For more than a decade, Butler has been to the Horizon League what Wayne Gretzky was to the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. Now the Bulldogs are off to the Atlantic-10, and its former conference is scrambling to make sure it doesn't become an unsexy franchise on the verge of freezing to death in Alberta (figuratively).
The good news for the Horizon is that this move isn't coming immediately after Butler's back-to-back national title game appearances. The league has already experienced what life without the Bulldogs at the top is like, and as a result can say it's returning both its reigning regular season (Valparaiso) and tournament (Detroit) champions.
Still, with Butler down last season, the conference went from a multi-bid league featuring the two-time defending national runners-up to one whose lone representative in the big dance was a 15 seed. The issue for the Horizon now becomes making sure that type of postseason situation and performance doesn't become the norm.
2011-12 FINAL CONFERENCE STANDINGS
CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION
3) Detroit defeated 1) Valparaiso (70-50)
NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULT
15) Detroit (automatic) lost to 2) Kansas (65-50)
THREE BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Can Valpo become the new Butler?
Filling out the shoes worn by a back-to-back national runner-up is a nearly impossible task for any mid-major program, but the one with the biggest feet in the Horizon League right now would seem to be Valpo. They've had sustained success in the recent past, they have a marketable young coach in Bryce Drew, they're located in a talent-rich area and they just won the Horizon by a full two games in just their fifth season in the league.
Though becoming Butler, a program more likely to find itself ranked in the top 25 than on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble in recent years, is probably unachievable, Valpo has all the necessary ingredients to carry the flag for the Horizon League in these still uncertain times. Making some noise during the non-conference portion of the season and then winning a game in the big dance would do wonders for both the conference and the Crusaders' long-term sustainability.
2. Scheduling concerns
The unexpected immediate departure of Butler has every team in the league with two open slots on its schedule and not a great deal of time to fill them. The downgrade from 18 to 16 conference games means all nine teams have to strike a pair of non-con deals before the start of the season, which is a tough sell in the summer if you're not a power conference team.
3. No coaching changes
Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the league this offseason, each of the conference's nine remaining members managed or chose to hold onto its head coach. That's an extremely rare occurrence for any league in this day and age, but especially for a mid-major conference in a state of flux.
EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Bryce Drew's team went 14-4 in the league during the regular season last year and lost no seniors of note. Leading scorers and rebounders Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk are back for their senior seasons, and both have a bitter taste in their mouths after a disastrous performance in the conference title game.
With Ray McCallum Jr. back, it's an easy argument to make that this is the most talented team in the conference. The problem with the Titans -- and it seems strange to say this about a Horizon League team -- the past two years has been focus. They've gone through the motions for stretches during conference play and then attempted to turn it up once the spotlight came their way. It worked last season, as they won their four conference tournament games by an average of just under 13 points. The graduation of seniors Chase Simon and Eli Holman provide holes that will be difficult to fill.
3. Green Bay
Green Bay appears to be the team from the pack most capable of challenging Valpo and Detroit. The Phoenix return their top four scorers from last season, including one of the top double-double men in the league in junior center Alec Brown. Brown scored in double figures in all but two of Green Bay's final 13 games last year.
4. Youngstown State
The Penguins will return three players, including two seniors, who averaged double figures last season in Kendrick Perry, Blake Allen and Damian Eargle. Perry, who led YSU in scoring (16.8 ppg), assists (3.9 apg) and steals (2.4 spg) in 2011-12, is the guy who makes this team go. He scored 20 or more points in six of Youngstown's final nine games, including a 30-point performance in a win over Milwaukee.
The league's most balanced team last season loses its two leading scorers, but still returns three guys who averaged 7.6 points per game or better. The loss of Ja'Rob McCallum to transfer is a blow, but junior college transfers Jordan Aaron and Thierno Niang will provide immediate help in the backcourt. The addition of Aaron, who could be the Panthers' starting point guard from day one, is especially crucial.
6. Cleveland State
The Vikings were as disappointing as any team in the country in February and March last season, losing nine of their final 11 games after beginning the season 20-4. Losing its only three double-figure scorers to graduation doesn't do anything to help the offseason healing process.
7. Wright State
It can be argued that no team in the country has had a worse offseason than the Raiders, who have lost five players to transfer, tied with San Francisco for the most in Division-I. Leading scorer Julius Mays heading to Kentucky for his final season is the unquestioned biggest blow of the bunch.
The Ramblers won just one league game last season, but they were rarely blown out, dropping three of those contests in overtime. They also won at Bradley in their BracketBusters game, which is ... something. These two facts combined with the return of Ben Averkamp for his senior season has me going out on the "not picking Loyola last" limb.
The Flames had four key seniors last season and still only managed to win eight games overall. Gary Talton will have to have a monster senior season for the team to improve upon that mark.
G Kendrick Perry, Youngstown State
F Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso
F Ben Averkamp, Loyola-Chicago
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Junior Lomomba, Cleveland State
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ray McCallum Jr., Detroit