Since the inception of the Mid-Continent Conference in 1982, no basketball team has enjoyed more success than the Valparaiso Crusaders, winners of nine regular season championships, eight tournament crowns and a seven-time representative of the league in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2007, twenty-five years later, the Crusaders are moving to the Horizon League, but not before a final season in the Mid-Con and one more shot to bring home another championship.
But the task at hand is not an easy one. Valpo must replace seven players, a group that included three-time All-Conference forward Dan Oppland, All-Conference guards Ron Howard and Ali Berdiel and three-point specialist Seth Colclasure. The seven now departed Crusaders accounted for 81% of the team's scoring, 67% of the rebounding and played 6,827 minutes covering 174 games.
The good news for the Crusaders is that this year's team has been patiently waiting in the wings, building a hunger to prove their worth on the court in expanded roles. This young club with only one senior also includes five talented newcomers, but still boasts one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the league, led by Homer Drew, the winningest coach in Mid-Con history and the ninth-winningest active coach in the country.
Valpo's lone returning starter, junior point guard Jarryd Loyd, figures to anchor the Crusaders' deep returning group in the backcourt. The Lincolnwood, Ill native made 23 starts as a freshman after being pressed into action when Berdiel was injured early in the 2004-05 season. Last year, Loyd made 20 more starts splitting time at the point with Berdiel and finished third on the team with 72 assists (2.67). Always cautious with the ball, Loyd has a sparkling 1.51 assist-turnover ratio for his career and his 178 career helpers are 21st all-time in program history. Loyd also showed an improved ability to score last season, averaging 5.4 points/game. For the season, Loyd shot 51.0% from three-point range (26-of-51), easily tops on the team.
Fellow junior Shawn Huff returns after missing the second half of last season due to injury. Huff saw action in 15 games, including two starts, before his injury, and comes back as the Crusaders' highest returning scorer, having averaged 7.5 points/game last season. Huff set a career-high for points against Oakland on January 2, pouring in 18 points, and matched his output the very next game against Longwood. He also averaged four boards per game last season, and also was one of the Crusaders' top shooters, hitting 50% of his field goal attempts and 46.9% of his 3-point attempts. Huff will also be seeing some time in the frontcourt for Valpo this season.
Talented sophomore Brandon McPherson also returns at guard for the Crusaders. As a freshman, the Indianapolis, Ind. native saw time in 25 games, playing a more vital role off the bench as the season moved later and later. McPherson played at least 15 minutes in each of the final three games of the season, wrapping up the season with a career-high 23 minutes in the Mid-Continent Conference Semifinals against Oral Roberts. McPherson scored six points on 3-of-4 field goals in that game and had two assists and four rebounds. The freshman set career highs of seven points, three assists and five rebounds during the year and boasted a 1.9 assist-turnover ratio, among the best on the team.
McPherson's classmate, Jake Diebler, a high-energy combo guard, is back for his sophomore campaign as well and will be looking for more minutes. Diebler provided a spark off the end of the Valpo bench in 18 games last season and contributed every time he was given the opportunity. February 2 against Centenary was Diebler's breakout night, when the then-freshman set career highs in minutes played (15), points (5), rebounds (5) and assists (3). On the season, the Ohio native scored 19 points and has 11 assists with only five turnovers.
Four freshman will join the four backcourt returnees for the 2006-07 campaign, two of whom got valuable experience over the summer playing in the U20 European Championships.
Samuel Haanpaa, a 6'8" guard from Kerava, Finland, averaged a team-high 17.3 points/game over eight games and hit 29 3-pointers in the Championships, helping lead the Finns to a second-place finish in the B Division. Haanpaa played his high school basketball at Cornerstone [Texas] Christian, averaging 27.4 points and 11.6 rebounds/game as a senior as the Warriors went 41-7.
London, England native Paul Guede also enjoyed a successful U20 European Championship, registering 15.0 points/game to lead the Great Britain squad. Guede was a three-time first team All-State honoree at Grace [N.C.] Christian, leading the Crusaders to two state championships and a third-place national finish in 2005.
