The Horizon League’s Uncertain Future

The Horizon League, as a whole, had a down year. That’s a rather interesting thing to say about a conference that featured five teams that won at least 20 games. But its conference RPI ranked 20th among all leagues, marking the lowest it has been in recent memory.

Many fans within the league believe this is a direct result of the weakness at the bottom of the conference. This includes Detroit (198th in the RPI), Youngstown State (276th), Cleveland State (278th), newcomer Northern Kentucky (298th) and UIC, which finished 346th out of 351 Division I schools.

As a consequence of having the league’s entire bottom half hovering or below 200 in the RPI, Valparaiso, who lost only two games in the conference, were snubbed by the NCAA Tournament after losing in the semifinals of the Horizon League Tournament to eventual champ Green Bay.

Since that point, the Crusaders have made it their personal mission to take their frustrations out on their competitors in the NIT. Valpo has certainly done that, winning each of its three games by double digits en route to a trip to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

But the Crusaders’ run provides little comfort, as it is only one of three schools in the conference to find their way into the post-season. This is the lowest number of participating teams since the inception of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) and the CollegeInsiders.com Tournament (CIT). And this is now including the Vegas 16, which, in its inaugural tournament, has Oakland participating.

Even as conference teams regroup, as the Flames, Vikings and Norse appear poised to do next season, the off-season has already provided question marks as to whether or not the Horizon League as a whole will improve from its overall dismal showing.

It began when Wright State and Milwaukee, in spite of their records, decided not to pursue the post-season. It became evident why that happened in the subsequent days, with the Raiders dismissing coach Billy Donlon and the Panthers parting ways with Rob Jeter.

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Making matters worse was what transpired after the firings. For Wright State, Donlon’s ouster, which was announced by the school days after media outlets had reported it, sparked the ire of fans and, bizarrely, prompted athletic director Bob Grant to start blocking people on Twitter. While this move remains to be rather odd, it was reported that those recruited to join the Raiders next season still plan on coming to WSU.

The same cannot said for Milwaukee, which appears to be in the midst of a full collapse as a result of Jeter’s dismissal. Leading the charge has been guard Akeem Springs, who took to Twitter not only to express his displeasure with the way the firing was handle, but also to recap the team’s meeting with athletic director Amanda Braun. Now Springs, along with Austin Arians and Jordan Johnson, who was second in the conference in assists, have been granted releases from the program.

Lost in all of this is the revolving door that has become YSU. After losing multiple players to transfer last season, the Penguins now have to contend with the loss of its All-Freshman guard Jared Andrews. A native of LaPlace, Louisiana, Andrews, who started 19 games, cited home sickness for the move.

In spite of the latest transfer, and Youngstown State’s overall underperformance since arriving in the Horizon League in 2001, head coach Jerry Slocum will likely have his option picked up to return for next season. Of course, many around the league believe that it’s YSU’s overall lack of focus on men’s basketball, rather than the coaching, which has bolsters its reputation for being the conference’s anchor.

Then there are the rumors of coaching changes around college basketball that mention Horizon League coaches. For example, among the names being thrown around for the Pittsburgh job are Valpo’s Bryce Drew, who is annually considered for such jobs, and Linc Darner, who just finished his first year at Green Bay with an NCAA tourney bid.

With so much uncertainty within the Horizon League, it makes fans wonder if the conference will be stuck in the same place as it was this season. After all, even if some of the bottom teams improve, there’s no guarantee that Milwaukee, Wright State or a school whose coach takes another job won’t fall into the bottom.

Email Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Photo: Horizon League/Flickr.