If the last week was any indication, we're in for a wild final month of the Horizon League regular season. With most teams still having six or seven conference games left, it's likely far too early to start examining how the final standings could shake out. That doesn't mean I'm not going to try.
The biggest number to look at right now is the loss column. Green Bay currently has one loss while Valparaiso and Cleveland State have three losses. All three teams still need to match up with one another in the second half of conference play. During the first half each of the three teams split with one another. Green Bay beat Cleveland State. Valparaiso beat Green Bay. Cleveland State beat Valparaiso. This actually makes a pretty easy breakdown of the final month of the season as far as these three teams are concerned in the battle for the top seed and the right to host the Horizon League tournament.
Green Bay needs to lose at least two games in order for Valparaiso or Cleveland State to have a shot at winning the regular season title. At least one of those losses would need to come at Cleveland State (Feb. 15) or against Valparaiso (Feb. 20). I'm not going to even try to get into the various tie-breaking scenarios right now, but currently Valparaiso holds the trump card with the singular win over Green Bay. Of course that means the Crusaders would need to beat Cleveland State in the regular-season finale. Valparaiso won't win any ties over the Vikings if CSU wins at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
So back to the loss column. The average number of losses for the regular-season champion over the last seven nine-member seasons (2001-07, 2012-13) in the Horizon League is three. Just twice has the regular-season champion had four losses (05-06, 01-02) during that time. That fact alone essentially eliminates every other team from winning the league this season, which means the battle for second place is where the real fireworks begin.
The average finish for second place over that same window is 4.2 losses. With second place comes the double bye. Youngstown State (currently 4-4) looks to be in play for the No. 2 seed along with Valparaiso and Cleveland State. With five losses, Oakland, Wright State and Milwaukee look to be on the outside looking in, but in 2004-05, Green Bay did have six losses and finish in second place.
Third place comes with a bye to the quarterfinals and the average finish in the nine-team league dating back to 2001 has been 5.85 losses. That opens the door for any number of teams. Five teams finished tied for third at 8-8 in 2005-06 and with the parity in the league this season, we may be heading there again.
So what games are important in the final month of the season?
Youngstown State (4-4) at Wright State (5-5) -- This could essentially serve as an elimination game for Wright State as far as the top two seeds are concerned. Could also do the same for the Penguins if they lose. Five losses will be about the maximum to have in search for the No. 2 seed.
Cleveland State (6-3) at Oakland (4-5) -- The Grizz got handed a tough loss on Sunday and they could turn around and do the same to the Vikings on Thursday. The O'rena isn't an easy place to play and if Bader is hitting shots, this could be the loss that derails Cleveland State's title hopes.
Cleveland State (6-3) at Wright State (5-5) -- The Vikings deserve to finish in the top echelon of the league if they can sweep this road trip. Any hope Wright State has for a top three finish boils down to knocking off both Youngstown State and Cleveland State.
Green Bay (8-1) at Cleveland State (6-3) -- The Phoenix have a big game at Youngstown State two days earlier, but this is the important one. Green Bay beat the Vikings by 11 points in the conference-opener at home. If the Phoenix win this game, they'll likely be able to clinch the regular season title...
Valparaiso (6-3) at Green Bay (8-1) -- ...five days later at home against the Crusaders. Valparaiso absolutely needs to win this game in order to have a chance at winning the regular season title. Alec Brown will be back, but the Crusaders looked awfully good at the Resch Center last season. Circle this one on the calendar.
Green Bay (8-1) at Oakland (4-5) -- One last chance for the Phoenix to be dealt a road loss. I suppose they could lose in the regular-season finale at Detroit, but this seems more likely. This game could be incredibly meaningful or absolutely pointless.
Cleveland State (6-3) at Valparaiso (6-3) -- The Crusaders might not be playing for a league title, but the battle for the No. 2 seed and the double bye will likely come down to this game. The Vikings absolutely smoked Valparaiso at home and the Crusaders would love to return the favor. This game is currently scheduled to be the Horizon League regular-season finale and I can't think of a better game to wrap up what has already been a great regular season.