This feature appears on HorizonLeague.com and was written by Michael Raines of the Horizon League. For more coverage of Horizon League men's basketball throughout 2012-13, please visit HorizonLeague.com.
Although the season has yet to tip-off, the Horizon League already
has a singular distinction among the NCAA's 31 conferences heading into
the 2012-13 men's basketball campaign.
It is the only league to return all five first-team selections from the previous season.
With that continuity in place, excitement is mounting that the Horizon League will be highly competitive, with several teams striving for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Said Detroit head coach Ray McCallum, "It shows that we had a lot of young players that are talented and had great years. The league is just getting better and better; the players are getting better [and] you've got outstanding coaches in the conference."
"As we saw last year, any team can beat anyone pretty much on any night," said Valparaiso forward Ryan Broekhoff, who took Player of the Year honors in 2011-12. "There's such an even spread of talent across this league, but it's diverse: some teams are big, some teams are small, some teams shoot the ball, some teams go inside. Each night is a completely different game plan for each team. There are a lot of players you have to keep an eye out for."
That diversity promises to make league play compelling and will have fans taking notice, but it also promises to be a headache for those trying to draw up the game plans.
"It's great for the league, but it's a nightmare for coaches," Green Bay head coach Brian Wardle said with a laugh. "You just sit there seeing all of these teams and what they have coming back, and it's going to be another deep year in the league. Every team is better, every team has talent. It should be exciting for the Horizon League and people need to know how good this league is."
MAKING A NAME
"You're always going to start at the bottom and work your way up. I think that's been going on these last couple of years," said Kevin Van Wijk, the unheralded Valparaiso Crusader who took nearly everyone by surprise with a 13.9 points-per-game average and 61.7 shooting percentage.
A native of the Netherlands, Van Wijk made a name for himself last season with his inspiring performance.
After Broekhoff and Van Wijk led Valparaiso to the regular-season conference title last season, the Crusaders fell to Detroit in the tournament's championship game. This season, they're out for revenge.
TIME TO STEP UP
"It's going to bring out a little bit of rivalry between players. Obviously, we've got a little thing with Detroit that we'd like to get back - and Ray McCallum's back," Broekhoff said, referring to Detroit's star point guard, the son of the Titans coach and last year's tournament MVP. "It's just going to put pressure on players to try to do their best to limit their [opponents'] production. There are guys in the league that put up big numbers that we have to try to keep in check and limit if we want to be successful, and that goes for every team and every player and it's just going to be another tough season."
Van Wijk echoed his Australian teammate's desire to once again see how everyone stacks up. "I think it makes it interesting," the Dutchman said. "The guys that are back - you can compete against them again, see how much they have improved and how much you have improved."
Both of Detroit's Ray McCallums understand that it's not going to be an easy road.
"The Horizon League is definitely a really good conference and definitely a competitive one," said the younger McCallum, who over the summer participated in the Chris Paul Skills Academy and the Deron Williams Skills Academy. "All the top guys are back, so it makes for a really competitive year."
For the elder McCallum, the top echelon of players is capped by Broekhoff. "He was just phenomenal. He did everything. He's one of the most complete players in the conference," Coach McCallum said of the Aussie. "With [Valparaiso] being the [regular-season] conference champions, he won a well-deserved Player of the Year, and I've got to assume that they'll be the favorites."
Whether McCallum's prediction proves true, it's obvious there are multiple teams in a position to compete for the Horizon League title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it. But who says the League can only send one representative?
"If it was any year, it would probably be this one," Broekhoff said of the possibility that multiple Horizon League teams could reach the Field of 68. "It just depends on out-of-conference play and how the other teams perform. If teams sneak some wins on the road and have some big victories, it could be two or more teams that make the NCAA tournament, which would not only be fantastic for the teams but great for the league, getting that exposure kind of post-Butler era."
Broekhoff's coach knows a thing or two about the NCAA tournament. Bryce Drew was the hero of Valparaiso's run of success in the mid-90s, including hitting 1998's "The Shot" to defeat Ole Miss in the first round of the Big Dance.
Drew, like many others, believes that a Horizon League team or two could make a deep run in the tournament, if they could just get in.
