The Horizon League was formed on June 4, 2001, as part of a rebranding strategy by the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. In part, the MCC had become somewhat annoyed by being confused with its nearby little brother, the Mid-Continent Conference, and so its leadership group told themselves that it was time to "Raise Your Sights" (in the words of the league's motto) and to come up with a new name. The MCC had a twenty-one year heritage that was lost with the name change. During that span of time, their conference tournament crowned champions that ranged from the expected (Xavier, Evansville, Detroit, and Butler were among multiple champions) and the forgotten (Oral Roberts was the first two-time champion) to the obscure (Oklahoma City won the tournament in its second year, and has subsequently moved to the NAIA).
The very first Horizon League tournament, held in March of 2002, was a nine team affair that followed a very traditional format. The entire tournament was held in Cleveland, with an opening round in which #8 Green Bay defeated #9 Youngstown State. Upsets were plentiful in the subsequent rounds, and those results helped to shape a redesign in the tournament structure that continues to this day.
Three of the top four seeds were knocked off in those 2002 quarterfinals, as #1 Butler, #3 Milwaukee, and #4 Wright State all went home early. #2 Detroit was the only favorite to earn a quarterfinal victory, knocking out host Cleveland State. However, the carnage did not stop there. #5 Loyola eliminated Green Bay in one semi-final, and #6 UIC defeated Detroit in the other. With that, the initial Horizon League tournament championship game featured an intra-city rivalry between UIC and Loyola, held before a number of empty seats in Cleveland. To my knowledge, no records were kept regarding the number of people who documented the occasion in all caps.
The championship game was hotly contested, and went into overtime before UIC prevailed 76-75 on a late turnaround jumper from Cedrick Banks. Loyola, as they often were, was led by guard David Bailey, who tallied 35 points. Interestingly, to add a sibling rivalry to the mix, Bailey's younger brother Martell scored three key baskets in overtime for UIC, and also had a key steal of a pass thrown by his big brother to help position them for the win. For their great accomplishment, the Flames were rewarded with a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament, and battled to an eight-point loss to Oklahoma.
With all due respect to the Chicago teams, this probably wasn't the result that the HL leadership desired. The four-day event, the culmination of its inaugural season, featured three days without the home team in action, and none of the league leaders survived long enough to even compete for the title. In response, this new league would come up with a new and somewhat innovative approach to determine its champion.
As a traditionalist, I believe that only one conference utilizes the proper tournament format - the Ivy League, which has no tournament at all. For every other conference, the lure of additional revenue is considered to be worth the risk of not sending its true champion to the NCAA tournament. While I don't like it, I will confess to being a frequent customer of these post-season extravaganzas, so I'll silence myself further on this matter at the risk of exposing my hypocrisy.
After the turmoil following its first season, the Horizon League decided that it needed to restructure its conference tournament by rewarding its better teams. For the 2003 tournament, the top two seeds (#1 Butler and #2 Milwaukee) earned double byes, putting them straight through to the semi-finals. Opening round games were held at campus sites, with the better seed playing host for each game, then the rest of the tournament shifted to Milwaukee. Not surprisingly, Butler and Milwaukee took advantage of the double byes and advanced to the final game, with the hometown Panthers defeating the Bulldogs to earn the automatic bid.
Further tweaking occurred over the next two years. In 2004, Butler was selected as the host school for the quarterfinal and semi-final rounds, but the championship game was played at the highest remaining seed. Again, #1 seed Milwaukee and #2 seed UIC used the double byes as a springboard into the championship game, with the visiting Flames again earning a berth to the NCAA. In 2005, the #1 seed was further rewarded by being given the right to host the quarterfinal and semi-final rounds, and top seed Milwaukee used this advantage to win the championship, return to the NCAA tournament, and eventually advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
The 2005 format has remained in place ever since, and the combination of the double byes and the homecourt advantage have allowed the #1 seed to reach the championship game in each and every year under this format. In the first four of those years, the top seed won the tournament every time; however, in three of the most recent four years, the visiting team won the championship game on the home court of the #1 seed: 2009 - #3 Cleveland State over #1 Butler; 2011 - #2 Butler over #1 Milwaukee; and 2012 - #3 Detroit over #1 Valparaiso. This format has generally served to ensure that the league's best teams are facing off for its automatic bid and, if the top seeded team is unable to advance, the team that does advance will have likely overcome some obstacles to truly earn its berth.
The main flaw of the current Horizon League tournament format is, to me, also one of its great charms. The Friday quarterfinal doubleheader at the (non-participating) regular season champion does not draw much of a crowd, so it can give a basketball fan a great opportunity to get a really good seat to a couple of highly competitive games. I took advantage of this a couple of times at Hinkle Fieldhouse in the past, and last year went to Valparaiso to see Butler and Detroit advance to the semi-finals the next evening. The sad part of this format is that some really good seniors will undoubtedly see their careers come to an end before an almost empty house. For guys who have fought the Horizon League battles for four years, it shouldn't have to end like that.
After three opening round games on Tuesday night, the Horizon League tournament returns to Valparaiso this weekend. #6 Youngstown State takes on #3 Wright State, and #5 UIC matches up with #4 Green Bay in the quarterfinal round on Friday, with #2 Detroit and #1 Valparaiso ready to face the winners on Saturday.
In a recap from a few weeks ago, I wrote extensively about the Detroit-Valpo rivalry. While I appreciate the impressive seasons put together by Wright State and Green Bay, and though I am pleased to see the occasional successes that UIC and Youngstown State have enjoyed this year, as a fan I want the top two seeds to battle it out in the winner-take-all championship game on Tuesday night. If it gets to that point, emotions will no doubt be running high, the respective fan bases will be highly energized, and two very good teams will be playing for the ultimate prize. Really, a March matchup like that is why we love Our Game. Don't miss it.