The Horizon League held its annual Men's Basketball Media Day at the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon. Each of the nine league coaches were in attendance as well as a player from each team.
The event is one of my favorites of the year as it allows everyone to get together in one place and celebrate the beginning of the season. Sure there are rivalries, even some personal animosities, but it's an event where everyone loves basketball and it was a fun atmosphere.
Here are some of the highlights from the day...
* WGN Radio's David Kaplan was on hand to emcee the beginning of the event before giving way to the Horizon League's Bill Benner. All of the coaches gathered in the press room along with the media as Kaplan quickly ran through the order of projections. While scribes such as myself quickly tried to tweet out all the information, I couldn't help but notice the general indifference displayed by the coaches. Green Bay's Brian Wardle didn't do any type of victory dance when the Phoenix edged out Wright State by one point. Bryce Drew showed even less emotion than the zero response we got last year when the Crusaders were picked to win the league. I love that the beginning of the event was the announcement of the projections and the rest of the day featured coaches explaining that the projections meant nothing.
* Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone was up next at the podium. I've always enjoyed speaking with LeCrone and his transparency is much-welcomed, but there was nothing of note to come on Wednesday. Part of this was my own mindset as I was scrambling to catch up with Kaplan's micro-machinesesque listing of the preseason projections. LeCrone was speaking for two minutes before I was able to figure out where Valpo was picked.
LeCrone did hit on a few points that will unfold in the future. The ESPN television deal will expire after this season and on Oct. 1, the conference began a 90-day exclusive renegotiation window with the network. If a deal hasn't been reached following the 90 days, the Horizon League is free to negotiate with any networks, including FoxSports1. LeCrone also touched on the topic of expansion and said the conference is looking to make "the right move, and that made by proactive or it may be reactive." The commissioner correctly predicated the massive realignment among college athletics several years back and on Wednesday he said he thought there would be a bit more, but not as much as some people might think. Given LeCrone's track record, I'll take his word for it.
* Cleveland State was the first team at the podium and Gary Waters became the first coach to use the word "excited' to describe his feelings for the upcoming season. That would become a recurring theme throughout the day. Waters took the Vikings to Paris and the Netherlands on a summer trip and the team came back undefeated. Both Waters and Anton Grady gave positive accounts of the trip and the results left Waters...you guessed it...excited for the upcoming season.
I referenced a quote Waters gave during one of the media sessions last year when he said "If teams want to get us, they better do it this year, because we're coming for you next year." Waters laughed and said although he might have to be a bit more humble this year, he still believes his team is ready to take the next step.
* I don't know if he was in attendance during Cleveland State's presser, but Oakland coach Greg Kampe was definitely in the back of the room when Youngstown state coach Jerry Slocum started speaking about Kendrick Perry and the Penguins. Slocum ran through the different players who will take pressure off Perry this season and he specifically mentioned Bobby Hain as the player he thinks might be the surprise of the league this year. Slocum then started talking about the Oakland-Loyola trade and he was pretty blunt in saying the Horizon League got rid of a team that traditionally finished in the bottom half of the league for a team that has experience as an NCAA team and will make the league much more difficult. I'm not sure Kampe so much as twitched while Slocum was talking about the Grizzlies.
* Billy Donlon and Wright State was up next and as always, the feisty coach didn't fail to entertain. Donlon brushed aside any expectations or pressure that comes with being picked as one of the top teams in the league. He chided the media (as well as coaches and SIDs I suspect) for not doing their homework in picking how teams will finish. Just when I thought he was going to have a field day with the media, he turned his attention to the power conferences and criticized them for not coming to play at mid-major arenas. "There is no sport that is played where the homecourt advantage is more important than in men's college basketball. BCS schools are supposed to be better than us and they duck us and won't come to play us."
He touched on a fun conspiracy theory that once mid-major teams reach the NCAA tournament, they are almost always paired with another mid-major team. He cited Butler having to open tournament play against UTEP and Old Dominion in the two years the Bulldogs went to the title game. Donlon was very pointed his comments: "You think that's by mistake; non-BCS vs. non-BCS? Do I think it's going to change? Probably not, but I believe in speaking the truth."
Donlon spoke about last season's Horizon League title loss to Valparaiso and how the Raiders held a six-point lead with just over five minutes remaining. "The 11th time I watched the finish on the bus ride back, (assistant coach) Scott Woods tapped me on the shoulder and said 'Coach, it ain't going to change,' I turned it off and I haven't watched it since." Donlon later added that if the Raiders get in that situation again, he's going to sit down, stop coaching and let his players play out the game.
