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.
MAKING A LIST
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)
FACTS AND FIGURES
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 life; Murray State, Belmont poised to continue league's run of recent success
Southern Conference (No. 19): Trading soccer for hoops has paid off for College of Charleston star and Great Britain Olympian Andrew Lawrence; Davidson is loaded for another run at a league title, NCAA bid
Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for Lamar; Oral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league