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Top 5 Horizon League Runs in NCAA Tournament history

Upon Butler’s entertaining 77-59 “upset” over lower-seeded UTEP in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday that saw Shelvin Mack pouring down threes, many were already comparing Butler’s abilities to Cleveland State’s genuine upset of Wake Forest in 2009.

Butler has the talent, the athleticism, and the coach to bring it all together, so why does no one have faith in the Horizon League?

The Horizon League is the only non-BCS conference with Sweet 16 qualifiers in three of the last five NCAA Tournaments. Before anyone knocks the Horizon League’s status as a one bid conference, here’s some history to prove their place in the post-season. And although the Horizon League wasn’t an official conference until 1979 (and, even then, variously named), I’m including its current teams in the list.

I present the top 5 Horizon League moments in NCAA Tournament history:

5. Three HL bids

Yeah, believe it. The Horizon League has been a multi-bid conference eight total times, but in 1998 three teams danced from the then-Midwestern Collegiate Conference for the first time. Valparaiso, who was then in the Summit League, was also invited.

Detroit and UIC got their berths by winning the regular season crown, both finished 12-2 atop the conference, while Butler stamped their ticket with the conference tournament win over UW-Green Bay 70-51.

Of them only Detroit survived the first round. Ninth-seeded UIC under Coach Jimmy Collins lost to Charlotte 77-62 while Butler, a 13 seed, fell to New Mexico by a nearly equal margin of 17 points. No. 10 seeded Detroit handled higher seeded St. John’s for the two point upset in the first round, but was downed by Purdue in the second round 80-65.

4. Three Wins in 1990
I hesitated to include this but couldn’t pass it by since Xavier played such a large role in what we now know as the Horizon League. Xavier was a member of the then-MCC from 1979-1995, and they had a lot of dominant seasons in those years. In 1990 Dayton was also a member, and they both made the big dance.

Sixth-seeded Xavier pounded out a victory over Kansas State in the first round, edged past third-seeded Georgetown by three points in the second round and was finally bested by Texas 102-89 in the Sweet Sixteen.

Meanwhile, Dayton managed a huge 12/5 upset over Illinois, and then fell to Arkansas by two points in the second round.

Not since has the Horizon League managed three wins in the NCAA Tournament

3. UW-Milwaukee’s 2005 Run
Entering on a bid as champion of the 2005 Horizon League tournament, UW-Milwaukee landed a #12 seed in the midwest region for the NCAA tournament, but their Cinderella story was just beginning.

In the opening round Milwaukee had the crowd on their side when they took on fifth-seeded Alabama in Indianapolis for an 83-73 win. The Panthers then handled fourth-seeded Boston College 83-75 for their first chance at a Sweet Sixteen win. But faced with a stacked top seeded squad from Illinois, Milwaukee was forced to end their thrilling run with a 77-63 loss.

No team in recent Horizon League history has gotten further. And by the way, this showing earned Bruce Pearl his current job at the University of Tennessee.

2. Loyola Chicago’s 1963 National Championship
The NCAA Tournament was a very different animal back in 1963—just 25 teams were invited for a much shorter version of the madness that we know today. Of those Loyola Chicago had one of the most impressive resumes—just two losses on the season and a nation-leading average of 91.8 points per game.

The Ramblers, under coach George Ireland, made headlines as they rolled past teams for not only their dominant athleticism and offense but also their four starting black players. In the first round of the tournament they crushed Tennessee Tech 111-42, and went on to easily pick off Mississippi State and Illinois in the Mideast Region and then Duke before meeting defending champion one-loss Cincinnati for the championship crown.

In the final Loyola was striking out. They missed 13 of their first 14 shots and trailed by as much as 15 points in the second half. Overall the Ramblers hit an ugly 23 of 84 from the floor, yet rallied to tie the game and managed to send it into overtime in the final seconds. In OT a jump shot from the hands of Les Hunter rolled around the rim with just seconds remaining before a tip in from Vic Rouse gave the Ramblers their first ever national championship.

Ireland brought Loyola back to the dance three more times, (1964, 1966 and 1968) but they never regained the crown. The Horizon League never has either.

1. Cleveland State upends Wake Forest

No one could have predicted this. In 2009 the Horizon League sent Cleveland State and Butler to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament. Butler drew an 8/9 game against LSU that they squandered, but 13-seeded Cleveland State had the extreme misfortune of drawing fourth-seeded Wake Forest—a perennial tournament powerhouse.

They weren’t worried. The Vikings forced 16 turnovers and lead the entire game starting with a rain of threes. Their historic 84-69 win tied the record for margin of victory in a 13 over four seed upset. Norris Cole had 22 points and four assists and J’Nathan Bullock put up 21 points and six boards.

Their run was stunted, however, by Arizona, a 12 seed, who would beat Cleveland State in the second round 71-57.

Of course, Butler did this first. In 2001 the Bulldogs also beat Wake Forest in the first round (as a 10 seed) and then went on to lose to Arizona in the second round. To this day Dino Gaudio and the Demon Deacons must be haunted by this game.

A Butler run to the Final Four is not out of reach, and it would be a Horizon League milestone.Tune in Saturday when the Horizon League (via Butler) takes on the underdog champion Murray State Racers for a chance at the Sweet Sixteen.

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