Believe it or not, the Valparaiso men's basketball team begins exhibition play three weeks from Saturday. It seems it was only yesterday when Ray McCallum was dunking with time running out and then dancing on the court at the Athletics-Recreation Center as Detroit blew out Valparaiso in the Horizon League title game. Much has happened since then for the Crusaders and the league and it's time to sort everything out as we look towards the 2012-13 season.
Who's In -- The Crusaders weren't supposed to lose anybody from last season's team and while the departures of Richie Edwards, Jay Harris and Hrvoje Vucic might not move the needle, the additions of Bobby Capobianco, Vashil Fernandez, Lavonte Dority, Jordan Coleman and Alex Rossi certainly might. It's hard to gather which of the new players will make an immediate impact. Capobianco could become an immediate starter, though who does he replace? Rossi is one of the best shooters I've ever seen in the ARC. If Dority is as good as advertised, then expect the Crusaders to run a full-court up-tempo game every moment of the second half of the year. Not sure what to think about Vashil, but if he is anything like Kikas Gomes, he'll be pushing for playing time. Coleman is an x-factor, but he has the size to get into the lane unlike Harris.
Who's Out -- The biggest departure from the Horizon League this off-season had little to do with a player, but with an entire team. Butler bolted the conference a year early for the A-10, but I still don't think that changes the favorites at the top of the conference. Yes, Butler should be improved this season, but I'm not buying them as better than Valparaiso or possibly Detroit. The biggest non-senior player departure in the league this season is Wright State's Julius Mays. After infamously tweeting his disdain for Valparaiso nightlife last year, Mays will take his talents to Lexington and play for the Wildcats. I wonder if that move will work out for him like it did for Brandon Wood (get to play on an aircraft carrier, see scoring cut in half, rarely getting NBA workouts).
The official preseason "awards" get released on Tuesday afternoon and as a voting member, I'll share my preseason ballot.
Projected order of finish
1. Valparaiso -- I see no scenario that the Crusaders don't win the league going away. They are just too talented and too experienced. I suspect Valparaiso will finish either 13-3 or 12-4, but would not be surprised at a 15-1 finish. Anything more than four conference losses would be a massive disappointment for a team that has high postseason hopes.
2. Detroit -- As much as I think Detroit is clearly in the upper-tier with Valparaiso, I still struggle with thinking the Titans can maintain success for an entire season. They've long been one of the most talented teams in the league, but in-fighting and fraternity fighting has often derailed the overall vision for the team. Ray McCallum Jr. got a taste of the national spotlight last season and the Titans became media darlings. They are good, but can they sustain success when the bright lights aren't on?
3. Green Bay -- Alec Brown is the best player in the league not named Broekhoff or McCallum, and he could become even better than those two this season. The Phoenix aren't quite at the level of Valpo or Detroit, but I don't see either one of those teams going up to the Resch Center and coming away with a victory. Brennan Cougill and Kiefer Sykes are two of my favorite players in the league and this could be the year that Green Bay breaks through to the next level.
4. Cleveland State -- I'm not sure there is a team that lost more from graduation than the Vikings. D'Aundray Brown, Jeremy Montgomery and Trevon Harmon were three very good HL players and injuries down the stretch led to a late-season collapse. The advantage for Gary Waters is the longtime coach was able to get some playing time for freshmen Anton Grady, Marlin Mason and Charlie Lee. Grady is the future of the league in my eyes and I'd be shocked if he's not in Player of the Year conversation next season.
5. Milwaukee -- Rob Jeter lost a lot from his team, but the Panthers always seem to reload. Interesting this season is a move back to the on-campus Klotsche Center. Being a Milwaukee native, I'll be curious to see the kind of community support the Panthers can get playing in a different part of the city. The Panthers still have some talent and Jeter is a solid coach who won't accept losing.
6. Youngstown State -- The Penguins have some good players, there is no doubt of that this season. Blake Allen, Kendrick Perry and Damian Eargle represent a very solid trio, but is there anything else beyond them?
7. UIC -- Howard Moore has spent the last year rearranging his roster and getting after Chicago players. This will be the first year where we'll see how it all comes together. I think Gary Talton is underrated in the league and I'm looking forward to seeing what the point guard does in his second year running the show.
8. Loyola -- Obviously I'm looking at the Valparaiso newcomers as impact players this season, but the one transfer who I think will turn some heads is Loyola point guard Cully Payne. The former Iowa floor general should bridge the transition as the Ramblers, like UIC, are doing a better job getting local talent onto the roster. Both Loyola and UIC are on the way up.
9. Wright State -- Oh how the mighty have fallen. The Raiders are a wildcard this year because I honestly know very little about their roster. Losing Mays could be a crushing blow or it could allow Billy Donlon to circle the wagons a bit. I'll reevaluate my projected order after the non-conference schedule and the Raiders will be one team I have my eye on.
Preseason First Team
Player of the Year -- Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso.
* Yes, Ray McCallum is a very good basketball player, but if I'm starting a team in the Horizon League, give me the best player on the best team. There is nothing on a basketball court that Broekhoff can't do and his experience with the Australian national team (coupled with the disappointment of last season) will put the senior into another gear. This could be a special year at the ARC as far as Broekhoff is concerned.
Ray McCallum, Detroit
* When the preseason awards get revealed on Tuesday, I won't be surprised if McCallum is the Preseason Player of the Year. Like I said earlier, he's very good, but I just have problems with Detroit's on-again, off-again playing style. If McCallum is going to be great, he needs to lead Detroit to sustained success throughout the year. That's the biggest question.
Alec Brown, Green Bay
* Brown has had some injury concerns during the fall, but I've also heard that he's added some more muscle (he could use it). Brown is the best defensive big man the conference has seen in quite a while. If he can refine his offensive skills and become the total package, he could usurp Broekhoff/McCallum.
Kevin Van Wijk, Valparaiso
* Van Wijk is often the forgotten man in conversations about Valparaiso basketball. Broekhoff gets a lot of accolades and the buzz around the team right now is centering around the newcomers. Van Wijk revitalized his career last season and if he can stay healthy and recover from off-season knee surgery, Van Wijk can continue to be a game-changer for the Crusaders.
Kendrick Perry, Youngstown State
* Perry was exceptional last season and he'll only get better this year. The Penguins really could surprise some people this season and Perry is a big reason why.
Preseason Second Team
Anton Grady, Cleveland State
Ben Averkamp, Loyola
Nick Minnerath, Detroit
Damian Eargle, Youngstown State
Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
* It's hard to crack the first team when all five members from last season's All-League team return. Grady and Minnerath are the two players that stand out to me as the ones who could break through the ceiling. Grady was a force by the end of last season and Minnerath is viewed by a lot of people in the league as the best player on Detroit's roster.
In closing, this is going to be an awful fun year in the Horizon League. Sure, Butler will be missed, but the changing of the guard at the top of the league was going to happen with or without the Bulldogs in the conference. Valparaiso and Detroit should have two great battles with each other this season while Green Bay and to a lesser extent, Cleveland State, will be in the mix as well. If a team other than Valparaiso or Detroit cuts down the nets in March, I'll be shocked. Actually, let me rephrase that. If a team other than Valparaiso is cutting down the nets in March, I'll be shocked and the team will view the year as a total disappointment. It's the NCAA tournament or bust for this squad in 2012-13. Time to enjoy the ride.