"The hardest part is getting a team in, I believe. It has shown historically that when Horizon League teams have gotten into the tournament they have done well," Drew said. "There have been multiple teams that have won. If we get multiple teams in, I think that any team that would get there would have a chance to win games."
Wardle noted that going through league play is going to be the most difficult aspect for any team hoping to make the NCAA tournament. "The hardest part is that Horizon League play is going to be so tough," Wardle said. "You're going to have to go in there and handle your business and go on the road and steal some games. As we all know as coaches in the Horizon League, it's very, very tough to win on the road in our league."
Tough as it might be, everyone acknowledges it could be possible for the Horizon League to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament, and - in the one instance, at least - everyone is rooting for everyone else.
"Even though Butler's gone, this is still a strong conference. Detroit played extremely well toward the end of the year last year and they played well against a very tough Kansas team in the first round of the tournament," Youngstown State first team All-League guard Kendrick Perry said. "The Horizon League certainly has some big contenders for the NCAA tournament. I think it's possible for at least a couple of teams to get in there."
There's no doubt that each of the five returning All-League first-teamers believes his team can make it to the NCAA tournament. Now all that's left to do is convince their teammates.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
"There's this one big goal, one goal that I've had from as soon as I came here that's still untouched: we still haven't gotten to an NCAA Tournament," Broekhoff said. "All the personal accolades ... I'll cherish forever, but it's not an individual sport, it's a team sport and for me to be happy once I leave this place, it will be to make an NCAA Tournament. We have a really good group of guys this year and hopefully we can make it happen this year and cause a few upsets and that sort of thing.
"That's my driving force right now, to make the NCAA Tournament. It's not only pushing me, but I'm trying to push my teammates to make them see that this is a great opportunity, a great group of guys, a great coaching staff and this year could be something pretty special."
If there is one thing the populace wants to see from a group of returning All-Leaguers, it's that kind of determined leadership. Rest assured, it is not in short supply among this bunch.
"That's one thing I'm priding myself on this year: my role being a leader on and off the court," Perry said. "McCallum, what he's done in Detroit has been amazing, and Broekhoff, how he leads his Valpo team; I think we all pri de ourselves on that leadership role that we play on our individual teams."
Wardle echoed Perry's sentiments regarding the League's Player of the Year and Tournament MVP. "I think you think of Ryan Broekhoff and Ray McCallum right away. I think they're two veteran players that have put in a lot of work and done a lot of damage," Wardle said. "They're raising the level of their program and their team by being there."
Although the younger McCallum led his team to a Horizon League Tournament title and NCAA berth, the elder McCallum proved that he knows how to be both a father and a coach, praising his son's ability while also pointing out that he hasn't reached his potential yet.
"He's got to be an extension of the coach, relaying the proper message to his teammates at all times. We're very fortunate to have him returning as an experienced player now," the Titans coach said of his point guard/son. "His game is still developing, but he's moving in the right direction as a player, as a leader, and that's what's so important for our team."
And to his credit, the younger McCallum understands what he needs to do to improve himself and his team. "Being a true point guard and being a leader," McCallum said of his plans for the season. "Just trying to make sure I score when my team needs me to score, make plays and get guys involved when my team needs me to do that and try to make plays on defense."
As a credit to the League, each of the returning first-teamers takes that same approach: team first, lead by example. Despite being one of the youngest juniors in the country - he won't turn 19 until Dec. 23 - Perry has taken ownership of his Youngstown team, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.
"He raises the bar for everybody, every day," Penguins coach Jerry Slocum said of his star guard, a defensive wizard who set a school record with 74 steals last season. "Even now, coming back, he's our best-conditioned athlete. Not only does he make everybody better, but he makes everybody work harder and that's just a rare thing in today's basketball world, to have that full package."
Perry doesn't only know how to motivate. He can change his playing style in-game, depending on what his team needs that night. "He just figures out way to help the team," Slocum said. "There will be a lot of games that he will have five or six assists and gets 12 or 14 points and then there will be other nights when he'll have 25 [points] when we need it."
