Saturday, January 5, 2008

Observations of a new-comer 1/4/2008

Valparaiso (2-0) RPI: 38, SOS: 132 -- didn't play tonight, but is getting ready for a showdown at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. Valpo fans weren't exactly timid in their expectation that the Crusaders would be competitive in the Horizon League this year, but we would not have been so bold to predict that our 3rd game of the conference season would be labeled by Butler fans as a "Must Win" -- for Butler. That's 16th ranked Butler we're talking about. While we struggle to put meaning to a game against the #1 team in the nation that was tied at 37 in the 2nd half but ended as a 32-point loss, we try not to get too giddy over the cat-bird seat we seem to be in -- according to the fans of other HL teams.

I say that Valpo fans aren't sure how well we will do. We don't expect to beat Butler in Indianapolis.

I think our team on the other hand, does.

Cleveland State (2-0) RPI: 87, SOS: 60 -- The Vikings moved into a tie for 1st with a victory over Loyola. Both conference games CSU has played so far have been at home. It was a fairly close game with momentum shifts. Loyola was up early and then went cold toward the end of the first half. They fought -- valiantly at times -- in the 2nd half, but CSU kept them at bay. The Vikings had some decent non-conference wins. By the same token, they have not ventured out on the road in HL play yet. Being new to the conference, I don't know yet what to predict about them.

UIC (2-1) RPI: 141, SOS: 140 -- I did not expect the Flames to flame out against the Penguins tonight, but that's exactly what they did, losing by 12, and in the 2nd half, from the time I peeked in on the game, they never got closer than a deficit of 10. This was UIC's first road game in conference. Maybe all those veteran HL fans that have been telling us how tough it is to win on the road in this conference are right.

Green Bay (2-1) RPI: 104, SOS: 185 -- On one of the boards I answered a poll asking which is the toughest home court pair in the HL after Valpo-Butler, and I voted for Milwaukee-Green Bay. After seeing the Panthers handle the Raiders and knowing the Green Bay is in better shape, I'm gonna have to say that these will always be very tough venues to win in. The Phoenix had no bad RPI losses during the non-conference schedule and are 8-5 overall. Schactner and Tillema are already names I readily recognize.

Butler (1-1) RPI: 12, SOS: 93 -- The Bulldogs have the most impressive resume it has ever been my pleasure to rub elbows with as a fan of any conference (well, okay, there's only been 2 -- this one and the Mid-Con -- but still). Considering last year's team received an at-large bid as a #5 seed (very impressive), I would think that such an at-large bid would surely be there for them even if they don't win the tournament. All this talk about the Valpo game being a must win for Butler means either that their fans want to run the table the rest of the way, host and win the tournament, and thus try for an even better seed than last year, or else they are still worried about the at-large bid eluding them. Given what happened a few years ago, I couldn't blame them if it were the latter.

In the meantime, the Bulldogs walk a fine line in such an impressive way. They could be done in by a cold shooting spell -- if any team can be found to expand such a spell to last more than one half, unlike the Ohio State game. They can be suffocated on defense, like they were by SIU recently -- if such a team can keep it up for a long enough period of time. They can be weakened with foul trouble -- if guys like Matt Howard and Pete Campbell can be lured into deep foul trouble. All of these things are doable, but I get the feeling you have to be pretty close to perfect at all three in order to score a victory.

So how did Wright State do it? Well, if the HLN archives were actually archiving conference games like they claim to, maybe I could tell ya... Apparently the Nutter Center is a helpful intangible to have on your side.

Youngstown State (1-1) RPI: 165, SOS: 45 -- played one of the tougher non-conference schedules in the Horizon League. I have been waiting, though, to find something about the Penguins to be impressed with. Right now, that would have to be their victory over UIC by 12 points. Granted it was on the Penguins' home court, but I had figured them to have trouble with the Flames. I also have no trouble believing that home court advantage means a lot in this league, regardless of who you are.

Wright State (1-2) RPI: 51, SOS: 36 -- the toughest non-conference schedule in the conference, and they are 8-4 overall. They seem to be still trying to find their footing in the post-Deshaun Woods era. Until last night, I thought they had found it, having won the Dr. Pepper Classic with wins over Belmont and host Chattanooga, as well as a gritty win over Cal-State Fullerton. It appeared to some WSU fans that their team was a bit gassed after all the the tough road games. It probably didn't help that they were yet again on the road against a UWM team that seems to have rejuvenated itself.

Milwaukee (1-2) RPI: 152, SOS 44 -- That Strength of Schedule shot way up after they played Wright State. Last year's leading scorer, Avery Smith -- gone before the season started (attitude problem). Torre Johnson, their most impressive player in the early going this season -- gone after being arrested. Another player had to leave to take care of an ailing parent. Their two prize recruits in the lastest Freshmen class -- this close to being booted for attitude problems, missed practices, etc.

As devoted Milwaukee fans will tell you, they are better off without these "cancers" on the team (KJ and Tim are currently not dressing on game days), and after wins at home against Central Michigan, on the road against Wyoming, and then at home against the defending Horizon League champs who currently own Butler's only loss of the season Wright State, it appears that "addition by subtraction" is working for them. Of course, they can't be as good as they were originally hoping to be when they were "loaded". Still, the reports of their demise are, for the time being, premature.

Loyola (1-2) RPI: 286, SOS 248 -- It was too many years ago that Valpo ran the gauntlet during our non-conference schedule of a few of the Horizon League teams, and a particular horrible outing came at the hands of the Ramblers. This year, they have played the weakest non-conference schedule in the conference, and still they only have 2 non-conference wins, one against RPI 340 Eastern Illinois and the other at home against RPI 110 Northern Iowa (which is impressive). Their one win comes against the then reeling Milwaukee, at home as well.

Detroit (0-3) RPI: 238, SOS 98 -- The once-mighty Titans who sported a coach so flamboyant he makes Ron Hunter look serene have certainly fallen far. Their recent 30th reunion of their 1977 team that I imagine made a splash in the postseason under the coaching of Dickie V was, according to some reports, an awkward scene at Calihan Hall, with frosty relations between these old-timers and the current regime spilling over into the pages of The Detroit News about their disappointment over the current state of the Titans. They pressed Butler to the limit in their opening conference contest at Calihan Hall, but 2 days later were not all that intimidating (on the court or in the stands) to newcomer Valpo. Somehow they began their season with what is now a quality win over RPI 30 Kent State. They also have had a defection or two, namely their leading scorer who was dismissed either right before the season started or else a game or two in to the schedule.

One potential positive in all this Titan fans on their message board have greatly reduced their obsession with how much better and classier their school is than the Oakland Golden Grizzlies who remain in The Summit League but seem to be getting slightly better press coverage and currently sport a win over a top-25 team. Some of their fans have even begun giving OU a grudging respect and called for UDM to get their eye back on the ball and start competing again for area recruits. Hopefully by the end of the season, they will have proven to be as formidable opponent as any Horizon League team.

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