By Joe Scalzo
Go ahead. Try to figure out the Horizon League this year.
Figure out how Cleveland State could enter last week in first place, with two monster home games ahead, and go 0-2.
Figure out how Youngstown State could look terrible in front of its two biggest crowds of the season (losses to Cleveland State and Butler), then immediately bounce back with huge wins (on the road against Milwaukee and at home against Valparaiso).
Figure out how Valparaiso could lose its best player, guard Brandon Wood, to Michigan State, finish fifth in the preseason poll and hold a half-game lead in the standings with two weeks left.
Oh, and be sure to figure out Butler, a team that entered last week one game above .500 and may have left it as the conference favorites. Like last year, when the Bulldogs needed time to jell after losing Gordon Hayward to the NBA, Butler is starting to peak after losing guard Shelvin Mack (now with the Washington Wizards) and Matt Howard (now playing professionally in Greece) — two crucial parts of their two-year NCAA tournament run.
“It’s gonna be fun come playoffs, because everyone can get it,” YSU coach Jerry Slocum said. “I’ll say this now: Watch out for Butler. Here they go. They’re in their comfort zone.
“Those guys are as good defensively as they’ve ever been, they get as good a shots as they’ve every gotten and in a league that’s somewhat offensively-challenged, those dudes are gonna guard you.”
Some of it is injuries — Cleveland State was without do-everything guard D’Aundray Brown (groin) and Valparaiso lost forward Kevin Van Wijk (knee) — and some of it is due to last year’s talent exodus.
All five of last year’s first team all-conference honorees are gone and just two second-teamers returned, both from a disappointing Detroit team that was picked to finish second in the preseason poll. (In fairness, preseason all-conference center Eli Holman has played just 16 games and has yet to start for the Titans, while senior forward Nick Minnerath played just five games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.)
YSU (14-11, 9-6) has already beaten seven of the league’s nine teams and will finish at least .500 for the first time since joining the Horizon League in 2001. The Penguins have three league games remaining, starting Tuesday at Green Bay.
YSU beat Green Bay 77-47 on Jan. 22 — the Penguins’ first 30-point win in Horizon League play — but Slocum said the league is too deep to take anyone lightly.
“If you don’t bring your A game in this league, you’re going to lose,” Slocum said. “I don’t care if you’re home or away. The difference is, on the road, if you bring your A game, you still might not get [a win].
“This is different than any other league that’s in the area or around, your bottom teams are good basketball teams.”
The Penguins will play a BracketBuster game at Austin Peay on Saturday, then finish the season at home against Wright State (which beat YSU by one on Dec. 3) and Detroit (which lost by three to YSU on Dec. 1).
Slocum entered the season believing his team could finish in the top third. Considering the Penguins have already beaten every team but Butler and Wright State, there’s an outside chance they could do more than that.
“This league is crazy,” Youngstown State senior DuShawn Brooks said. “Last year, everyone knew Butler was gonna do it. This year, we came out and like [trainer Todd] Burkey told us at the beginning of the season, ‘It’s a new Horizon for us.’
“We just take that and we go day by day with that and try to fight every team that we can play and try to beat them and it works out for us.”