The Horizon League did a splendid job of kicking off March Madness as the lowest seed in its league tournament, Milwaukee, came up just short of taking down the fourth-seeded Northern Kentucky Norse for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Since then the conference has experienced some changes as Valparaiso bolted the Horizon to join the Missouri Valley Conference and was replaced by IUPUI, a perennial losing college basketball program. That change figures to hurt a conference that has not been a two-bid league since Butler was involved.
With Valparaiso gone, it's difficult to see any team other than Oakland posting the best conference record this season. The Golden Grizzlies won 24 games despite it being their first season without electric point guard Kay Felder, and they will have the services of Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn this year.
A domestic violence arrest caused Nunn to be dismissed from the Big Ten program a year ago and, after sitting out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA transfer rules, he is ready to roll this year. The 6-foot-3 guard had 15.5 points, five rebounds and 1.5 steals per game as a junior for the Illini.
Nunn should be able to get plenty of open looks with pass-first point guard Stevie Clark running the offense. Clark, a former Oklahoma State recruit, led the team with four assists per game last season.
With leading scorer Martez Walker back for his senior year after he posted averages of 17.8 points and four rebounds, Oakland has the chance to have one of the highest-scoring backcourts in the nation.
With plenty of front-line depth, Greg Kampe will be coaching one of the best mid-major teams in the nation. If Oakland can play well in nonconference games against Kansas, Syracuse and Michigan State, an at-large NCAA Tournament bid might be in the cards for Kampe.
The roster Oakland has assembled means it will be tough for Northern Kentucky to reach the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.
The Norse had the biggest increase in wins in the nation, going from nine in 2015-16 to 24 last season. The reason for their outburst is a bunch of their young players performing unexpectedly well as just one of the team's top 13 scorers last season was a senior.
Now replacing 6-foot-7 Cole Murray is not the easiest thing as he had 10.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game while hitting nearly 40 percent of his 3s last year, but it helps to have three double-digit scorers back in the fold. Murray's loss is a lot easier to swallow when the team has 6-foot-8 Drew McDonald leading the way. He had team highs of 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds and shot 38.4 percent from 3, making him arguably the toughest player to match up with in the conference.
All in all, it seems like the same narrative the Horizon League has had since Butler left the conference. There is a team in Oakland that has a bit less than a 50-50 shot at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid while Northern Kentucky has emerged as a solid second choice. Illinois-Chicago looks like it is poised for a good year, and then there are a bunch of rebuilding teams down the ladder.
Greg Peterson’s Horizon League forecast:
2. Northern Kentucky
5. Wright State
7. Youngstown State
8. UW-Green Bay
10. Cleveland State