Horizon, Sun Belt Notes



We continue our series of conference previews today with a look at the Horizon League and the Sun Belt. These leagues are emphasizing Thursdays on the midweek schedule this season (along with the Pac 10), so they'll be a bit more on the forefront of handicapping issues than you might expect. Mid majors can get buried to a degree on Wednesdays and Saturdays. On Thursdays, they're front and center because the schedule is so much shorter.

We'll take Friday off from the conference analysis gauntlet because the only two board games are from the Horizon League, who we're already discussing today! To make things fit best for the overall scope of the sports world, we've moved our NFL Championship previews to Friday this week to give you an extra day to ponder the key numbers.

Here's the NOTEBOOK schedule the next few days:

FRIDAY: NFL CHAMPIONSHIP previews, with our key indicator stats for NY Jets/Pittsburgh and Green Bay/Chicago.

SATURDAY: Back to college basketball conference previews, focusing on the Big Ten just in time for Ohio State's nationally televised visit to Illinois in early action on CBS, and Michigan State's trip to Purdue in the prime time"Game Day" showcase spot on ESPN. We'll also look at the WAC and Big West conferences, allowing us to include Thursday Night's results in the math.

SUNDAY: As we've done often in the past, we'll focus on marquee college game boxscores from Saturday to guide your handicapping process. We'll crunch the numbers from major TV games and other high profile contests so you can really develop a feel for the most important teams before March arrives.

MONDAY: Naturally, for Big Monday on ESPN, we'll run our indicator stats for the Big East and Big 12. Those conferences, particularly the Big East, will loom large in our coverage this season because there are so many great teams this year.

TUESDAY: It's the ACC and SEC bringing us to a close for the major conferences in terms of first looks at our conference margin averages and two-point defensive data.

Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY happening in the world of sports!

Let's get to work today, starting with the Horizon League. Hopefully you know that's the home conference of the Butler Bulldogs, who came within a few inches of a national championship last season. Things have been tougher for Butler this year with a target on their backs, and other Horizon hopefuls hoping to make a name for themselves. 

HORIZON MARGIN AVERAGES (and W-L records thru Wednesday)
Cleveland State +7.7 (5-2)
Valparaiso +6.6 (6-1)
Butler +5.9 (5-2)
Wright State +5.3 (5-2)
Wisconsin-GB +1.9 (4-3)
Detroit +1.6 (4-3)
Wisconsin-Milw -1.3 (4-4)
Loyola-Chi -3.3 (2-6)
Illinois-Chi -10.7 (0-7)
Youngstown State -13.0 (1-6)

Valparaiso has the best record in the conference standings, but it's Cleveland State with the best margin average. Butler is only third best on the scoreboard, and tied for second in the standings. This sets up a fantastic stretch run and conference tournament because there's no way four teams from the Horizon will get invitations this year. Sure, Butler made a statement for the conference last year. The power brokers won't give this group THAT much respect though.

You can expect March intensity when the top four play each other in the second half of the season, that's for sure.

The middle hunk featuring the Wisconsin schools and Detroit, and maybe Loyola too, are definitely capable of springing up sets if anyone in the big four takes them too lightly. We expect a few upsets in this league when dangerous dogs catch distracted favorites at just the right time.

Illinois Chicago  and Youngstown are awful. It will take A LOT of points to get us involved with either one.

Lets run the same list now, but with two-point defense in parenthesis. This stat has very good predictive value going forward. So, if you see a team that's struggled so far with internal defense, that's probably a red flag that troubles are on the way even if they haven't happened already. Weaknesses will eventually be exploited.

