2016 Horizon League Tournament Predictions and Expert Betting Picks
by Chris Vasile - 3/4/2016
The Horizon League Tournament is taking place March 5-8 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The winner of the tournament is designated the Horizon League Tournament Champion and receives the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 17. There have been four different champions since 2010, but the Valparaiso Crusaders have won two out of the last three tournaments and are favorites heading into this years edition.
The season in the Horizon League was hectic to say the least. Three teams averaged more than 80 points per game in conference play, but none of those teams were the regular season champion, Valparaiso. The Crusaders used their strength; a league-best scoring defense (61 points allowed per game) and cruised to top spot in the conference by a three-game margin over Oakland and Wright State. This is their fourth No.1 seed in the last five seasons.
Both Valpo and second-seeded Oakland (courtesy head-to-head record against Wright State) have secured double-byes into the semi final matchups on Monday March 7.
The tournament is slated to tip off at noon on Saturday with No. 4-seeded Green Bay taking on No.9 Cleveland State. Subsequent games to follow are; No.5 Milwaukee versus No.8 Northern Kentucky, No.3 Wright State taking on No.10 UIC and the nightcap sees hometown favorites Detroit (No.6) do battle with Youngstown State (No.7). All of these games can be seen on ESPN 3.
Let's take a look at how this tournament is shaping up.
The Favorite: Valparaiso (-300)
There has not been a team this season in the Horizon League that has been able to contain Valpo. They are the league defending champions and are come into this tournament with a stellar regular-season record of 26-5 (16-2 in conference play). They are still a shaky "at-large" bid, so winning this tournament is necessary if they want to go dancing in two weeks.
They have managed to lock up the No.1 seed once again and are always perennial contenders within the conference.
The Crusaders are led by the conference Defensive Player of the Year winner Vashil Fernandez as well as All-League First Team member Alec Peters, both of whom have been instrumental in taking their teams to the summit of the Horizon league.
Valpo has become one of the best defensive teams in the college basketball landscape. They rank third in the nation in opponent field goal percentage (37.8 percent) and sixth in scoring defense at 61 points allowed per game.
As has been the common theme for the past three years, fans of the Crusaders expect them to make the finals and cut down the nets on Tuesday March 8.
The Contenders: Oakland (+240)
In just three seasons as a member of the Horizon League, the "East-Side" Oakland Grizzlies from Rochester, Michigan, are likely to be this years home-state darling in addition to the main contender for the Horizon League title.
They have seen their tournament seed improve each of the past three seasons since joining and finally reap the reward of a two-round bye after securing the Horizon's league second seed.
If you are a fan of the Grizzlies but believe in curses, you may want to skip this part of the write-up. Only one team over the past 11 seasons has won the title from this spot. Not ideal, but with a team named Oakland, you have to expect the worst first. You can thank Al Davis for that.
One positive for Oakland is that they boast the league's Player of the Year. Junior guard Kahlil Felder led the Horizon in scoring (24.4 PPG) and assists at 9.4 APG.
If Felder can get in a groove early in the semis, he might prove to be unstoppable against a weaker opponent and could carry over momentum into the finals where anything is possible (shout out to Kevin Garnett)
The Sleeper: Wisconsin-Milwaukee (+1800)
The Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers finished the regular season with an identical overall record as Wright State (19-12).
While the eight losses within the conference for the Panthers are alarming, six of those defeats were by four points or less, including loses to Valpo and Oakland -- two of the best teams in the league.
The Panthers will hope the backs of Matt Tiby and Jordan Johnson are sturdy enough to carry the team to a potential upset title win. Tiby and Johnson made the league's First and Second teams, respectively.
Tiby averaged 15.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game this season has been the school's top rebounder the past three seasons, beating his own record each year.
Johnson, on the other hand, set a new school record himself, assisting on 254 made shots and was the only player in the league this season to register a triple double.
If Tiby and Johnson show up and play above their means, they could find themselves in a showdown against Valpo in the semis on Monday.
The Spoiler: Detroit (+3000)
If you have read my latest NCAA article, you will know how much emphasis I put on teams entering their respective conference tournaments with depth or a lack thereof.
Detroit falls under the "Yes" category in terms of depth. Coach Ray McCallum has no hesitancy to go nine players deep and play them for over 10 minutes a piece. That bodes well for a tournament where you are playing back-to-back within an 18-hour period.
The Titans enter this year's edition of the Little Caesars Motor City Madness with a mediocre record of 15-14 overall and 9-9 conference record.
Despite this record, Detroit has beaten their first-round opponent Youngstown State both times this season and holds a 32-9 overall record against the Penguins. Winning at least one game this year should be routine. In the second round, going against Wright State most likely, they split the season series and lost by only one point on the road. I like the matchup against Wright State, and I expect Detroit to prevail.
The Titans are third in league play and eighth overall in the nation in scoring at 83.8 points per game. They have scored more than 90 points eight times this season. And if they can get rolling and get some stops on defense, they should find themselves in the semis against the high-flying Grizzlies from Oakland.
To play spoiler, you have to dig a little deeper into the numbers to find where an "underdog" has the edge. Detroit led the conference in free-throw attempts and is second in free-throw makes (68.9 percent) Scoring points with the clock stopped always helps against bigger and faster teams.
The Titans are 13-3 on the season when out-rebounding their counterpart, which could play a crucial role on a neutral court where teams may take a little while to adjust there shooting sights.
Detroit definitely has the fundamental tools to make a run, but they will have to execute and play up to the level of their opponents.
First Round Matchups Schedule
No. 4 Green Bay vs. No. 9 Cleveland State (12:00 p.m., Saturday, March 5)
No. 5 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Northern Kentucky (2:30 p.m., Saturday March 5)
No. 3 Wright State vs. No. 10 UIC (5:00 p.m., Saturday March 5
No. 6 Detroit vs. No 7 Youngstown State (7:30 p.m., Saturday March 5)
Horizon League Conference Tournament Predictions:
Ten teams enter this tournament, but only one team can reign supreme. If everything goes to script, you should expect to see an Oakland-Valpo final, which has all the makings of a great game.
Fortunately for underdog bettors, I see this tournament being a bit loopy. I am expecting the top seeds to come through with relative ease in the first round.
However, round two is where it will get interesting. I think Detroit will take down Wright State and set up a showdown with Oakland in the semis courtesy of a small home-court advantage and playing above their heads. I also see Milwaukee taking down Green Bay in a minor upset on the heels of Tiby and Johnson and setting up meeting with Valpo in the other semi finals.
My bold prediction for this tournament is Valpo will not make the finals. While Valpo plays excellent defense, the offensive side can be a major crutch at times. Against a Milwaukee team that have already played them tough, this could be the upset of the tournament.
Based on that crystal ball prediction, my money is on Oakland to dispose of Milwaukee in the finals, cut down the nets and get back into the NCAA Tourney. They have too much firepower to be shut down for two games, and it helps that they boast the league's Player of the Year.
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