When the Horizon League preseason basketball poll was released, it was announced that Valparaiso was an overwhelming favorite to repeat as conference champions.
But we already knew that, didn’t we?
The preseason poll was just a formality to affirm what everybody already knew: Valpo is going to be really good this season. Like, really, really good.
The Crusaders return nine players who averaged over 10 minutes per game last season for reigning Horizon Coach of the Year Bryce Drew, on a team that won both the regular-season and conference tournament championships on its way to a 28-win season.
In addition to being picked to win the conference, the Crusaders also had four players named to the preseason all-league teams: Alec Peters (first-team selection), and Vashil Fernandez, Tevonn Walker, and Darien Walker (second-team selections).
With as much talent as the Crusaders have returning, it was a foregone conclusion that they would be selected to repeat as conference champions. Now, the only question is how far the Crusaders can advance past the league championship.
Last season, Valpo made its second NCAA Tournament appearance in three years, but lost 65-62 to No. 4 seed Maryland in its first game. This season, the Crusaders are hungry for more, and should have bigger goals.
It’s been over 17 years since Valparaiso won its first NCAA Tournament game and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1998. Drew was a player on that team, and hit one of the most famous buzzer-beaters in college basketball history to secure the Crusaders’ first tournament win.
This time around, Drew is coaching on the sidelines but the results could be the same. That’s because for the first time since 1998, the Crusaders have the talent — and experience — to return to the Sweet 16.
Valparaiso will be led by Peters, who is the team’s most important player and a conference player of the year candidate after averaging 16.8 ppg and 6.7 rpg last season. Last season, he led the team in scoring 20 times and in rebounding 17 times.
The junior is on pace to be Valpo’s all-time leading scorer, becoming the first Crusader in program history to eclipse the 1,000-point mark as a sophomore. His ability to play inside-out — he ranked third in the conference in three-pointers made per game (2.4) and three-point shooting percentage (46.6 percent) — makes him extremely difficult to guard and arguably the most versatile player in the league.
Peters is surrounded by plenty of talent, starting with the backcourt duo of Darien and Tevonn Walker. Both guards averaged over 10 ppg last season, and will provide steady veteran leadership at the guard positions. Guard play is very important in tournament play, and the Crusaders have a strong backcourt unit.
In the frontcourt, Fernandez will play opposite of Peters in the post. The senior was granted an extra year by the NCAA, which is great news for the Crusaders — Fernandez was the Horizon Defensive Player of the Year last season and led the conference in blocks (98 — program single-season record).
Fernandez’s defense perfectly complements Peters, taking some of the pressure off of Peters and allowing him to focus more on the offensive end.
In addition to their four preseason all-league selections, the Crusaders also have a strong cast of talented role players who help round out a complete team. These players — Keith Carter, Victor Nickerson, David Skara, Jubril Adekoya, etc. — provide depth and experience, making Valparaiso a very dangerous team.
How far can Valparaiso go? Can Drew return the Crusaders to another Sweet 16, this time as a coach?
Those are questions every educated college basketball fan filling out a bracket in March will want to know.
But one thing is for certain — this Valpo team is for real, and capable of doing some serious damage in the NCAA Tournament. If you’re looking for a bracket-buster, the Crusaders are worth paying attention to.