That same attitude is displayed by Valparaiso's unsung hero, Van Wijk. Overshadowed by Broekhoff, Van Wijk is more than happy to play second fiddle, just doing what his team needs him to do to win.
"I want to do the best I can for my team," Van Wijk said. "I thanked my team for [the All-League honor]; I didn't do that, my team did it, because I can't dribble up the ball and score myself. I need someone to do that for me, to help and pass and have confidence in me and I think I've created that through the years. For [this] year, I just look at it again as what I'm good at and knowing what my qualities are, trying to improve at things I'm not as good as and just trying to help the team becoming the best team we can."
Drew certainly doesn't take for granted the leadership and humility displayed by his two All-Leaguers. "The great thing is, we have a lot of upperclassmen, we have a lot of mature players, so a lot of the motivation, they put upon themselves," Drew said. "They know what their goals are, they know what they have to do to achieve them. It makes my job a lot easier."
Drew is expecting the same thing from his opponents as well.
"To be completely honest, I think all five will be extremely motivated. I don't expect any of those five to be complacent based off the personal success they had last year," Drew said. "I think all of them will be much, much better players this year. It's pretty exciting; it's a pretty good crop of guys. I think most of the country will know who a lot of those guys are by the end of the season."
That recognition would be no doubt well-deserved, and something the Horizon League would like to see more of - but the best way to make your players household names is to send them to the NBA.
THE NEXT LEVEL
"Alec Brown is extremely skilled and I know he's a draft pick in a lot of pre-draft boards," Drew said of Green Bay's 7-1 center/forward with a growing proficiency for the 3-pointer, one of the Horizon League's biggest professional prospects in recent memory.
Brown is a freak-of-nature player, tall and athletic - and could be a first-round draft pick once his collegiate career ends.
"He's a player you don't have very often in our League, a kid with that size that can really play and has a high skill level," Wardle said. "I think the biggest thing when it comes to Alec is the consistency when it comes to leadership and when it comes to aggressiveness. When he plays with a chip on his shoulder and has his mean, nasty face going, he's really tough."
There's that leadership word, again. And for his part, Brown may be the most humble among a crop of well-grounded All-Leaguers.
"I'll just try to do my best," Brown said. "I'm going to go out there and try to win games for my team."
Brown isn't the group's only potential professional. McCallum is highly-touted as a prospect and some, including Valpo's Drew, are surprised to see him back in a Titans jersey this year.
The young point guard was happy to be able to take advantage of the skills academies this summer as a way to expand his skill set. "It was good for me to get a chance to play with some of the top point guards in the country, to see where my game stacks up, and also to learn from Chris Paul and Deron Williams, two of the best point guards in the NBA," McCallum said. "It was good for me to be able to showcase my talents and just pick the brains of other players and try to get bits and pieces of their games and add it to my game."
In addition to Brown and McCallum's prospect status, Broekhoff has drawn next-level attention. This past summer, the Valparaiso forward spent time with the Australian national team, trying out for the Olympics Games. After making it to the 15-man practice squad, Broekhoff didn't survive the final cut down to 12 players. That doesn't mean he didn't benefit from the experience, however.
"I got to play in a series versus the Chinese national team. It just kind of gives you a perspective of the next level: how physical it is, how fast it is," Broekhoff said. "It helps you kind of see where you're deficient in some areas. It allowed me, during the summer, to work on a lot of things that might not show up at the college level but might show up at the next level - and things that do show up at the college level, I was able to work on and refine leading up to the season."
Brown realizes his professional future could be fast-approaching, and that it's a good thing for the Horizon League.
"It's definitely great for the League to get that exposure, showing everyone that we have those high-caliber players who can play in the [NBA] someday," Brown said. "That's going to help the conference a lot. It makes it way more competitive, too."
Before facing the future, however, each of those five first-teamers will lace up their sneakers and step back into Horizon League competition in an effort to once again prove that they are the best of the best, to vie for a League title and to lead their team to an NCAA Tournament berth.
"An All-League [or] Player of the Year-caliber player at our level, you've got to be consistent every single night. You have to know what the defensive schemes are, what the other coach is trying to do," Wardle said. "It a high level of play that separates you, and I think those guys have really done it."