December 2, 2008 12:18 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
Valparaiso at Cleveland State (Horizon League)
H. J. Goodman Arena - Cleveland, OH
7:00 PM EST
If you were to pick a better way to open the conference season (you know, by "random draw" and everything), you could do worse than the Horizon League. Tonight, the slate of parenthetical games begins with two programs with old-school Sweet 16 experience (Valpo in 1998, Cleveland State in 1986), both hungering to get back to the Dance out of a mid-major league on the verge of great things.
Valpo outgrew the Mid-Continent Conference two years ago, and put up decent numbers in its first Horizon go-round. The Crusaders had 22 wins, a top-100 RPI ranking, and a run in that CBI thing after losing an exciting 78-73 semi to -- guess who! -- these Vikings. They enter Year Two with 2-3 overall record, depressed greatly by an 0-3 trip to the islands, where they lost by 10 or less to San Diego, La Salle and Iona at the Paradise Jam. There are some definite bright spots -- a strong defense, and balanced scoring. Six players average at least 7.8 ppg, and you can expect balanced scoring from a young team with few outsized egos. Hey, worked for Butler.
Cleveland State is generally considered to be the favorite to make the Dance for the first time since the Reagan era. Inside Cleveland State's 4-2 record so far are two losses to power-conference teams (Washington and Kansas State) and wins over everyone else, and they feature a strong three-senior core full of apostrophes: D'Aundray Brown, J'Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson (who will now be referred to in this space as C'edric). All three are averaging double-figures in scoring, and the Vikings proven to be one of the nation's leading expectorants. Opponents cough it up 19.4 times per game (13th in D-I) and 27 percent of possessions result in turnovers (11th). Is this the year?
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