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Better Know A Conference: The Horizon League

Butler and Xavier may be long gone, but they still play quality basketball in this low-major conference in the Midwest.

USA TODAY Sports

The Horizon League is better known for its past than its present. The three most successful teams in the history of the conference (Butler, Xavier, Evansville) have all fled for greener pastures. Those three universities have accounted for 23 of the 39 outright or shared regular-season titles in the Horizon.

The teams remaining occupy five Great Lakes states -- Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio -- and have carved out a niche in the Midwest.

What the conference lacks in heavy-hitters it makes up for in parity. Five teams have won at least a share of the conference regular-season championship since 2007. Compare that to Kansas' run of nine straight Big 12 titles and the Horizon League makes for a fun follow heading into March.

While no team in the conference has unseated a ranked team this season, there is one team that could make a splash in postseason play.

The Best Team: Green Bay, and it isn't really close. The Phoenix don't have a Wichita-type hold on the Horizon the way the Shockers do in the Missouri Valley, but through eight conference games Green Bay holds a two-game lead. At 8-1 -- and 17-4 overall -- Green Bay has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament even if they fail to win the conference's automatic bid. ESPN's Joe Lunardi has the Phoenix as a 12-seed, higher than most of the conferences receiving one bid. It would be their third trip to the Big Dance since joining the conference in 1995.

The Contenders: Cleveland State and Valparaiso are both 5-3 in conference play, and sit two games behind Green Bay. It will take a spectacular finish and few hiccups from Green Bay, but both teams will be live opponents in the Horizon League Tournament.

The Best Players: Youngstown State's Kendrick Perry is the most dynamic player in the Horizon League. The senior guard is averaging over 20 points per game, 4.2 assists and 2.6 steals. Behind him is Green Bay's gunner Keifer Sykes. The junior guard is also averaging north of 20 points on what is easily the best team in the conference. Also for Green Bay, Alec Brown is doing incredible things on defense. The 7'1 junior is averaging 3.3 blocks per game, good for 11th in the nation. Brown has nearly twice as many rejections as any other player in the conference.

The Best Upcoming Games:

2/15: Green Bay at Cleveland State

2/20: Valparaiso at Green Bay

3/1: Cleveland State at Valparaiso

Cleveland State has the best chance at catching Green Bay for the regular-season title, as they still have a home game against the Phoenix. The Vikings would also need to take care of Valpo as the schedule turns to March if they have hopes of unseating Green Bay.

Valparaiso is the only squad to defeat Green Bay this season, doing so Wednesday night. The Phoenix will have a shot at redemption in Green Bay on Feb. 20.

The Mascots: What fun is analyzing a non-BCS conference without ranking their mascots?

Green Bay Phoenix -- An excellent visual, a team that can be burned to the ground and rise from its own ashes. Also, Green Bay is the opposite of everything associated with Arizona.

Youngstown State Penguins -- Nailed it. Though the name suffers from a similar issue to that of the Toronto Raptors, as there are about as many velociraptors in Toronto as penguins in northeast Ohio. Also, a horribly dull logo and an uninviting campus.

Illinois-Chicago Flames -- Yes, yes, yes. Any mascot that creates as much chaos as an open flame should be praised.

Oakland Golden Grizzlies -- Ferocious-sounding, with bonus points for alliteration. Used to be the Pioneers.

Detroit Titans -- Sounds similar to Detroit's baseball team, but you could do worse than associations with one of the better sappy sports flicks.

Valparaiso Crusaders -- Not majestic, but when your name is already hard enough to spell/remember it's good to pick a vanilla mascot. The nickname "Valpo" keeps the Crusaders from falling any further.

Cleveland State Vikings -- Pretty bland, considering how far Cleveland is from the purple-and-gold Vikings in Minnesota. But, once you see the logo ...

Wright State Raiders -- Raiders, Crusaders, Vikings? Pillaging was so 11th century.

Milwaukee Panthers -- Blech.

How have Horizon teams fared in the NCAA Tournament?

Butler -- before departing for the Atlantic 10 -- carved out their own legacy in the NCAA Tournament, reaching two straight National Championship games. Since 2005, only two current Horizon League teams have mustered a win in March Madness, and only four total between them. Most recently, Cleveland State pulled off an upset over 4-seed Miami in 2009. Before that, Bruce Pearl's Milwaukee team notched a win over Oklahoma in 2006 and actually reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2005. The Panthers would eventually lose to Bruce Weber's top-seeded Illinois, who reached the National Championship game that season.

Current NBA players from the Horizon League:

-Ray McCallum, Sacramento Kings

Taken by Sacramento with the 36th pick in last year's NBA Draft, McCallum is the most recent success story from the Horizon League. The former Detroit Titan has been back-and-forth from the D-League, but had six points in 10 minutes against Utah on Wednesday night.

-Willie Green, Los Angeles Clippers

Green, a solid reserve in his 10-year NBA career, was a few generations ahead of McCallum at Detroit. In his heyday with the 76ers Green averaged double-digits scoring twice, 2006-07 and 2007-08.

-Norris Cole, Miami Heat

Two-time defending NBA champion Norris Cole sparkled in his senior season at Cleveland State, winning Horizon League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Cole was the first player to earn both distinctions in the same season.

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