Horizon League Preview: Valparaiso won’t sneak up on anyone this year

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 14 league, the Horizon League.

Although Butler's abrupt departure reduces the stature of the Horizon League by depriving it of its most nationally renowned program, the one thing the Bulldogs' absence may not have dramatically changed is this year's title race.

Defending champion Valparaiso might have been the favorite to repeat even if Butler had returned.

Not only do all five starters return from a Valparaiso team that won the Horizon League by two games last season, the Crusaders also add the conference's most promising crop of newcomers. Last year's conference tournament champion, Detroit, returns enough talent to challenge Valparaiso, but the Titans have not proven they're capable of playing with the consistency necessary to eclipse the Crusaders over a 16-game schedule.

Valparaiso's strength is its frontcourt, which is headlined by league player of the year Ryan Broekhoff (14.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and first-team all-leaguer Kevin Van Wijk (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg). The two forwards will be complemented in the paint by a pair of promising newcomers, 6-foot-10 freshman Vashil Fernandez and 6-foot-9 Indiana transfer Bobby Capobianco, a big scorer in high school who received few chances to showcase his offensive skill set with the Hoosiers.

Sharpshooter Will Bogan, versatile Matt Kenney and former Virginia Tech transfer Ben Boggs will share playing time at the wings, while the point guard position will also be a battle. One option is incumbent starter Erik Buggs. Expect him to receive a challenge from Levonte Dority once the South Florida transfer becomes eligible in mid-December.

If Detroit can challenge Valparaiso, point guard Ray McCallum will have to be the catalyst. McCallum, a top 75 recruit who chose Detroit to play for his father, enjoyed a breakout sophomore season last year, averaging 15.4 points per game and leading the Titans to four straight wins in the Horizon League tournament.

Behind Detroit are a pair of young but improving programs, Green Bay and Youngstown State. Standout 7-footer Alec Brown and three other starters return for the Phoenix, while the Penguins boast one of the league's best backcourt duos.

Best shooter: Blake Allen, Youngstown State
Best playmaker: Ray McCallum, Detroit
Best defender: Damian Eargle, Youngstown State
Coach on the rise: Bryce Drew, Valparaiso
Coach on the hot seat: Howard Moore, Illinois Chicago
Three must-see games: 1. Valparaiso at Saint Louis, Dec. 2 (Tough road test for the Crusaders); 2. Detroit at Syracuse, Dec. 17 (Ray McCallum will be tested by Syracuse's vaunted zone); 3. Youngstown State vs. Kent State, Nov. 28 (Wins over in-state MAC powers would help the Penguins recruit better)

New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Valparaiso
Tourney winner last season: Detroit
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 14th ; 2010-11: 11th, 2009-10: 10th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2011, Butler as a No. 8 seed advanced to the NCAA final

More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:

Ohio Valley Conference (No. 15): Isaiah Canaan talks about coming back to Murray State, his most famous shot and how Hurricane Katrina altered his lifeMurray State, Belmont poised to continue league's run of recent success

Ivy League (No. 16): Princeton's Ian Hummer excels at a school he has adored since childhoodIvy League Capsule Preview: Harvard is still a title threat despite cheating scandal

Patriot League (No. 17): C.J. McCollum bypassed the NBA and returned to Lehigh to fulfill a promise to his parentsExpect another spirited two-way battle between Bucknell and Lehigh

MAAC (No. 18): Mitch Buonaguro enters important year optimistic Siena can climb back into contentionNext step in Manhattan's stunning turnaround could be league title

Southern Conference (No. 19): Trading soccer for hoops has paid off for College of Charleston star and Great Britain Olympian Andrew LawrenceDavidson is loaded for another run at a league title, NCAA bid

WAC (No. 20): Will the beleaguered WAC survive as a basketball league beyond next season?;WAC Capsule Preview: Utah State hopes to rebound from frustrating 2011-12 season

Sun Belt League (No. 21): In likely his final season at North Texas, Tony Mitchell wants to leave a legacyMiddle Tennessee State vies for the NCAA bid it narrowly missed last year

Summit League (No. 22): In the small town of Brookings, S.D., Nate Wolters is a reluctant superstarSouth Dakota State looks like the clear favorite

NEC (No. 23): Oft-overlooked Shane Gibson hopes to go from hidden gem to stardomNEC Capsule Preview: Three-way battle for league title could hinge on LIU Brooklyn suspensions

Big Sky (No. 24): New stars must emerge for Weber State to succeed without Damian Lillard;Montana remains the favorite despite Will Cherry's injury

Big West (No. 25): With San Diego State on its way, Big West teams are investing in hoops to avoid being left behindRevamped Long Beach State takes aim at another Big West title

Atlantic Sun (No. 26): Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads South Carolina Upstate's resurgenceWhich team will capitalize on Belmont's departure?

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgenceCoastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for LamarOral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league

America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series runEarly departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk StateSavannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year offBalanced league will crown new champ this year

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