Valparaiso’s Bandwagon Filling Up Fast

Posted by Ray Curren on November 20th, 2015

You can look in the back if you wish, but the Valparaiso bandwagon is just about standing room only at the moment. In mid-November. Imagine what it might look like by March. There’s good reason, of course, for all the Valpo love, as the Crusaders can check off just about every box there is on the dangerous mid-major checklist.
  • Veteran team? Check. Valpo returns 10 of 11 letterwinners from last season’s 28-6 squad, including 98.3 percent of its minutes played and 98.8 percent of its scoring.
  • Been there before? Yup. The Crusaders had a chance to upset Maryland (as a No. 13 seed) late in last year’s NCAA Tournament before eventually falling, 65-62. It was Valpo’s ninth trip to the NCAAs since 1996.
  • Star player? How about 6’9” junior Alec Peters, who was 13th nationally in three-point percentage (46.7%) last season and finished in the top 100 nationally in scoring, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and three-pointers per game (and finished sixth in the Horizon League in rebounding).
Alec Peters is the engine that drives an impressive Valpo squad. (Valparaiso Athletics)

Alec Peters is the engine that drives an impressive Valpo squad. (Valparaiso Athletics)

Valparaiso’s Q-rating is also helped by the fact that mere mention of the school’s name sends the casual fan’s brain back to 1998, when current Valpo coach Bryce Drew — then coached by his father — hit one of the most memorable shots in NCAA Tournament history, beating Mississippi on “The Shot” (it ended up winning an ESPY for Play of the Year). Drew has been asked approximately 125,342 times about that March 1998 afternoon, and has smiled when responding to each and every query. He even hopes that number dramatically rises in the next few months because it would mean the Crusaders are winning big games.

Valparaiso (5-0) will likely be stamped with the lovable mid-major label in the national conversation, but if the first week of the 2015-16 season is any indication, that could be selling this team woefully short. Like many of the top mid-majors, Drew’s Crusaders have creatively constructed their roster, but this is a deep and talented group that many schools in Power Five conferences might happily trade places with. Peters might have been the most conventional recruit of the bunch, grabbed after smashing numerous records at Washington High in Washington, Illinois (population 15,000), but he was not an unknown commodity. Missouri, Tennessee and Boston College (among others) all wanted him, but he preferred the small-town atmosphere of Valparaiso. The rest is still-evolving history.

Valpo will likely be stamped with the lovable mid-major label this season nationally, but if the first week of the 2015-16 season is any indication, that could be selling Bryce Drew and crew awfully short. (USA TODAY Sports)

Valpo will likely be stamped with the lovable mid-major label this season nationally, but if the first week of the 2015-16 season is any indication, that could be selling Bryce Drew and crew awfully short. (USA TODAY Sports)

Peters struggled on Tuesday against Rhode Island, a very good defensive team that clearly targeted him. Although he was held without a three-pointer just twice last season, Peters was 0-of-4 when — with the Crusaders clinging to a 53-50 lead and 1:20 remaining — he curled off a screen and got just enough space to let it fly from deep. There was never a doubt about its final destination and Peters released a demonstrative celebration as the Ryan Center went quiet. “I thought I was due for one, man,” Peters said afterward. “ It’s just one of those things where Coach likes to go to me at the end and I better keep making those shots if I want to keep having those opportunities. I like being in that moment. I like that atmosphere. It’s nice when you can hear yourself yell because you’re not at home and the crowd is just silent because you made a big shot.” Said Drew: “Alec is such a competitor. He takes winning and losing so hard.”

In addition to Peters, Jamaican 6’10” center Vashil Fernandez is the reigning Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year and a dominant presence in the paint. Fernandez was 11th nationally in block rate in 2014-15. He likes Valparaiso so much (and has been there so long) that he is currently working on his SECOND master’s degree in international economics and finance. Fernandez didn’t even start playing basketball until age 17 and was declared ineligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse for his freshman year, although this summer the NCAA granted his petition for a fourth season on the court. Beyond Peters and Fernandez, much of the Crusaders’ core comprises transfers. Joining Fernandez in graduate classes at Valpo is one of the great names in Division I basketball, E. Victor Nickerson. But Nickerson, an Atlanta native who transferred over from Charlotte after his sophomore season, is more than just a name. He started the final 17 games for the Crusaders last season, making the conference all-tournament team and giving Fernandez and Peters help in the paint. Nickerson was supposed to miss the non-conference schedule after offseason wrist surgery, but he’s returned ahead of schedule and is nearly at full strength.