Cleveland State +7.7 (46%)
Valparaiso +6.6 (47%)
Butler +5.9 (48%)
Wright State +5.3 (53%)
Wisconsin-GB +1.9 (49%)
Detroit +1.6 (47%)
Wisconsin-Milw -1.3 (49%)
Loyola-Chi -3.3 (46%)
Illinois-Chi -10.7 (49%)
Youngstown State -13.0 (50%)

Butler's a surprise down at 48%, suggesting the team has lost at least a step after going so far last season. How do you keep them down on the Horizon after they've seen the Final Four?! Tough to get fired up after you've seen the Promised Land. Time for the coach to re-emphasize defense to his players.

Nobody here is great. Cleveland State has the best combination of the contenders. Wright State looks like a pretender about to fall back to earth.

Tonight's Horizon League schedule:
Detroit at Cleveland State
Wright State at Youngstown State

Friday's Horizon League schedule:
Wisconsin-Green Bay at Butler
Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Valparaiso

No monster games these next two days, but some of the spoilers will be looking to do damage to the contenders.

Moving now to the Sun Belt...

SUN BELT MARGIN AVERAGES (and W-L records thru Wednesday)
Denver +7.2 (5-0)
Florida Atlantic +5.6 (6-0)
Arkansas L-Rock +5.0 (3-2)
North Texas +4.8 (3-2)
Arkansas State +4.0 (4-2)
Troy +2.4 (2-3)
Florida Intl +0.2 (3-2)
M. Tennessee -2.2 (2-3)
South Alabama -5.4 (1-4)
La. Lafayette -7.3 (1-5)
W. Kentucky -7.5 (0-4)
La. Monroe -8.2 (1-4)

The Sun Belt is split into two geographic divisions, but we're running them all together so you can get an overall sense of best to worst (which we'll also do in the Big 12 and SEC next week). Denver and Florida Atlantic are clearly the two best teams so far. But, they're not as dominant as other conference leaders at this point. This is actually a fairly condensed conference in the margins for just 4-6 games into the season. Mostly a lot of"okay" teams by Sun  Belt standards, followed by"pretty bad" without much in the middle.

The most important thing to notice is that Western Kentucky is at the bottom. They've been a dangerous team in past seasons in March. If you're only a casual follower of the sport, you might be tempted to back Western this season because the prices seem so great. Careful! This group is nowhere near past standards. A shocking collapse for a traditional power.

Here now, the same list, but with two-point defense in parenthesis...

Denver +7.2 (49%)
Florida Atlantic +5.6 (46%)
Arkansas L-Rock +5.0 (51%)
North Texas +4.8 (48%)
Arkansas State +4.0 (49%)
Troy +2.4 (52%)
Florida Intl +0.2 (50%)
M. Tennessee -2.2 (49%)
South Alabama -5.4 (50%)
La. Lafayette -7.3 (49%)
W. Kentucky -7.5 (49%)
La. Monroe -8.2 (51%)

You can see why this conference has fallen so far in the national picture. Hardly anyone plays defense! Most of the group is at 49% or worse, even though they play very weak schedules by national standards. Florida Atlantic is the best of the group inside the arc, and would get our nod as the eventual winner as a result. That matters most down the stretch and in the conference tournament.

Thursday Sun Belt Schedule
Arkansas Little Rock at Florida International
Troy at Middle Tennessee
Western Kentucky at South Alabama
North Texas at Louisiana Monroe
Arkansas State at Denver

If you're a picky fan, and you're prefer not to spend much time with the Sun Belt, we're not going to try and talk you out of it. Just be aware that about 15-20% of Thursday schedules will be in the Sun Belt! If you can find a few edges, this group will help you pad your bankroll from Wednesday to Saturday, rather than just letting it sit there collecting dust.

JIM HURLEY has a very big release planned for tonight. It might come in one of these two leagues, or in the Pac 10 or one of the other Western conferences. You can purchase it online with your credit card. Games go up daily a few hours before tipoff of the first game. Sign up for a full season and get BIG JUICY WINNERS seven days a week at a discounted rate.

If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Back tomorrow to talk football. We're know you're looking forward to the AFC and NFC Championships. When championships are on the line, YOU NEED WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!


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