6'4" freshman Keaton Frye also joins the Crusader backcourt for 2006-07. Frye was a three-year letterwinner at North Scott High School in Eldridge, Iowa, and was named first team All-State as a senior. Frye holds the Lancers' all-time records for scoring and free throws made.
Matt Bennett rounds out the backcourt newcomers. Bennett, a 6'2" walk-on, comes from Brebeuf Jesuit High School in Indianapolis, Ind., where he was a four-year letterwinner. Bennett helped guide the Braves to two sectional championships and was a two-time recipient of the team's Best Defensive Player award.
The Crusaders' lone senior, 6'9" Moussa Mbaye, leads Valpo's frontcourt returnees. Mbaye struggled with injuries throughout the 2005-06 campaign, making just 18 appearances, registering 2.4 points and 2.6 rebounds/game. Mbaye enjoyed solid nights on the glass against Longwood, when he grabbed five rebounds in 11 minutes, and against Oral Roberts, when he pulled down seven boards, including three offensive, in 12 minutes of action. On the offensive end, Mbaye showed flashes of brilliance, hitting 4-of-5 shots in 13 minutes against Centenary and putting up seven points against Southern Utah in the Mid-Con Tournament. Mbaye, who started 20 out of 30 games he appeared in as a sophomore, will look to crack the Crusaders' starting lineup once again and help provide veteran leadership on the young squad.
Sophomore Urule Igbavboa is the only other frontcourt player on the 2006-07 to have already suited up for the Crusaders. Igbavboa took the court for 22 games during his debut campaign, posting 2.9 points and 1.6 rebounds/game. He enjoyed a solid outing in just his second appearance for Valpo, registering seven points and a season-high eight rebounds against Indiana-South Bend. His best offensive performance of the season came against Longwood, when he hit 4-of-5 shots from the floor en route to 10 points. Igbavboa also posted four other games with at least seven points scored as a freshman, and will look to become a more consistent presence for the Crusaders in the low post as a sophomore.
Two more frontcourt players will take aim at grabbing a share of playing time in the low blocks in their initial season donning the Crusader uniform. Arden Skoglund sat out the 2005-06 season as a redshirt. The 6'10" Skoglund used his redshirt year to put some muscle on his frame, and will be asked to play power forward and center for the Crusaders.
Calum MacLeod comes to Valpo for his junior season after spending one season apiece at Gonzaga and at Northeastern Junior College. The 7'1" MacLeod saw action in 34 games for Northeastern last season, helping the Plainsmen to a 30-4 record and a berth in the regional championship game.
Valpo's 2006-07 schedule will be a test for this young team, as three teams ranked in the preseason highlight the slate.
The Crusaders kick off the regular season at the ARC, hosting Calumet on November 11. From there, Valpo embarks on a three-game road trip, making stops at IPFW and Niagara before taking on ACC foe North Carolina State for the first time in program history on November 21.
Valpo returns home for two games in the final week of November, hosting #17 Marquette on the 27th and future Horizon League rival Butler on the 29th.
The Crusaders have taken on teams ranked #1 in the nation in each of the last two seasons, facing Illinois in 2004-05 and Duke last year. History could repeat itself again this season, as Ohio State, #4 in the preseason, has a shot at being the nation's top team when Valpo comes to town December 2.
The Crusaders remain on the road for games at in-state foes Evansville and Ball State before taking a trip to Hawai'i just before Christmas to play in the Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic. Valpo drew a tough first-round matchup in the tournament, facing preseason #23 Creighton.
Valpo will play each of the Mid-Con schools home and away in the Crusaders' final season as a member of the league. Home highlights from conference play include Oral Roberts on February 1, Western Illinois on February 15, and UMKC on February 24 for Senior Night.
The Crusaders are also a part of the ESPN BracketBusters pool for the third consecutive season, in which mid-major teams are paired up in non-conference games on February 17. Valpo has played Butler and Niagara in its prior two seasons as a part of the pool.
The Mid-Continent Conference Tournament will be held March 3-6 in Tulsa, Okla. as the Crusaders look to capture their eighth conference tournament title and the accompanying NCAA berth.