The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the Horizon League.
In the 2015-16 regular season, Valparaiso dominated the Horizon League. The Crusaders went 16-2 in conference play during a 30-7 season. But the postseason was a different story. Green Bay took down No. 1 seed Valpo in overtime of the tournament semifinals, then toppled Wright State to capture the Horizon League tournament crown and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Phoenix would fall to Texas A&M in the first round of the tournament, but their postseason run proved that the Horizon League has more parity than it might seem.
When you’re the most prolific player on the most successful team in the conference, chances are you’re going to have a season to remember. That should be the case for Valparaiso senior Alec Peters.
Peters, voted the Horizon League Preseason Player of the Year in the coaches’ poll, had a stellar junior season where he ranked in the top-five in the conference in scoring (17.9 points per game), rebounding (9.2 per game), 3-point percentage (46 percent) among other categories.
This season, for the second year in a row, Peters was named to the Karl Malone Award watch list, which recognizes the top power forward in college basketball. Don't be surprised if it's just one of many awards Peters is up for at the end of the year.
Having the league’s best player on your roster certainly doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t Valparaiso’s only advantage this season. The Crusaders return two starters and 10 upperclassmen from a 2015-16 squad that tallied a school-record 30 wins (including going 16-2 in conference play) and an NIT championship runner-up finish.
That was enough to earn Valparaiso 35 of the 39 first-place votes in the conference’s preseason poll, and that isn’t an unwarranted mark.
The Crusaders’ coach last season, Bryce Drew, took the head job at Vanderbilt during the offseason, but Valpo shouldn’t see much of a hiccup in the transition. Drew’s replacement, Matt Lottich, has been on the Crusaders’ bench for the past three years during which the team won 78 games.
The team he’s taking over shouldn’t have too many problems keeping the pace of last season’s squad either. Senior Shane Hammink was named to the Horizon League’s preseason second-team All League before his second season as a Crusader. Hammink’s 8.9 points per game were second on the team last season, and the Dutchman scored double figures twice during the Crusaders’ NIT run.
Valparaiso also returns junior guard Tevonn Walker, who started 26 of the team’s games last year. Walker averaged 8.8 points per game and had the second-most assists last year among returning players.
Valpo won’t get its third-straight regular-season crown without a fight, but the Crusaders should be able to come out on top in March.
Last year, Green Bay finished fourth in the Horizon League’s regular season. The Phoenix were 11-7 in conference and 23-13 overall. It was an impressive season, but what was more impressive was the team’s postseason run in early March.
As the No. 4 seed, the Phoenix won four straight games by an average of nine points, including a 99-92 overtime win over No. 1 seed Valparaiso.
This season could be even better for the Phoenix. Yes, they lost leading scorer Carrington Love, but Green Bay returns six seniors and three juniors to one of the most experienced teams in the Horizon League. One of those seniors, Charles Cooper, averaged 13.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season — impressive enough for a preseason All-Horizon first-team selection.
The Phoenix themselves were picked to finish No. 3 in the preseason coaches’ poll. If they can capitalize on last year’s postseason momentum, Green Bay can be a potential title contender in the Horizon League.
Freshman to watch
First-team All-State in Indiana is not an easy honor to earn. Chris Palombizio did it twice. Oakland’s freshman comes into a team that was picked as the runner up for the Horizon League in the preseason coaches’ poll and should be able to make an early impact.
Palombizio, a 6-foot-6, 212-pound guard/forward combo, has the size to be a presence inside, and the shooting ability to be a threat on the perimeter, something Oakland could certainly use if it’s to take on preseason favorite Valparaiso.