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 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.
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 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.
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.