Horizon League blues for UIC, Loyola

By Etheria Modacure

Last season, there was one team that ran away with the Horizon League Conference Championship, the Butler University Bulldogs. This season, however, there are four teams at the top of the conference vying for a shot to be crowned champion.

Wright State University, Butler, Valparaiso University and Cleveland State University top the Horizon League standings, while the Loyola University Ramblers and the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames remain at the bottom.

With the Horizon League Championship Tournament beginning on March 1, Wright State, Butler, Valparaiso and Cleveland State have the chance to prove to the selection committee why they belong in the

NCAA tournament.

Loyola and UIC have time to turn their seasons around and make a strong push to win the conference championship. The winner of the Horizon League Conference Championship receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Loyola and UIC have lost a combined 15 out of 19 conference games through Jan. 28. UIC hasn’t won a conference game in their first nine contests. After Loyola started the season on a hot streak winning seven consecutive games, the team cooled off and has gone 6-8 through Jan. 28.

After losing three conference games, Loyola was able to notch a much-needed victory against in-city rival UIC on Jan. 22. The Ramblers defeated the Flames 68-59 at the Gentile Center, which gave them back-to-back victories in the

Horizon League for the first time this season. Loyola defeated Youngstown State on Jan. 27 to keep their streak in conference play alive.

“We needed these two [wins],” said Geoff McCammon, senior guard for the Ramblers. “We started struggling around winter break. Losing is never good. We needed this positive lift.”

He also said the Ramblers want to be playing their best heading into March when the Horizon League Championship Tournament begins.

“We can get better defensively every day in practice,” McCammon said. “Help-side and on-the-ball defense. That’s something we can definitely improve on as a team. I feel like the best teams play the

best defense.”

The Ramblers have played some of the top defensive teams in the country within the Horizon League and have lost to three of the top four teams in the conference this season.

Wright State and Cleveland State are the 20th and 21st respectively ranked defensive teams in the NCAA. Both teams are in the top four of the Horizon League standings and have notched six or more conference victories this season.

Cleveland State gives up an average of 60.3 points per game while Wright State yields 60.2 points. Cleveland State also ranks 32nd in the NCAA in field goal percentage defense in allowing opponents to shoot 39.5 percent from the field.

The Horizon League isn’t a conference that typically receives at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. It hasn’t sent more than one team to the big dance since 2009 when Cleveland State and Butler made appearances.

In the last eight seasons, the Horizon League has fielded a team in the Sweet 16 of the tournament four times.

Loyola Head Coach Jim Whitesell said the conference is highly competitive and attributes the teams that have represented the Horizon League being successful in the NCAA tournament for the reason the competition remains that way.

Among 31 conferences, the Horizon League ranks eighth overall in winning percentage in the tournament.

“It has proven [its strength] in the NCAA tournament,” Whitesell said. “It’s done that year in and year out.”

Whitesell said Loyola expects every game in the conference to be tough, and it will continue to battle for more victories in the Horizon League.

UIC on the other hand hasn’t fared well in conference play. The Flames have lost their first eight games in the

Horizon League.

First-year Flames Head Coach Howard Moore has been adamant about his team playing with better focus and intelligently, but the results haven’t been too pleasing.

The Flames have lost six games by a combined 13 points and hasn’t had a winning streak longer than two games.

After upsetting the University of Illinois at the United Center on Dec. 18, the Flames lost nine consecutive games and eight within the Horizon League.

“I think we always play hard,” Moore said. “It’s a matter of playing smart. When you’re not taking care of the basketball, I think that’s a lack of focus—a lack of understanding of what we need to do with that possession.”

Moore emphasizes fundamentals during practice, but the team plays differently during a game. He will address this problem as the season progresses.

For Flames senior guard Robo Kreps, proclaiming that UIC could match up with anyone in the conference after defeating Illinois in December was overstating the case.

Kreps, who scored his 1,400th career point against Loyola on Jan. 22, didn’t allow UIC’s deflating season to prevent him from keeping an optimistic attitude about a season turnaround.

“We’re struggling right now,” he said. “We’re going to turn it around though. No matter what, we’re going to turn it around. We’re going to be playing our basketball when [the] postseason comes.”