The Horizon League has been one of the better one or two bid leagues in the country for a while now and the coaches continually note the lack of respect it gets from around the country. If the conference has a few more days like Saturday that's all going to change.
The league went 6-2 on Saturday with the two losses being on the road at Big East squads. It included a nationally televised 83-50 beat-down of the Pac-10's Stanford by Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse and UIC's 57-54 victory over downstate rival, and Big Ten team, Illinois.
The other four teams, Valparaiso, Detroit, Milwaukee and Wright State, held serve against mid-majors from the MAC and Summit leagues.
"That's a great win for [UIC head coach] Howard [Moore]," said Loyola's Jim Whitesell, whose team is already 0-2 at home in conference play. "I'm happy for him. It says how good our league is. While our league isn't the Big East in terms of athleticism and size, scheme and execution has to be really good. Also your assertiveness, your strength and also your poise has to be very consistent in our league. There's not much margin of error. It doesn't shock me."
This season the conference looks like one that could produce multiple postseason teams, though two NCAA participants once again seems unlikely. That's a shame considering the recent success the league has had in the NCAA Tournament. Last season Butler reached the championship game, and two seasons ago Cleveland State upset Wake Forest in the first round when the Demon Deacons were ranked 12th in the country.
This season the culprit looks like some early struggles by the Bulldogs combined with some weak scheduling. While Cleveland State started this season 12-0 before falling to West Virginia on Saturday, it did it against a pretty soft schedule. While most of the victories have been convincing, there's not one the Raiders can hang their hats on as a bubble team come Selection Sunday. Still, if they keep winning - and that includes a visit from South Florida on Wednesday and a BracketBuster game down the line - the committee will have to take a long look at the team.
And that's where days like Saturday are really going to help. For if Cleveland State goes 16-2 in a home-and-home schedule against a Top 11 league, which is about the peak the Horizon League could reach, then that's saying something. UIC's victory over Illinois just proves how dangerous every team in the conference is. (Well, with the possible exception of Youngstown State.)
Like most of the league, Butler also still has a chance to make one more good impression when the Bulldogs play Utah on Wednesday. Expect that one to be watched closely by most of the league as well. While the Butler probably has no shot at making the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team, mostly because of a loss to Evansville and no true "marquee" win, if the Bulldogs were the team that beat Cleveland State for the conference title, it'd certainly help.
Wednesday in general is another chance for this improving league to prove its muscle. Here are all the games on tap:
- South Florida at Cleveland State
- Wright State at Charlotte
- Loyola (IL) at Texas-Pan American
- Detroit at Bradley
- Green Bay at Wyoming
- UIC at Oregon State
- Utah vs. Butler from Hawaii
That day and the BracketBusters will go a long way towards determining just how high the Horizon League is going to go this season, but it's already begun to get some national respect.