Players and coaches from all nine Horizon League men's basketball programs gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Rosemont, Ill. on Tuesday to share their thoughts on the upcoming 2012-13 season.
The result was a sense of unity from the league as the conference looks to overcome the loss of Butler and a sense of renewed optimism from the programs which have underachieved in recent years.
Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said it best about the outlook that the conference coaches have concerning their chances in the league this season.
"There isn't a coach in this room that doesn't think they can't be the next national program," LeCrone said. "Coaches see it as an opportunity."
The fact that the Horizon League had a "Media Day" in the first place might have been in direct response to Butler's departure. With the league losing its most visible member, the conference put all nine programs on display on Tuesday afternoon. Judging from the media attendance (more Valparaiso reporters than any other program), the Horizon League might already have its next "national program" in the Crusaders.
With Valparaiso, the Horizon League certainly has its preseason favorite as the Crusaders garnered 40 of 44 first-place votes. The only surprise coming from Tuesday's announcements was that Detroit's Ray McCallum was tabbed as the Preseason Player of the Year over Valparaiso's Ryan Broekhoff. It was a close race and it would've been easy to disagree with whichever selection was made. Both players are among the best the league has seen in recent years and should both earn plenty of money at the next level, wherever that may be.
The highlight of the afternoon was easily Wright State coach Billy Donlon. The third-year coach stepped on the dais for his question-and-answer session and immediately had an agenda. Donlon railed against Dayton media, national media, the coaches in the league and league itself for not selling the league enough and for getting hung up on Butler's departure.
Donlon was hardly malicious with his commentary and spent much of the time playing to the crowd with a smile on his face. Regardless of how much or how little vitrol was in his statements, Donlon was spot-on with his assessment. The best part was when he stated (and then repeated) that Butler finished fifth last season. Cleveland State's Gary Waters also remarked that the Bulldogs weren't at the top of the league last season and likely wouldn't have been this season either.
My thoughts on this are simple: it's time to move on. Butler moved on from the league and then failed to schedule any of the Horizon League teams as non-conference opponents. I wish them well in their future endeavors, but the Bulldogs not being in the conference doesn't invalidate the league.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Media Day festivities. From the conference administration to the sports information directors to the coaches, players and even the fellow media, every one in the league is a class act and the last two days (Monday was the women's media day) felt like a family reunion of sorts.
The one team that stood out to me in all this was Valparaiso. Maybe it's because I have more exposure to Bryce Drew and Ryan Broekhoff, but I got the sense that they displayed a confidence and business-like attitude throughout the day. They weren't affected by the first-place prediction and Broekhoff seemed to take his Player of the Year snub in stride. Other teams talked up their preseason standings, players talked about having a chip on their shoulder. Drew and Broekhoff joked with the media, chatted with the coaches and rubbed elbows with the conference administration, but underneath it all I saw a quiet confidence that shows me that the Crusaders are ready to assume their place at the top of the league.
All that said, this is going to be one exciting season. Conference play won't begin until January and we'll know a lot more about some of the teams by then, especially Wright State and Milwaukee. The job now is to get ready for the non-conference and from what I saw on Tuesday, all the conference teams will be cheering for one another.
The regular season starts one month from today. As New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott would say: "Can't wait."