Valparaiso, led by head coach Drew, is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004. When Drew took over the program from his father Homer before last season, it was forgivable nepotism. Both of them had done so much for the Crusaders, nobody was going to raise a fuss. Still, a return to the tournament this early into Drew's tenure is a pleasant surprise.
Valparaiso overcame Wright State in the Horizon League title game to secure the berth. The Crusaders were hot from the field early on and the game, on their home floor, looked like it might be a blowout. But Wright State grabbed a lead in the second half, thanks in part to 24 Valparaiso turnovers. The Crusaders trailed 50-44 with less than six minutes left, but they were calm down the stretch as Wright State went cold. Ryan Broekhoff's 3-pointer from the corner with 1:47 left gave the Crusaders a 54-50 lead, and was the biggest play in Valparaiso's Horizon title victory.
Although a NCAA berth in Drew's second season as a head coach is a little surprising, the Crusaders have been building to peak this season.
Valparaiso is the most experienced team in college basketball, according to KenPom.com's metrics. The team's top nine players are all seniors or juniors. There are six seniors on the roster and all play major roles. Valparaiso should enjoy this trip to the tournament, because there's going to be a lot of rebuilding to be done next season.
Even though the Crusaders rely entirely on older players, Drew decided to take it slow in the non-conference season. Close wins against Kent State and Murray State were the team's best victories in a soft non-league schedule. But after an odd home loss to Loyola of Chicago to start Horizon play, Valparaiso only lost two more league games, and 11 of its 13 league wins came by six or more points. The Crusaders were the top seed in the conference.
That almost didn't matter. Green Bay had Valparaiso on the ropes in the semifinals, but Broekhoff delivered what will hold up as one of the best moments of the conference tournament season with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win. The Crusaders almost wasted that shot by blowing a second-half lead against Wright State, but rallied to grab the NCAA bid.
Valparaiso has an efficient offense led by 6-7 Broekhoff (16.2 points per game before Tuesday) and 6-8 Kevin Van Wijk (12.8). Matt Kenney became a full-time starter during conference play and elevated his game, giving the team a third scoring option to go with Broekhoff and Van Wijk. Kenny averaged 10.4 points in conference play, two more than he did in non-league games. Against Wright State, when all three top scorers combined for just 19 points, Erik Buggs scored 22 points and Will Bogan had 14. That's to be expected on such an experienced team. So was the poise Valparaiso showed down the stretch after Wright State held a late six-point lead.
It's hard to tell how dangerous Valparaiso might be in the tournament. The Crusaders' best win all year, in or out of league play, was a one-point road win against Detroit. They dominated league play, but needed a phenomenal shot to make the championship game and they were sloppy at times against Wright State. Even though the team has the senior leadership that usually plays well in the NCAA tournament, these seniors have never played in the tournament with Valparaiso.
But, as Valparaiso's coach is well aware, anything is possible in the tournament. A roster that has experienced so many games together will finally experience a game on the sport's biggest stage.
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