What you need to know about Horizon League tourney at JLA

Detroit Free Press

By Vito Chirco, Special to Detroit Free Press

Where will you be when basketball returns to Joe Louis Arena for the first time since the Detroit Shock played Game 5 of the 2006 WNBA Finals?

Get ready to root on Detroit Mercy or Oakland University or whoever is your favorite squad in the 10-team Horizon League tournament that tips off Saturday with this Horizon League primer from Free Press special writer Vito Chirco:

The league

The Horizon League was first called the Midwestern City Conference in 1979, with members Butler, Evansville, Loyola, Oklahoma City, Oral Roberts and Xavier. Detroit Mercy joined those six schools the following year. But the winner of the conference tournament still didn’t automatically qualify for March’s “Big Dance.” This remained the case until St. Louis joined the conference in 1982, which happens to be when Notre Dame also joined for all sports beside basketball and football. The conference was full of turnover throughout the 1980s and ’90s, even changing its name slightly to the Midwestern Collegiate Conference.

Following the mass exodus of Cleveland State, UIC, Northern Illinois, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Wright State in 1993 from the Mid-Continent, now known as the Summit League, the Horizon League started to take shape. The league didn’t get its current name until 2001, which is also when Youngstown State left the Mid-Continent to join. Since then, Valparaiso and Oakland have also joined. Loyola left the Horizon League in 2013, and Northern Kentucky joined in 2015.

Tournament history

From 2003 through 2015, all first-round matches were hosted at the home arena of the higher seed, while the conference’s regular-season champion hosted the quarterfinals and semifinals. The championship game was played on the home floor of the higher remaining seed.

Starting with this year and for the next four, the tournament will be held in downtown Detroit. For the first two years, the games will be played at the Joe, and for the final three years, the games will be hosted at the Red Wings’ new arena.

John Ciszewski, the executive vice president of sales for Olympia Entertainment, believes the tournament will make the city a “destination” in early March.

The format

The tournament features four first-round games Saturday, starting at noon, and two second-round games Sunday, at 1 and 3:30 p.m. All will be streamed online via ESPN3. The top two seeds will not play until the semifinals March 7. Both semis will be televised on ESPNU, while the tournament final March 8 will be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN2 at 9 p.m. The winner will advance to the NCAA tournament.

The favorites

Valparaiso and Oakland have had the best seasons. Valpo, which is allowing the fewest points per game, is led by junior forward Alec Peters, the league tourney MVP last season. OU, which has scored the most per game, is led by junior point guard Kay Felder, who has scored 30 or more five times this season.

Three other teams to watch: Wright State, Green Bay and Milwaukee.

The stars

Felder is a shoe-in to be league player of the year.

Peters has led Valpo to back-to-back regular-season championships.

UDM’s got quite the player itself in sophomore guard/forward Paris Bass, who going into Friday night, had put up at least 20 points in six straight games. He’s a favorite for All-Horizon League honors with his average of 18.7 points per game and 7.9 boards per game.

Other players to watch: Youngstown State sophomore guard Cameron Morse and Green Bay senior guard Carrington Love.

Who’s hot

Valparaiso sits atop the conference and has won three straight, along with Green Bay.

As for players, beside Peters, there’s UIC freshman forward Dikembe Dixson. He scored a career-high 40 against Youngstown State on Feb. 16.

Michigan connections

Twenty-four players from the state are participating in this year’s “Motor City Madness” at the Joe, including 10 players from Detroit, two from Flint and two from Ypsilanti. The team with the most Michigan players is UDM with nine. Of the league’s non-Michigan schools, Cleveland State has the most with four.

The most notable players from Detroit are Felder and Detroit Mercy junior guard/forward Chris Jenkins.

JLA’s postseason history

Interestingly enough, the Pistons once played postseason games at Joe Louis. The last time was May 10, 1985, when they lost Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semis to the Boston Celtics.

Before the Palace opened in 1988, the Pistons played their home games at the Silverdome. Due to the Silverdome roof collapsing, the Pistons played 15 games at the Joe during the 1984-85 regular season.

If you go

If you’re attending, here’s all the info you need from tourney promoter David Stoyka:

Will there be a fanfest?

Stoyka: “We will be having fan activities on the day of the championship at the Marriott Wintergarden, with a send-off/pep rally for the competing teams.”

Are there going to be designated bars or rallies? 

Stoyka: “Four bars have agreed to partner with the league and OEI (Olympia Entertainment) for the tournament — Hockeytown Cafe, McShane’s Irish Pub, The Old Shillelagh and The Park Bar. Those bars are offering private parties and shuttles (except for The Park Bar).”

Where can tickets be bought and for how much?

Tickets for all rounds can be purchased via Ticketmaster or by calling 313-471-7575.

General admission tickets for single games start at $15, while general admission tickets for all rounds start at $45. For more info, go to motorcitymadness.horizonleague.org/tickets.


This story originally appeared here in the Detroit Free Press. 


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