* It's funny how quickly someone can go from being the focal point of the league to being just another participant. I think Ray McCallum and Bryce Drew probably felt a bit of the same on Wednesday as the two teams that were looked toward as the kings of the conference for the last two years were suddenly relegated to nothing more than sideshows behind the Green Bay/Wright State battle for the top and Oakland's introduction to the league. The Titans and Crusaders were the only two teams not to have representatives on the first or second All-League teams. McCallum spoke briefly about the rivalry with Oakland, though he didn't say much as Kampe was still in the back of the room. McCallum mentioned past games with Valparaiso being attractive to television and that the rivalry has been good for the league and great for both schools.
* Greg Kampe and Homer Drew are cut from the same cloth. They both know how to work a press room. The difference is that while Drew's answers sometimes felt cliched and (dare I say) campy, Kampe fires straight from the hip and really doesn't care what anyone thinks. He said as much. "That league (Mid-Con) was surprised by (our playing style)," Kampe said. "It's harder for them to figure us out than it was for us to figure them out. I can't name 10 players in this league right now and I won't even know them until we get ready to play each team. I don't care to know them right now." While Kampe's style may rub some people the wrong way, he is a longtime coach who is simply concerned with his own team above all else. He spoke at length about his excitement for joining the Horizon League and for his respect for the Drew family.
Kampe spoke as little about Detroit as possible given that he was launched softballs in which he could've taken swipes at his geographical rival. He did say he knew the two dates of the Detroit games and the date of the North Carolina game, but those were the only dates he knew. Instead Kampe talked about building a rivalry with Valparaiso through great games on the court, even if that meant losing 16 straight to the Crusaders at one point.
I wrote at length earlier this year that Oakland was the absolute right choice to add to the Horizon League and everything Kampe brought to the table on Wednesday confirmed that, even if he did give me some good-natured ribbing for picking his team as "middle of the road." This guy is class all day.
* Just as Donlon spoke at length about BCS schools ducking mid-major teams on the road, Green Bay coach Brian Wardle talked about how difficult scheduling is in the wake of the Phoenix defeating Marquette at the Resch Center last year. "Ahh, scheduling," Wardle groaned. "There are three things you down year-round at a place like Green Bay and that's recruiting, scheduling and fundraising." Wardle talked about getting creative to bring in power-conference teams and this year he has Wisconsin and Virginia coming to the tundra. Virginia is coached by former Green Bay star Tony Bennett and Wisconsin often plays lower-level in-state teams.
Wardle spoke briefly about Ryan Broekhoff's game-winning buzzer beater in the Horizon League semifinals, but stressed it was a new year and that he doesn't spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror when he's driving. Wardle has talked about the sequence with his players and he remarked that everyone has learned from the experience.
* No one wants to be the guy picked last and Milwaukee's Rob Jeter handled the situation as well as anyone could have. The longtime Milwaukee coach cited Wright State from last year and said he is in no way discouraged about having a down year last season. Moving back to the U.S. Cellular Arena will help the Panthers and their fanbase. "Anyone that isn't picked first should be motivated," Jeter said. "If you're not motivated, then maybe you're not in the right line of work."
* Howard Moore welcomed everyone to Chicago and you could tell that the fourth-year coach was proud that UIC is now the official Chicago school of the Horizon League. He didn't take any digs at Loyola and said continuing to play a series with the Missouri Valley school was important for the city. Moore is confident that he now has the roster in place for the Flames to take the next step and that Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow will be a big part of that.
* Valparaiso was the last school in front of the podium and Bryce Drew started with some good humor when he said "I wish we could have names on the back of our practice jerseys because we have so many new faces to introduce to people." Drew brought up an interesting point that the Crusaders have four seniors with only three combined years of experience with the Crusaders. I have to think that is one of the more unique stats in the country. Drew shook off the preseason predictions, saying that Valparaiso has always been more concerned with postseason rankings. That's a fair point.
Lavonte Dority said the players do have a chip on their shoulder this year (presumably because they are picked to finish sixth) and that the goal is still to repeat and get back to the NCAA tournament.
That's all from Horizon League Media Day. Just nine days until the first exhibition game.