference between winning and losing. If that's truly the case, then Loyola has a good chance to improve on its 12-19 record and eighth-place finish in the Horizon. The Ramblers return six of their top seven scorers -- and four starters. Led by senior guard J.R. Blount (15.1 ppg), Loyola has four seniors.

In Urule Igbavboa, Brandon McPherson and Jake Diebler, Valparaiso coach Homer Drew has a good group to build around. Igbavboa (11.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg) was second in the Horizon League in rebounding and fourth in field-goal percentage. McPherson and Diebler have started together in the Valpo backcourt for two full seasons. Last season, Valparaiso appeared in the postseason for the first time since 2004 when it played in the College Basketball Invitational. That said, the Crusaders have to replace their two leading scorers in Shawn Huff and Jarryd Loyd, who combined to score 24.6 ppg.

UWGBWisconsin-Green Bay
While the Phoenix return the bulk of their scoring, junior college transfer Chop Tang has a chance to contribute. Tang, a native of the Sudan who attended high school in Minnesota, is extremely strong and very athletic. The 6-6, 220-pound Tang could be a difficult player for other Horizon League teams to defend because of that athletic ability. In addition to leading scorers Mike Schachtner and Ryan Tillema, Green Bay also brings back Horizon Defensive Player of the Year Terry Evans and Rahmon Fletcher, a member of the conference's all-newcomer team.

After a season filled with injuries, Wisconsin-Milwaukee will have a different look this season. Second-leading scorer Paige Paulson (13.3 ppg) is gone, and so is Marcus Skinner (7.5 ppg). Exactly how the Panthers will look remains up in the air. While Ricky Franklin and Deion James need to be more productive as seniors, coach Rob Jeter also recruited three junior college players. When a coach goes for that many juco players as Jeter did in Anthony Boyle, Burleigh Porte and James Eayrs, he usually expects an immediate impact.

Wright StateWright State
Cleveland State is attracting much of the preseason attention, but Wright State is certainly a legitimate Horizon League contender. That's because the Raiders still have the vast majority of a team that won 21 games last season. Guard Vaughn Duggins was a first team all-Horizon selection while averaging 13.8 points per game. Guard Todd Brown (12.7 ppg) also returns. In addition, Scott Grote is eligible after transferring from Duquesne. Grote averaged 9.9 points per game as a freshman for the Dukes.

Youngstown StateYoungstown State
Penguins coach Jerry Slocum has a difficult task in front of him as he enters his fourth season at Youngstown State. Not only do the Penguins have to recover from a season in which they went 9-21 overall and 5-13 in Horizon League play; they also have to find replacements for leading scorers Byron Davis and John Barber (who averaged a combined 29.1 ppg). Winning at Youngstown State hasn't been easy since moving from the Mid-Continent (Summit League) to the Horizon. In seven seasons, the Penguins are 28-86 in league play. In hopes of changing that, Slocum brought in eight new players. Sophomore guard Vytas Sulskis was on the Horizon's All-Newcomer team.

If I were the Horizon commish …

I would improve the television contract. The Horizon League has been very competitive at the top. Butler, Cleveland State and Valparaiso all had legitimate postseason teams last season. Other teams in the league, like Wright State, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Green Bay, Detroit and Illinois-Chicago have had good runs, too. But the Horizon League gets lost amid the power teams in the middle of the country. There are good league matchups that don't get seen. Butler's games at Valparaiso, Milwaukee and Cleveland State were all "rocking" last season, coach Brad Stevens said.

Also, protecting the top seeds in the conference tournament has worked, with the best team from the regular season hosting the event, assuming it is in the final. If the bottom of the league gets better, then protecting the top seeds in the semis might need to be reviewed as well.

2007-08 Horizon Standings

Overall record Horizon record
Butler* 30-4 16-2
Wright State 21-10 12-6
Cleveland State^ 21-13 12-6
Valparaiso# 22-14 9-9
Illinois-Chicago 18-15 9-9
UW-Green Bay 15-15 9-9
UW-Milwaukee 14-15 9-9
Loyola-Illinois 12-19 6-12
Youngstown State 9-21 5-13
Detroit 7-23 3-15
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth
#CBI berth

For all the Horizon news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Josh Mayo, Illinois-Chicago, Sr. 17.1
Mike Schachtner, UW-Green Bay, Sr. 15.8
J.R. Blount, Loyola-Illinois, Sr. 15.1
J'Nathan Bullock, Cleveland State, Sr. 14.8
Cedric Jackson, Cleveland State, Sr. 13.9

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Scott VanderMeer, Illinois-Chicago, Sr. 7.5
Urule Igbavboa, Valparaiso, Sr. 7.3
Terry Evans, UW-Green Bay, Sr. 6.7
Andy Polka, Loyola-Chicago, Jr. 6.3
J'Nathan Bullock, Cleveland State, Sr. 6.6

Final Shot

Has Butler's recent success been enough to propel it into the Top 50 programs since the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

Butler lost a large chunk of its fantastic team last season, and Cleveland State appears poised to take the Horizon reins. Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.