Point guard Keith Carter, from suburban Chicago, was riding the pine on a very good Saint Louis team in 2012-13 before moving to Valpo. Fellow senior Darien Walker played at not one but two junior colleges after winning two state titles for Chicago Simeon High before arriving to northwest Indiana. Walker was a preseason Second Team All-Horizon pick and a finalist for the Riley Wallace Award (given to the top transfer in the country) last season. Junior Shane Hammink (son of former NBA player Geert Hammink) was added to the mix this season after he sat out last year as a transfer from LSU. Hammink, who has represented the Netherlands internationally, and sophomore David Skara, who has done the same for Croatia, give Drew reliable options off the bench that would start for most Horizon League programs. Also at Drew’s disposal are sophomores Tevonn Walker, who started 33 games last season and made the Horizon All-Freshman Team, and Max Joseph from Vanier College in Montreal. Drew has so many weapons that we haven’t even mentioned junior Jubril Adekoya, Horizon League Sixth Man of the Year in 2014-15, and Lexus Williams, who was on the league All-Freshman Team two years ago before missing last season due to injury.

The loaded Crusaders obliterated MAAC favorite Iona last Sunday, then gutted out a 58-55 win at Rhode Island (A-10 favorites along with Dayton) on national television two days later. They boast a gaudy No. 27 ranking in KenPom’s computers, and it might just be a matter of time until the human pollsters take notice too (Valpo got eight votes in last week’s AP poll, but zero in the Coaches’ poll). Unfortunately, Valpo does not have too many chances left to prove itself in the non-conference slate, with its biggest games coming Sunday at #25 Oregon and Tuesday at Oregon State, wins that could potentially be large if the Crusaders somehow slip up in the Horizon League Tournament a few months down the road (held this year in relatively hostile Detroit). “As a coach, you try to just trust the players out there to make plays to win or lose,” Drew said. “We as a coaching staff try to give them as much freedom as we can. They were in a lot of close games last year, and that helped us against Rhode Island and I think that’s going to help us going forward.”

Vashil Fernandez is one of numerous legitimate weapons for Valpo. (Charles Mitchell/For The Post-Tribune)

Vashil Fernandez is one of numerous legitimate weapons for Valpo. (Charles Mitchell/For The Post-Tribune)

Some people in the Horizon have gone so far as to bring up the dreaded B word when referring to Valparaiso — as in Butler, Valpo’s former in-state Horizon rival, they of the 2010 and 2011 National Championship game appearances under Brad Stevens. Both are defense-first outfits who make life miserable for opponents on every possession. It’s a gigantic stretch to already make the comparison, of course, especially in regard to the 2010 squad, which entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed and finished second nationally in defensive efficiency. The Bulldogs also got a multitude of breaks (in both NCAA Tournaments) that Valpo will need to advance half as far. The Horizon League, despite not having another team inside the KenPom top 120, should offer challenges, but Valparaiso visions of a single-digit seed on Selection Sunday do not seem completely farfetched.

“The Shot” was nearly two decades ago, but many forget something that long-time diehard Valpo fans certainly do not. After beating Ole Miss, the Crusaders also knocked off Florida State before coming oh-so-close to beating fellow upstart Rhode Island in the Sweet Sixteen. Even given their status as one of the most experienced teams in the country, most of the current Valparaiso players were just out of diapers back then. The Crusaders have advanced to the NCAA Tournament seven times since The Shot. Seven times they’ve lost. “We have our own expectations for our team amongst ourselves and I know a lot of the national media likes to talk about us being a really good mid-major,” Peters said. “I think we have a really special team and we can do a lot this year, but we have to remind ourselves of our own goals and expectations amidst the hype. It’s great that people are giving attention to Valpo, a small school from Indiana, but we have to stay humble.”

This is Drew’s fifth season in charge — four more than his brother Scott lasted in the position before taking over (and doing a very good job with) the program at Baylor (a member of the Drew family has been the head coach at Valparaiso since 1988). He has been linked to jobs everywhere from Mississippi State to Tulsa and appeared to be ready to take the DePaul job last spring, but ultimately turned them all down. It doesn’t take a professional sleuth to deduce that much of the reason for Drew spurning those opportunities has to do with this potentially special group of Crusaders. Many things can happen between now and March, obviously. The Horizon League target is squarely on Valpo’s back, and they have a home-and-home with another team that is talented and desperate for an NCAA win next month when they face Belmont twice.

“We want to just keep improving,” Drew said. “Our team is still a work in progress, getting guys healthy and getting guys back. We want to try to continue to improve obviously and be playing our best basketball at the end of the year.” However, there are a lot of smart people already on that brown and gold Valparaiso bandwagon. There’s no telling its final destination or how far it’s going, but if it stays in one piece and doesn’t hit any unexpected road blocks, it could be one heck of a ride.

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