810 miles in three days. That was the task before me as I ventured to Dayton, Cleveland and Detroit for three Horizon League men's basketball games in the span of roughly 47 hours.
Having been on plenty of road trips before, I've figured out some of the keys to a successful solo trip: first and foremost, personnaly, is making sure the car has Sirius/XM (barring that, that an iPod is available with plenty of songs). While adjusting the presets in car, it dawned on me just how nostalgic I am when it comes to music - stations like 80's on 8, 90's on 9, Lithium, Classic Vinyl, Backspin and the Spectrum all made on the presets (and before I am accused of being an old timer, know that Alt Nation, SiriusXM U and The Heat all made as well). I happen to think that most of the music I listened to when I was growing up beats that of today. It's just the way I am.
In the same vein, fans may look back at the old Horizon League and yearn for those days. But when it comes to the League of today, there is no denying that the conference is more competitive than it has ever been in its 32 year history.
On Friday night, I took in one of the 15 Horizon League games to come down to the final minute of regulation, a heart-pounding 63-62 win by Butler on the road at Wright State. In a contest that featured 20 lead changes, both the Bulldogs and Raiders demonstrated the growth each had undertaken in the last five weeks.
For Butler, that meant learning how to win close games. Early in the year, the Bulldogs were able to hang with teams, but could not get over the hump in losses to Indiana, Louisville and Xavier. In tighter games with Evansville, Ball State and Valparaiso, Butler mistakes on just a possession or two were the difference between winning and losing.
On Friday, it was two of Butler's most experienced players who stepped up - Andrew Smith and Ronald Nored. Twice, Smith drifted to the left wing, where Nored found him for two late three-pointers that tied the game and then gave the Bulldogs a brief lead. With the game tied with just over two seconds left, Nored, who has struggled at the free-throw line at times in his career, hit the eventual game-winning free throw. What he did next was maybe more impressive.
Instead of taking his time with his second shot, Nored immediately threw the ball off the rim as soon as he received it, stunning just about everyone in attendance. The senior was the lone person to react to the shot, and, had he not stepped over the line before the ball hit the rim, Butler would have clinched the win.
The error gave Julius Mays a look at another game-winning runner, and the junior came remarkably close to duplicating his effort from Dec. 20, when his three at the horn sent Wright State home with an 80-78 overtime win. This time, Mays got a screen near the top of the circle and raced down court, and when his floater from 20 feet left his hands, I said to myself, "It's in."
However, the ball caught the right side of the rim and came off, giving Butler a key win and snapping Wright State's four game winning streak.
The postgame press conferences featured two of the marquee young coaches in the Horizon League, with Brad Stevens asking Andrew Smith not to divulge all the details of the plays in which he hit his threes, and Billy Donlon taking full responsibility for Smith hitting those triples, saying he should have taken a timeout after Mays had put the Raiders ahead, 57-54.
The intensity and honesty of both coaches serves their respective teams well, and the Super Bowl Week showdown between the two at Hinkle Fieldhouse will likely go a long way towards determining seeding in the Horizon League Tournament.
Saturday featured the Horizon League Network Game of the Week, with Loyola visiting Cleveland State. I was fortunate enough to watch the first half of the game from WebStream Productions' truck, where it was evident why the company is swiftly becoming a leader in TV and internet live event production.
The truck demands perfection, and the results were delivered, despite a lopsided win for the Vikings.
With its blend of veterans and youth, Cleveland State has assured itself of being a player in the Horizon League for years to come. Trey Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery seem to finding their strokes from three-point range, while Charlie Lee, Anton Grady and Marlin Mason hold the promise of a bright future for the Vikings.
For Loyola, the intensity and drive of new head coach Porter Moser is palpable. Moser has instilled toughness at Loyola, and despite being down for most of the game, refused to allow his team to give up, constantly teaching and giving players in-game experience, which will only serve the Ramblers well down the road. In the front court, Moser has his leaders in Ben Averkamp and Walt Gibler.
Seemingly embracing his message, Averkamp and Gibler have stood out for more than being two pre-Med majors; the duo have carried the Ramblers throughout the year, with Averkamp eclipsing 20 points in five of his last seven games and Gibler closing in on becoming the 18th Loyola player with 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in his career.
Moving on from Cleveland, the road took me to Detroit, where the Titans' backs were against the wall after a buzzer-beating loss to Valparaiso on Friday.
Borrowing a page from the movies, head coach Ray McCallum made sure his team came out to the theme song from "Rocky" and came out the aggressor in a 76-65 win over Butler.
Detroit's experience and size seemed to bother Butler from the tip, as senior Chase Simon knocked down a three on his first shot of the game, and the Titans rolled from there. As Simon goes, so seems to go Detroit. In Detroit's eight wins, Simon is posting 17.0 points and shooting 40 percent from the floor; in the losses, Simon is putting up just 13.9 ppg and hitting 36 percent of his attempts.
On this afternoon, Simon shot 42.9 percent from the floor (6-of-14) and finished with 15 points in a balanced attack, keyed by preseason player of the year Ray McCallum. McCallum efficiently ran the offense, handing out seven assists to go along with 12 points; Simon added five assists as the Titans racked up 15 in the game.
Doug Anderson added highlight reel blocks and dunks, and the Titans served notice that they will still be players in the Horizon League race. Sitting at 2-4, Detroit sits 2.5 games out of first as they head out on a key road trip to Green Bay and Milwaukee. The Phoenix sit directly ahead of the Titans in the League standings at 2-3 and have not lost a game at the Resch Center this year.
Milwaukee holds a 4-1 League mark after Kaylon Williams' three-pointer at the horn sent the Panthers past Green Bay, 64-63, on Saturday. At 4-1, the Panthers are presently in a three-way tie for first, with three more teams within a game of the lead.
Yes, in a year of buzzer beaters and close games, the Horizon League standings promise a finish just as thrilling as last year. And when things are this much fun, who needs to worry about if the League was stronger in the past?
On any given night, any team in the League is capable of knocking off its opponent. The close games are evidence of that. And it you want to wax nostalgic about the League, in each of the last seven years, the Horizon League representative(s) have won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. The close games thus far ensure that whomever represents the conference in the 2012 NCAA Tournament will be well prepared for the competition.
Tags: All Teams - Men's Basketball