Horizon League play reopens on Thursday night with a full slate of four games. Saturday there's a fifth (because Valparaiso and Butler will play their pair game) and with that the league will be officially restarted.
Things didn't go so well for Loyola or UIC the first time around. Loyola dropped a pair of games - to Valparaiso and Butler - and the Flames lost their game to the Crusaders. All of those games were at home and thus both teams are starting up again already considerably behind the eight ball.
Still, the numbers still believe in Loyola and UIC has shown lately that it still has a pulse, but it has to start with road wins this weekend. Both teams should be looking to get a split this weekend while in Ohio.
You see, both teams are going to get the chance to play Youngstown State. The Penguins are ranked 275th in Ken Pomeroy (last in the Horizon) and are 5-6 overall, having lost to Akron, both Wisconsin Horizon League members and Robert Morris. UIC takes on the Penguins on Thursday and Loyola gets them on Saturday. Even playing on the road the Ramblers are a decisive favorite according to Ken Pomeroy and the Flames' game is a toss-up.
Of course, that's good, because the game against Cleveland State
is going to be a rough one. (For some reasons why see the Q&A
.) The Vikings are going to be fighting for a Horizon League championship and an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this season. They can't afford any conference losses to teams besides Butler, and they know it.
The thing is, while Cleveland State has beaten teams that are in the relative range of Loyola, the games have been pretty close. The Vikings beat Iona by 10, Kent State by three and South Florida by seven all at home. That's just a few possessions and it's certainly close enough where an upset is possible.
In order to pull off that upset Loyola will have to lock down defensively. Ironically though, that's what UIC is much better at doing. In fact, I think the Flames are a better match up with the Vikings because of their defensive intensity and because the height of Paul Carter, Darrin Williams and K.C. Robbins is going to bother Cleveland State.
On the other hand, Loyola can use its height to its advantage as well. For instance, the Vikings are a bad defensive rebounding team. Andy Polka, Walt Gibler and Ben Averkamp need to crash the glass and help the Ramblers get second chances.
The worst case scenario for both teams this weekend should be 1-1. If they do that it'll go a long way towards showing they can be competitive as the calendar turns to 2011 and the conference kicks into high gear.