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Horizon League Championship preview: Butler not willing to share

Starting Tuesday the first round of the Horizon League Tournament sets in motion with every team vying for its ticket to the big dance that--as of now--Butler has sole claim to.

The League as a whole leads all but two Division I conferences in percentage of conference games that were close (decided by five points or less) during the regular season with 33 of 90 (36.7%).

This uncommon amount of homogeneity among the evenly matched teams in the conference makes the Horizon League Tournament a difficult one to call. Afterall, six out of the ten league's teams are separated by just three wins in the conference standings.

Here's what to look for, seed-by-seed:

Butler (26-4, 18-0)

The Bulldogs are the exception. With only the fourth undefeated conference record in Horizon League history and currently riding an 18 win streak, the Hayward-Veasley-Mack-Howard show earns a double-bye in the tournament and is easily the favorite to win it all.

Although Loyola and Detroit came within one and two points respectively of beating Butler on the road during the season, the Bulldogs won't have that problem as the hosting top seed. Butler is undefeated at home this year, and no other Horizon League teams should present a real challenge to Butler's sole claim to a Horizon League NCAA tournament bid.

Wright State (19-11, 12-6)

Although they are the double-byed no. 2 seed, Wright State is far from unbeatable. The Raiders have lost to five different Horizon League teams this season (and Butler twice), but have the best turnover margin of any conference team averaging 4.1 more opponent than team turnovers.

Vaughn Duggins and company may be dangerous from beyond the arc with 36.9% shooting from three, but their offense has been anything but potent. Their 68.3 points per game and 30.2 rebounds per outing ranks them seventh and ninth in the conference respectively. The team is dead last in the league in turnovers.

Where the Raiders got their wins was on the defensive end. They've limited their opponents to an average of 61 points and 8.8 offensive rebounds per game, as well as the fewest attempts from the floor at any range of any team in the Horizon League. It doens't look like even WSU will be able to grab an NCAA bid this year.

Green Bay (20-11, 11-7)

Green Bay will host 10th seeded Youngstown State at home for the first round of tournament play. That won't be a problem for the Phoenix--they've beaten YSU twice already by a total margin of 22 points--, and they have a good chance of making the final round of play on the steady playing of Rahmon Fletcher's 16.6 ppg.

Troy Cotton leads the conference in treys with 2.7 per game, and Randy Berry has more offensive rebounds than anyone. He's grabbing 3.2 of those per game. Don't underestimate Green Bay.

Milwaukee (18-13, 10-8)

Milwaukee proved it to UIC last week: they own the boards. The Panthers had 30 defensive rebounds in that contest and are averaging a league-leading 25.1 per game. But they can shoot too--Anthony Hill and Deonte Roberts are both shooting over 50% from the field, and Ricky Franklin's 15.1 ppg won't be easy to cork as UIC found out.

The Panthers beat UIC last week, 78-74, and outrebounded the Flames 41-27. UIC came within two in their amazing second half comeback attempt but couldn't close the lid. That was at UIC's house. For the first round of the Horizon League tournament, 4th seeded 9-4 at home Milwaukee will be playing at their house.

Cleveland State (15-16, 10-8)

Averaging 16.4 points, 4.2 assists, and almost two steals per game, Norris Cole has dominated in the Horizon League this season, and he's CSU's biggest asset. They'll need all the Cole they can get when they host Loyola in the first round.

That's because the Vikings haven't been dominant lately as a team losing four of their last six games including an 11 point loss to Detroit at home. CSU has the second fewest total rebounds of any team in the league and has allowed the second most points of any team. They'll beat Loyola, but that's about all.

Valparaiso (15-16, 10-8)

Head Coach Homer Drew and his Crusaders will host Detroit in possibly the tournament's most heated first-round matchup. The two teams split their regular season games with Valpo losing to Detroit on the road 77-67, and more recently Detroit losing to host Valpo, 74-70.

Valpo has had the more potent offense with 73 ppg, league leading shooting and fewer turnovers than Detroit, but UDM leads in boards and steals.

Brandon Wood had an incredible season for the Crusaders with 17.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg. This one is too close to call.

Detroit (18-13, 9-9)

Junior forward Xavier Keeling is averaging 17.5 points over his last two games. The Titans will need him to be on his game when they visit Valpo for the first round, although Detroit is one of the best road teams in the Horizon League at 5-8.

Eli Holman's 2.6 blocks per game has helped Detroit become the best shot-blocking team in the league with 3.9 per outing,  but an inability to beat Wright State, Green Bay or Butler this season will keep Detroit from winning it all.

Loyola (14-15, 5-13)

In their last 16 games Loyola has only beaten two different Horizon League teams (UIC and Youngstown), and hasn't registered a win against any other conference teams since 2009. That's unlikely to change when they travel to Cleveland State for the first round of play since they are also 5-9 on the road.

Walt Gibler is the real surprise standout for Loyola. He came off the bench for 11 ppg and 5.1 rpg this season..

UIC (8-21, 3-15)

Lots of game tape. That's what the UIC team has been watching since their loss to Milwaukee last week who they are about to face again in the first round.

UIC has shown improvement in almost every aspect of the game in the end of their season, and the Flames have mostly shed their league-trailing shooting woes improving their shooting percentages from the field in each of their last seven matchups.

That said, they have a major hill to climb to beat UWM in the first round. To say that they've struggled on the road would be an understatement. The Flames are 1-13 away with their only road win coming outside the conference to Evansville.

In order to beat Milwaukee on the Panthers' own court, UIC will have to rely on K.C. Robbins to control the post and prevent UWM from racking up the boards. If UIC finds a way to out-rebound Milwaukee, they have a good chance of beating them especially if the Kreps-Neely-Buttell-Stewart show remains as dominant offensively as they've shown they can be.

With their better FT percentage, UIC can also help out their effort by getting to the stripe. The Flames have the advantage in the steals, blocks, and turnovers categories.

Youngstown State (8-21, 2-16)

Youngstown State would have to pull off one of the biggest upsets in league history to beat No. 3 seeded Green Bay in the first round. The Penguins are winless in the conference on the road, but rank first in the league in block percentage.

DeAndre Mays (14.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg) and the Pens aren't making a run at the big dance anytime soon.

2010 Speedway Horizon League Men's Basketball Championship:

Tuesday, March 2 / First Round / at campus sites
Game 1 - #10 Youngstown State at #3 Green Bay, 8 p.m. ET (HLN - live)
Game 2 - #7 Detroit at #6 Valparaiso, 8 p.m. ET (HLN - live)
Game 3 - #9 UIC at #4 Milwaukee, 8 p.m. ET (HLN - live)
Game 4 - #8 Loyola at #5 Cleveland State, 7 p.m. ET (HLN - live)

Friday, March 5 / Second Round / Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Game 5 - Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. ET (HLN)
Game 6 - Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 8 p.m. ET (HLN)

Saturday, March 6 / Semifinals / Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Game 7 - Game 5 winner vs. #2 Wright State, 5:15 p.m. ET (ESPN360.com - live / ESPNU - tape-delay at 10 p.m. ET)
Game 8 - Game 6 winner at #1 Butler, 8 p.m. ET (ESPNU - live)

Tuesday, March 9 / Championship / at higher remaining seed
Game 9 - Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 9 p.m. (ESPN - live)


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