2019 Horizon League tournament preview: Wright State, Northern Kentucky lead competitive field into Motor City Madness
Cole Gentry and Wright State are the top seed/Photo: Wright State athletics

2019 Horizon League tournament preview: Wright State, Northern Kentucky lead competitive field into Motor City Madness

The top two teams tied for the regular-season title with the other six capable of winning the tournament in what should be a wide-open event.

john-lupo
John Lupo

The Horizon League tournament tips off Tuesday with quarterfinal action. A new format sees the top eight teams qualify for Motor City Madness while the ninth and tenth place teams are left out. Also new is quarterfinal games being hosted by the higher seeded teams while the rest of the tournament is at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Top seed and defending champion Wright State and second seed Northern Kentucky shared the regular-season title while the other six teams were separated by just three games in the standings. Will the Raiders or Norse cut down the nets or will it be a surprise winner? 

Tournament schedule (all times Eastern)

As mentioned above, the top eight teams out of ten qualify with the top four seeds hosting quarterfinal games. The rest of the tournament is played at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Quarterfinals (March 5)

 #8 IUPUI at #1 Wright State, 8:00 (ESPN +)

 #5 Illinois-Chicago at #4 Green Bay, 8:00 (ESPN +)

Quarterfinals (March 6)

 #6 Youngstown State at #3 Oakland, 7:00 (ESPN +)

 #7 Detroit Mercy at #2 Northern Kentucky, 7:00 (ESPN +)

Semifinals (March 11)

IUPUI/Wright State vs Illinois-Chicago/Green Bay, 7:00 (ESPNU)

Youngstown State/Green Bay vs Detroit Mercy/Northern Kentucky, 9:30 (ESPNU)

Final (March 12)

Semifinal winners, 7:00 (ESPN)

Wright State, Northern Kentucky teams to beat

Wright State (13-5, 19-12) earned the top seed despite not ranking higher than third in any offensive category, but they do boast the league's best defense. Bringing back a core group that reached the last year's NCAA Tournament, the Raiders are led by senior center Loudon Love, who posted 15.6 points per game and 8.1 rebounds a contest. Guard Cole Gentry is tops in free throw percentage (90.6).

Love will look to lead Wright State back to the NCAA's for the second straight year/Photo: R. Keith Cole/Wright State athletics
Love will look to lead Wright State back to the NCAA's for the second straight year/Photo: R. Keith Cole/Wright State athletics

Second seed Northern Kentucky (13-5, 23-8) is probably the most talented team in the league as the Norse seek their second NCAA bid in the last three years. Forward Drew McDonald is a load in the paint, averaging 19.3 points and 9.6 rebounds a game while guard Jalen Tate shoots just over 57 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep.

McDonald is the league's best player for the Norse/Photo: WKRC
McDonald is the league's best player as the Norse look for a second March Madness appearance in three years/Photo: WKRC

Oakland headlines list of darkhorses

Greg Kampe, now in his 33rd season at Oakland (11-7, 15-16) led the Golden Grizzlies to the third seed in Motor City Madness this year, due in large part to the efforts of forward Xavier Hill-Mais, who put up 18.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a contest. Oakland is second nationally in assist percentage and hits 38 percent of their threes, a dangerous combination.

Hill-Mais emerged to help Oakland to a surprise third-place finish this year/Photo: Jose Juarez/Oakland athletics
Hill-Mais emerged to help Oakland to a surprise third-place finish this year/Photo: Jose Juarez/Oakland athletics

Fourth seed Green Bay (10-8, 16-15), winners of the league tournament three years ago, have possibly the most electrifying player in the conference in guard Sandy Cohen III, who did it all for the Phoenix with averages of 17.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.0 blocks a game, leading the team in all five categories.

Cohen III is the Phoenix' do-everything player/Photo: Adam Wesley/USA TOday Network
Cohen III is the Phoenix' do-everything player/Photo: Adam Wesley/USA Today Network

Fifth seed Illinois-Chicago (10-8, 16-15) beat both Wright State and Northern Kentucky and are a threat from deep with five players shooting 36 percent or better from beyond the arc. Tarkus Ferguson (15.3 ppg), Marcus Ottey (15.1 ppg) and Godwin Boahen (14.8 ppg) are a talented trio capable of leading the Flames to the field of 68.

Ferguson leads a dangerous backcourt for UIC/Photo: Ricky Lindsay/Illinois-Chicago athletics
Ferguson leads a dangerous backcourt for UIC/Photo: Ricky Lindsay/Illinois-Chicago athletics

Youngstown State, Detroit, IUPUI round out field

Sixth seed Youngstown State (8-10, 12-19) won their final six games of the regular season to sneak into the conference tournament where they will visit Oakland, a team they already beat on the Golden Grizzlies' home floor. Guard Darius Quisenberry (13.9 ppg, 3.7 apg, 80.5% FT) is the best player on the Penguins, who lead the league in rebounds per game (37.9).

Quisenberry and the Penguins got hot at the right time/Photo: David Dermer/The Vindicator
Quisenberry and the Penguins got hot at the right time/Photo: David Dermer/The Vindicator

Antoine Davis is the league's leading scorer at 26 points per game for seventh seed Detroit Mercy (8-10, 11-19). The sensational guard broke Stephen Curry's freshman record of 122 threes and is also an 85 percent free throw shooter as well as hitting above 38 percent beyond the arc. 

Davis is the league's most explosive player/Photo: Detroit Mercy athletics
Davis is the league's most explosive player/Photo: Detroit Mercy athletics

IUPUI (8-10, 16-15) are probably better than their eighth seed would indicate. The Jaguars are 15th in the country in rebounding rate at 35.5, a mark that goes up to 39.0 in league play. Guards Camron Justice (18.9 ppg, 84.9% FT) and Jaylen Minnett (11.9 ppg, 84.6% FT) are a dynamic duo that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Justice and IUPUI shouldn't be overlooked/Photo: Justin Casterline/IUPUI athletics
Justice and IUPUI shouldn't be overlooked/Photo: Justin Casterline/IUPUI athletics

Who will win the tournament?

With so many talented players both down low and on the perimeter plus the fact that this is one of the most unpredictable conference tournaments in recent years makes this a must-watch. All eight teams can lay claim to having a chance of cutting down the nets.

Northern Kentucky is probably the best team and has the best overall player in the league in McDonald. The Norse also shot a league-best 48.3 percent from the field as a team. Wright State is the most experienced, returning most of their core that faced Tennessee in last year's NCAA Tournament. 

Green Bay may very well be the team that could pull off some major upsets. The Phoenix are the highest scoring team in the league (81.2 points per game), register the most steals (8.06) and blocks (4.03) per contest  while Oakland are tops in assists (17.5 per game) and free throw percentage (74.6).

Davis is one of those explosive scorers who can get hot for a week and lead Detroit Mercy to the title while IUPUI and Youngstown State come into the tournament with a lot of confidence from the end of the regular season. Illinois-Chicago has a trio of guards capable of taking over games.

In the end, there will be a ton of close games and a lot of exciting basketball on display. I'll continue the recent trend of the favorites being upset and pick the most well-rounded team and the best team to meet in the final to conclude what should be an exciting week of hoops.

Prediction: Green Bay def. Northern Kentucky

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