"You've Got Mail"
Alright, so it's been years since the old AOL chime would come across my computer speakers when a new email arrived in my inbox, but I still look forward to getting personal email. Spam moves through the information superhighway so much that I miss getting email that matters.
I got one of those emails earlier this week. The same feelings (and questions) go through my mind every year when I receive the annual email from the Horizon League asking for my preseason ballot. It's barely October and I haven't even considered Halloween, let alone Christmas, and I'm suddenly trying to figure out March. Or am I?
I've been making these selections for years now and I still don't know how to approach the preseason predictions. Is the idea to put the teams down in the order I think they'd finish today? In the way they'll finish in March? There are always questions that revolve around unproven teams every year and this season that team happens to be Valparaiso. The Crusaders lost the bulk of their rotation and will be led by players in new positions this season. Picking Valparaiso anywhere beyond eighth or ninth place will be buying into the potential of the newcomers (I'll have them considerably higher). How about specific players? Keith Carter (Valparaiso) and Kelsey Barlow (UIC) are two players that will likely make one of the All-League teams at the end of the season. Is it fair to vote them in now despite not playing one minute of Horizon League basketball? Carter won't even take the court until just before conference play begins.
Maybe I'm spending too much time on all this. After all, the preseason predictions are highly laughable anyway, right? How else can you explain Ray McCallum Jr. getting voted as the Preseason Player of the Year last year despite the reigning Player of the Year (Ryan Broekhoff) returning? Then again, McCallum was actually voted the Player of the Year, so what do I know?
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Green Bay -- The Horizon League is a three-team race this season and although Green Bay has burned me before in these predictions, I'm going all-in on the Phoenix. Keifer Sykes and Alec Brown are two of the best players of the league, but Jordan Fouse is the one that puts the Phoenix over the edge for me. Green Bay's defense will be outstanding this season and I trust that Sykes and Brown will take advantage of whatever weaknesses they find in the opposition. This could be a truly special year for the Phoenix.
2. Wright State -- Everything says the Raiders should be the clear favorites. They return nine of their top players and add Butler transfer Chrishawn Hopkins at semester. Billy Donlon is one of the best coaches in the league, if not mid-major basketball, and he'll keep the team level despite all the positive press clippings. There's just something that is giving me pause about putting Wright State at the top. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
3. Cleveland State -- This is the team that I truly want to put number one. I'm fully prepared to give myself a big "I told you so" when the Vikings run away with the league this season. Gary Waters said it best last season at the Horizon League Media Day when he said "if you want to get us, you better do it this year." Anton Gray is back from a knee injury and he may end up being the second-best player in the league. Bryn Forbes and Charlie Lee form an underrated backcourt while Marlin Mason brings plenty of experience.
4. Youngstown State -- Kendrick Perry is the best player in the league and his presence alone will lead to the Penguins winning close games. Youngstown has never proven it can hang in the upper echelon of the league, but this is its chance. Kam Belin could be the next individual breakout candidate after a successful first season with the Penguins. Perry needs some help and he'll get it from Belin, D.J. Cole and Bobby Hain.
5. Valparaiso -- If Bryce Drew still has any critics out there then this is the year to permanently silence the doubters. There is a minority perception among members of the Valparaiso fan base that Drew won two conference titles with his Daddy's team. Now Drew has a roster that he has entirely built and a group of seniors that are eager to lay their claim. Lavonte Dority and Bobby Capobianco are ready to shine in their final year with the Crusaders and a host of fresh faces are anxious to make their mark. Keith Carter, Alec Peters and Clay Yeo are the most talented of the newcomers, but Drew will earn his money this season dividing the minutes and keeping the team happy. The Crusaders have the highest ceiling and the lowest basement of any team in the league this season and it's as simple as that.
6. Oakland -- I wanted to put the Grizz higher and likely would have had it not been for some roster overhaul in the last week. Raphael Carter was lost for the season and then starter Ryan Bass chose to leave the team for personal reasons. Greg Kampe's squad will rise-and-fall in the Horizon League based on Travis Bader. Part Jimmer, Part Wolters, Bader should be an exciting player in the league, but don't sleep on Duke Mondy and Corey Petros. Kampe assimilated Oakland into the Mid-Con with ease at the turn of the century and he'll do the same with the Horizon League. Finishing as high as third shouldn't surprise anyone.
7. Detroit -- McCallum Jr., Minnerath, Calliste. All gone. Ray McCallum Sr. will be handing the offense over to Michigan transfer Carlton Brundidge. Much like Drew will be proving he can win with his own team, McCallum Sr. will now be leading the Titans without his son. Detroit is never short on athletes and players like Juwan Howard Jr. and Evan Bruinsma will bring some experience to the starting lineup. They likely don't have as high of an upside as the Crusaders, but the Titans shouldn't be ruled out immediately.
8. UIC -- Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow comes in with solid credentials and he'll immediately join returning starters Hayden Humes and Marc Brown in the lineup. Depth could be an issue for the Flames, but if there strong showing in the Horizon League tournament showed anything, Howard Moore will have this team ready to go late in the season.
9. Milwaukee -- Poor senior leadership accounted for a dismal season in Brew City last year. With those players gone, Rob Jeter is looking for an improvement this season, but lacks experience on the roster. Milwaukee has as many newcomers as Valparaiso and will be hard to gauge in the early going. If Jordan Aaron can play under control, the Panthers could avoid the basement.
Kendrick Perry (Youngstown State)
Keifer Sykes (Green Bay)
Alec Brown (Green Bay)
Travis Bader (Oakland)
Anton Grady (Cleveland State)
The top three will be unanimous preseason first-team selections and Bader should be close. It wouldn't surprise me however if Bader ends up on the second team as media members and coaches in the league have shown the ability to "haze" new conference members by not voting them as high as they should go. Think of it as a baseball writer not putting somebody in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. It's silly and stupid, but I saw it firsthand with Valparaiso several years back. Grady is one of the best players in the conference when healthy and deserves the honor.
Cole Darling (Wright State)
Kam Belin (Youngstown State)
Jordan Fouse (Green Bay)
Kelsey Barlow (UIC)
Keith Carter (Valparaiso)
Darling is Wright State's best player when he is healthy and proved that last season. I expect him to have a huge senior season. Belin is one of my favorite players in the league along with Jordan Fouse. Both should make big jumps in their second seasons. Barlow and Carter could actually end up on the first team, but this is as high as I'll put them.