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2021 Horizon League Tournament Preview

After months of COVID-19 uncertainty, college basketball tournament season officially gets started today with the Horizon League Tournament.

After months of COVID-19 uncertainty, college basketball tournament season officially gets started today with the Horizon League.

Cleveland State and Wright State finished tied for the regular season title, but the Vikings earned the No. 1 seed based on a complicated tie-breaker formula. For this year only, the Horizon League weighed four factors for seeding: league winning percentage, strength of schedule, road wins vs. home wins, and total number of league games played.

Here is preview of the Horizon League battle to earn the first automatic bid for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

2021 Horizon League Tournament Preview

The No. 1 Seed

Team:  Cleveland State Vikings
Seed: No. 1
Overall Record:  16-7
League Record:  16-4
Big Wins: At Wright State (66-64);  Northern Kentucky (58-44); Northern Kentucky (74-71 OT)
Bad Losses: At Purdue Fort Wayne (75-68); Milwaukee (81-80 OT)

Cleveland State was the surprise team of the Horizon, predicted to finish seventh in the preseason poll. The Vikings opened league play with nine consecutive wins, including a sweep of Northern Kentucky and a win at Wright State. It owns the top defensive turnover rate in conference play and has held Horizon opponents to a league-low 30.2% from beyond the arc. Senior guard Torrey Patton (14 PPG) and junior college transfer D’Moi Hodge (10.4 PPG) lead an offensive attack that will struggle at times. The Vikings shoot just 30% as a team from 3, with a poor 66.4% team free-throw percentage. As the No. 1 overall seed, Cleveland State will enjoy an opening-round bye, and then hosts the lowest remaining seed at home. The oddsmakers clearly don’t believe in the Vikings, making them fifth-likely team to win the tournament at +1000 odds.

Prediction:  The magical season for head coach Dennis Gates and the Vikings ends in Indianapolis, with a semi-final loss.


The Dominant Team

Team:  Wright State Raiders
Seed: No. 2
Overall Record:  18-5
League Record:  16-4
Big Wins: At Northern Kentucky (77-71); Cleveland State (84-49)
Bad Losses: Youngstown State (74-72); at Oakland 87-81

Wright State has been the most dominant regular season team in the Horizon League over the past four seasons. They have finished second or better every year during that time, and have earned at least a share of the regular season title three consecutive seasons. Head coach Scott Nagy’s team ranks inside the top 65 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom. In Horizon League play, Wright State finished first in both categories, as well as first overall in offensive rebounding percentage.

The Raiders interior dominance is lead by 6-foot-8 center Loudon Love.  The 260-pound senior was first on the Raiders with 10.3 rebounds per game, while ranking 15th-best in the nation with 3.52 offensive rebounds per contest. Love was just named Horizon League Player of the Year, and was joined by sophomore Tanner Holden (15.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG) on the All-Horizon League first team.

The Raiders complement their post play with a cadre of shooters averaging over 38% from 3-point range. Grant Basile (48.7%), Tim Finke (41.2%), and Jaylon Hall (46.6%) ensure that the opposing defense cannot focus on stopping Love.

Wright State has enjoyed a dominant season, yet has failed to earn a Quadrant I win. The Raiders have made the NCAA Tournament three times, losing by an average of 30 points per game. They have lost to four different Horizon League teams, including twice at home to Youngstown State and Cleveland State.

Prediction:  The Raiders superior roster talent helps to guide them to a third Horizon League Championship game in four seasons.

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The Surprising Top-4 Seed

Team:  Oakland Golden Grizzlies
Seed: No. 3
Overall Record:  10-17
League Record:  10-10
Big Wins: Wright State 87-81; Detroit (3 of 4 times)
Bad Losses: at Robert Morris (88-82 2OT); at Green Bay (twice)

Oakland is the perfect example of why the seeding formula change, as they played Detroit four times, while never playing Northern Kentucky or IUPUI. Head coach Greg Kampe‘s team is much more efficient on offense (third in Horizon) than defense (tenth in Horizon). Junior point guard Jalen Moore (18.4 PPG, 8.4 APG)  enjoyed a fantastic season, earning All-League First Team honors. The inexperienced Grizzlies allow opponents to shoot over 38% from 3P and 55% from 2P. Their win over Wright State looms large, but is there only real win of consequence in league play.

Prediction:  Oakland’s solid season ends with a semi-final loss to Wright State.


The Defending Champion

Team:  Northern Kentucky Norse
Seed: No. 4
Overall Record:  13-10
League Record:  11-7
Big Wins: Wright State 87-75;
Bad Losses: IUPUI (twice)

Northern Kentucky earned the league’s automatic bid in the 2018-19 season and defeated Illinois-Chicago in the championship game last year. The Norse have now won the Horizon League Tournament in three of the past four seasons.

Predicted to finish third in the preseason poll, the Norse are the hottest team entering this year’s tournament. They won eight of their last 10 games, including an 81-75 win over Wright State. Head coach Darrin Horn worked his team out of a mid-season slump that saw four consecutive league losses, including twice at home to IUPUI.

Northern Kentucky has surprisingly poor defensive metrics overall, ranking just 285th in adjusted defensive efficiency. However, it ranks second against 2-point field goals in Horizon League play, holding opponents to just 48.3%.

The Norse play at a slow, deliberate pace, as illustrated by the league’s slowest adjusted tempo rate. But they feature a three-headed scoring attack with versatile guards Trevon Faulkner (16.6 PPG), Marques Warrick (15.9 PPG), and Bryson Langdon (10.3 PPG).

The defending champs are very much alive.

Prediction:  Horn gets him team to a fourth Horizon League Championship game, where they battle Wright State for a trip to the 2021 NCAA Tournament.


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