Things are tightening up in the Horizon League, and with teams having only three or four games remaining, every move is critical. Cleveland State's mini losing streak to Butler and Detroit leaves them a game behind Valparaiso in the Horizon League standings, with Valpo winning their last three, including a must-have victory over Youngstown State in overtime Feb. 5.
The Penguins (KenPom 258, 8-17, 2-13) have been a thorn in the league's top teams sides lately. Cleveland State needed a ridiculous performance from Norris Cole on Sunday (41 points, 20 rebounds, 9 assists) to topple the scrappy Penguins, 86-76. They gave Valpo a run for their money, and recently one of their two conference wins came against third-place Butler.
So, with a one game lead, Valpo has a favorable league schedule ahead of them: Wisconsin Milwaukee (KenPom 143, 15-11, 10-5), Wisconsin Green Bay (KenPom 163, 12-14, 6-8), Loyola Chicago (KenPom 155, 14-12, 5-10) and UIC (KenPom 260, 7-20, 2-13). They will have a break in that schedule with a Bracketbuster game against Missouri State. If they can get past UW-M, they'll have two of their last three Horizon games at home against teams they should beat. That would keep them in first.
As for Cleveland State, their big test comes on the road against Wright State on Wednesday. The Raiders are only predicted to lose by one via KenPom predictions and have been a tough club at 17-11 and 10-6 in league play. Norris Cole will need to continue his Horizon Player of the Year play, as this game is absolutely a must-win. From there, they also get UW-M and UW-GB, with both games at home. They have a Bracketbusters game, too, and a good one--against Old Dominion, one of the best defensive teams in the country and the best offensive rebounding club in the nation.
Butler appears to be on the outside looking in, but can still lock up a top four finish with a solid run down the stretch. They currently stand in third place at 10-5 (tied with Wisconsin Milwaukee), with Wright State right behind them. Butler has two road games, UW-GB and UIC, with their finale at home against Loyola Chicago. All things considered, they should go 3-0 in those games.
There's no shortage of drama in the Horizon League, and this year, with three teams in the KenPom top 100, and two teams in the top 50 (with Valpo at 51) in the RPI, it's as strong as ever. The Horizon League tournament byes are critical at this point, with teams eying the NCAA Tournament, and a second bid is not guaranteed.