The Horizon League College Basketball Tournament starts on Tuesday with four games. View updated college basketball odds.
The Butler Bulldogs (21-9, 13-5 Horizon) did not have much competition a year ago when they rolled through the Horizon League bracket en route to the tournament championship. This year will be much different for the Bulldogs, who saw their storybook season end three weeks later in the NCAA championship game with a 61-59 loss to Duke.
While many believed Butler would need to win the Horizon League tournament to get back to the Big Dance a month ago, a seven-game winning streak in February has likely made that unnecessary. Of course the Bulldogs would like to erase all doubts by landing the conference’s automatic bid with another tournament title, although this year they will need to do it as the #2 seed.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee (18-12, 13-5) earned the top seed in the Horizon League tournament over Butler and #3 Cleveland State (24-7, 13-5) by virtue of a tiebreaker. The Panthers will meet the winner of Friday’s quarterfinals on Saturday while Butler gets the other winner in that round. Cleveland State (-15) must host #10 UIC (7-23, 2-16) on Tuesday and then play the winner of #7 Wisconsin-Green Bay (14-17, 8-10) and #6 Wright State (18-13, 10-8) on Friday if the Vikings advance. Wright State (-5.5) is favored in that matchup while other Tuesday games include #9 Youngstown State (9-20, 2-16) at #4 Valparaiso (21-10, 12-6) and #8 Loyola (16-14, 7-11) at #5 Detroit (16-15, 10-8). The higher seeds Valparaiso (-13.5) and Detroit (-5) are favored.
Cleveland State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee obviously have the most to gain from this tournament since neither are locks to make the NCAA tournament as at-large teams. If either of them could knock out the Bulldogs en route to the title, two teams could very well find themselves with invitations to the Big Dance from the Horizon League.
Barring multiple major upsets along the way, at least one of the top three seeds should represent the Horizon League in the NCAA tournament. Butler definitely has history on its side as one of two six-time winners of the league tournament. The Bulldogs went 20-0 against conference opponents last year including tourney games, and reigning tournament MVP Matt Howard is back for one more run at the title. The 6-foot-8 senior is averaging 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds this year to lead the team in both categories.
However, Cleveland State’s Norris Cole became the first player in league history to win Horizon League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season and wants to finish his career by playing in the NCAA tournament. Cole averaged 21.6 points and 5.5 assists per game and has the tough task of trying to lead his team to four wins in eight days. If he leads the Vikings to wins in their first two games, they would meet Howard’s Butler team in the semifinals on Saturday.
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