CANMORE, Alta. — The 2017-18 season tips off on November 10th, which means the final month without college basketball is finally upon us.
Fans all across the country are gearing up for another exciting college basketball season, and with the recent scandal involving the FBI and several power conference programs across the NCAA, the level of anticipation is through the roof.
Conference preview pieces are starting to circulate from various media outlets, and conferences are hosting their annual media days and announcing their preseason polls and award winners. It’s always interesting to see how coaches and media rank teams in their respective conferences.
With the season right around the corner, we are starting to release our Preseason Player of the Year awards for each conference, along with three All-Conference teams. Picked at random, we will release two sets of awards each day.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Horizon League makeup looks a little bit different than in year’s past. The Valparaiso Crusaders have moved to the Missouri Valley Conference, and in their place, the IUPUI Jaguars accepted an invitation to join the league from the Summit League.
With the departure of the Crusaders, a new program will emerge as the regular season champion. Will it be the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, who welcome a power conference transfer to bolster their back court rotation? Or the UIC Flames, who have a young, but talented roster that’s arguably the deepest in the conference? What about the Northern Kentucky Norse, who won the conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season?
Only time will tell.
Until then, take a look below at who we’ve tabbed as our Preseason Horizon League Player of the Year, and our Preseason All-Horizon League teams!
2017-18 Player of the Year: Dikembe Dixson, UIC Flames
Dikembe Dixson is coming off a season-ending injury that limited him to just ten games last season. That thought alone would steer most clear of the 2016 Horizon League Freshman of the Year. But, we’re not ‘most’. and if he’s 100% healthy, the case could be made that there’s nobody better in the conference than the 6’7” forward from Freeport, IL.
As a freshman in 2015-16. Dixson averaged 19.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, en route to winning the Freshman of the Year award. He had 11 games of at least 20 points over the UIC Flames’ final 13 contests that season, including a 40-point, 17-rebound performance in a double-overtime loss to the Youngstown Penguins.
In 2016-17, Dixson picked up right where he left off the year prior. He was averaging 20.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game over the Flames’ first ten contests before the injury bug derailed the rest of his season. Dixson played just six minutes against the DePaul Blue Demons on December 14th before exiting with a torn ACL.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, Dixson is back healthy and ready to lead the Flames on the hunt for a Horizon League title. He’s got the confidence in his own game, and is willing to tell anyone about it.
If he’s that confident in his own abilities, who are we to say otherwise?
2017-18 All-Horizon League Teams
Over his career with the Youngstown State Penguins, guard Cameron Morse has flown under the radar on the national level. All he’s done over the last two seasons is average over 20.0 points per contest, and Morse has amassed a total of 1,319 points over his sophomore and junior seasons. He put up 40 points in just the second game of the 2016-17 season, a 103-98 overtime loss to the Toledo Rockets. Morse recorded three games with 40 or more points last year alone, and has four such performances for his career. He could very well eclipse the 2,000-point mark this season as a senior.
Martez Walker, once a member of the Texas Longhorns, has helped to turn the Oakland Golden Grizzlies into a perennial powerhouse in the Horizon League. Last season, Walker led Greg Kampe’s crew in scoring with an average of 17.8 points per contest, while also pulling down 4.0 rebounds. Walker can shoot the ball well, and with his 6’6”, 185-pound frame, he adds length to the back court mix. The Golden Grizzlies welcome another power conference transfer to the back court rotation this season, which may lead to a slight dip in Walker’s production. But, there’s no denying that he’s among the Horizon League’s best guards.
Dikembe Dixson is back healthy and ready to make up for lost time with the UIC Flames in 2017-18. The 6’7” forward appeared in just ten games last season before suffering a torn ACL, but averaged 20.0 points per contest. Now that he’s 100%, look for Dixson to pick up right where he left off.
In the Horizon League this season, you’d be hard pressed to find a better big man than Oakland’s Jalen Hayes. The 6’7” forward from Lansing, MI is widely considered as a top contender for the Horizon League Player of the Year award, and rightfully so. Hayes recorded 15.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, while also picking up 1.1 steals and dishing out 1.6 assists. A big man who can do a little bit of everything for your team is a weapon that every coach would love to have. With several weapons on the back end, expect Hayes to get his share of looks in the paint in 2017-18.
The Northern Kentucky Norse have one of the top front court tandems in the conference, in sophomore Carson Williams and junior Drew McDonald. The 6’7” McDonald was the team’s top scorer (16.4 ppg) and rebounder (7.7 rpg) last season, and all signs point to him leading the team in both categories again in 2017-18. He showed off his shooting range all season long, hitting over 38% of his attempts from beyond the arc. McDonald hit at least a pair of three pointers in 15 games in 2016-17, including a season-high five on January 7th against the Cleveland State Vikings.
Sophomore guard Corey Allen could easily be on our First Team All-Horizon League, but we opted for the experience of Walker in the end. As a freshman, Allen finished second in scoring for the Detroit Mercy Titans, averaging 14.4 points to go along with 3.0 rebounds. Allen shot 43.9% from the floor, and 44.8% from beyond the arc. The Titans have found their star for the next three years, and the Ypsilanti, MI native will look to build off a stellar debut season in 2017-18.
Behind every strong front court tandem is a rock solid point guard who can feed them the ball inside and control the offense, and for Northern Kentucky, that’s 6’1” guard Lavone Holland II. Over his first two seasons with the Norse, Holland II has averaged 4.0 and 4.1 assists per contest, and he also chipped in 14.5 points per game last year. The turnovers started to add up last season, and he finished with 106. If he can limit the turnovers, Northern Kentucky will find themselves on the winning side of more close games, and they could very well win the conference tournament for a second straight year.
While he will only be in an Oakland uniform for one season, the addition of transfer Kendrick Nunn adds another weapon to Greg Kampe’s offense, and that’s bad news for the rest of the conference. As a junior with the Illinois Fighting Illini, Nunn put up 15.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 42.8% from the floor and 39.1% from beyond the arc. If he can stay away from off-court issues, Nunn could be in for a big year with the Golden Grizzlies in 2017-18.
The Flames have an abundance of young talent on their roster, especially in the back court, and sophomore guard Tarkus Ferguson is one of the top up-and-coming stars in the Horizon League. As a freshman, Ferguson stuffed the stat sheet, averaging 11.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game, while shooting 40.1% from the floor. He had 17 games with at least 10 points, three rebounds, and three assists over the course of the year. As the year went along, Ferguson flirted with several triple-double performances, missing by just a few points or rebounds each time. It’s not a matter of if he will record one this season, but more of a ‘when will it happen.’
Up front for the Flames, senior big man Tai Odiase is back and ready to wreak havoc on opposing defenses for one more season. The 6’9” senior has been among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots the last two seasons. He averaged 3.2 blocks per game as a sophomore, and 2.9 per game last season. In 2016-17. Odiase averaged a career-best 11.4 points per game, while shooting a career-best mark of 57.7% from the floor. He’s a big body that’s tough to move in the paint on both ends of the floor, and while his offensive numbers won’t blow anyone away, his sheer presence inside is enough to deter his opponents.
Quietly, Brock Stull emerged as the number one guy for the Milwaukee Panthers last season. His minutes increased to over 33 per night, and he averaged a team-high 13.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Stull recorded six double-doubles as a sophomore, highlighted by a 26-point, 10-rebound performance against Youngstown State on December 29th and a 16-point, 17-rebound game against Detroit on January 27th.
With the Green Bay Phoenix losing their top two scorers from last season, it’s time for Khalil Small to take the reigns of the offense and lead the program as a senior. Small is the top returning scorer from last year’s team, where he averaged 10.1 points per contest. His shooting numbers won’t blow you away (23.2% 3PT), but he will see his fair share of good looks this season on the back end, with no clear-cut secondary scoring option.
With leading scorer Mark Alstork transferring to the Illinois Fighting Illini after last season, it’s time for Grant Benzinger to take a leading role with the Wright State Raiders in 2017-18. The 6’3” guard scored in double-figures in each of the Raiders’ last eight games to close out his junior season, and he finished the year averaging 12.8 points per contest. Benzinger is capable of being the lead guy, but he won’t have to go it alone.
Last season, Josh McFolley emerged as a bonafide number one point guard for Bacari Alexander’s crew. He averaged a team-best 3.0 assists per game, while finishing third on the team in scoring with 13.8 points per contest. With another year of experience under his belt, McFolley will be among the conference leaders in assists per game this season. The duo of Allen and McFolley on the back end give the Titans a nice one-two punch.
Returning with Benzinger in the Wright State back court is fellow senior Justin Mitchell. The 6’4” guard from Fort Wayne, IN averaged 11.5 points and team-highs in both rebounds (8.3) and assists (4.0) per game as a junior. Mitchell impacts the game on both ends of the court, and that bodes well for a team that will be trying to find replacements for Alstork.
– T. Bennett