The 2007-08 season was a campaign of change for the Crusader basketball program, as Valparaiso played in the Horizon League for the first time after 25 years in the Mid-Continent Conference. But the new experiences were met head on by an experience-laden Valpo squad, as the Crusaders advanced to the Horizon League semifinals and were one of three league squads to earn a postseason berth, going to the inaugural College Basketball Invitational and defeating Washington in first-round action.
This year, however, the tables are turned. No longer are the trips and venues unfamiliar. The team knows the demands that the Horizon League schedule brings, knows that there are no off nights in league play. But this year, it will be a relatively inexperienced squad taking the hardwood, as only five letterwinners return from last year’s squad. But with a trio of three-year senior starters leading the way, the Crusaders are taking aim at another finish near the top of the league standings and a repeat berth in the postseason.
Leading the way on the sidelines for his 20th season at the helm at the Crusader program, and his sixth season in his second stint as head coach, is head coach Homer Drew. In his 32nd season overall as a head coach, Drew has racked up 593 career wins, good for seventh among active Division I head coaches. Drew enters the 2008-09 campaign with 324 wins guiding the Crusader program, and has averaged better than 20 wins per year over his last 14 seasons. Last year, Drew guided the Crusaders through the transition into the Horizon League and helped get Valpo to the postseason for the ninth time in the last 13 years.
Drew returns the entire core of the coaching staff from last year’s squad for this season, including son Bryce Drew in his fourth year at Valpo and his third season as associate head coach. Drew, who starred for the Crusaders in the mid 90’s and connected on “The Shot” in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament against Ole Miss, has helped guide Valpo to 55 victories in his three seasons on the coaching staff and has helped prepare and develop eight players for international pro careers.
Assistant coach Luke Gore also returns for his seventh season as a member of the Crusader staff, while Chris Sparks is in his second year as an assistant coach after having previously played for Valpo in the late 90’s. Pawel Mrozik joins the Crusader staff this year as the director of basketball operations, arriving from Poland where he founded and ran Polish Shootout Basketball Services.
Valpo will be leaning heavily on a trio of seniors during the 2008-09 season, a trio which has started a combined 190 contests over the last two seasons for the Crusaders.
Guard Jake Diebler has started all 77 games for the Crusaders over the last two years. The high-energy native of Upper Sandusky, Ohio is one of Valpo’s surest ball-handlers, finishing second on the team in assists last year with 92 helpers while leading the Crusaders with a 2.71 assist-to-turnover ratio, the second-best mark in the Horizon League. Diebler is also one of the league’s best defenders and registered a team-best 41 steals last year. Offensively, Diebler reached double figures in scoring on seven occasions in 2007-08, and continued as one of Valpo’s most consistent players from the charity stripe, where has connected on 82.3% of his free throw attempts for his career.
Forward Urule Igbavboa has been tabbed a preseason Second Team All-Horizon League selection after a junior year in which he put up 11.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while starting all 36 games. Igbavboa ranked third on the team in scoring last year and was second among all Horizon League players in rebounding. He also ranked fourth in the league in field goal percentage (55.0%) and is currently the third-most accurate shooter in school history with a 56.0% career shooting percentage. Valpo’s most experienced post threat, Igbavboa put up double figures in scoring 20 times last year while ripping down at least ten rebounds on six occasions.
Guard Brandon McPherson rounds out the Crusader trio of returning starters. McPherson was in the starting five for 26 of his 36 games last year and averaged double figures in scoring for the second straight year, putting up 10.1 points per game. One of the most accurate 3-point shooters in Valpo history (40.8%, 9th), the senior was among the league’s top-ten in 3-point percentage last year while reaching double figures in scoring 16 times. McPherson also has distributed the ball well through his first three years on the Crusader team, ranking 17th all-time at Valpo in assists.
Valparaiso has just one player with junior eligibility, but he will not be donning the Crusader uniform this year, as forward Cory Johnson must sit out this year in accordance with NCAA transfer rules after coming to Valpo from Iowa State. Johnson appeared in 55 games over his two seasons with the Cyclones, connecting on 57.4% of his field goal attempts while earning the team’s Pete Taylor Mr. Hustle award as a freshman.
Three sophomores, two of which saw significant playing time for the Crusaders last year, are on the Valpo roster for the 2008-09 season.
Guard Howard Little appeared in 35 contests for the Crusaders as a freshman, making three starts, all three of which the Crusaders went on to win. Little also saw at least ten minutes of action on 15 occasions. The Chicago native averaged 2.4 points and 1.5 rebounds per game during his debut campaign, including scoring a season-best 11 points against Indiana Wesleyan.
Guard Michael Rogers took full advantage of increased playing time in the latter stages of the 2007-08 campaign, starting each of the year’s last nine games. Rogers averaged 3.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game on the season, but stepped it up when inserted into the starting five, upping his averages to 7.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest in the final 11 games. The native of Jamaica exploded onto the national scene when the Crusaders hosted Wright State on ESPN2, as Rogers was named Player of the Game after going off for 21 points and 12 rebounds in Valpo’s overtime victory.
Forward Benjamin Fumey closes out the trio of Crusader sophomores this year. Fumey came to Valpo from Germany, where he suited up for the German Junior National squad, prior to last year, but did not see action during the regular season for the Crusaders.
With just five returning letterwinners, Valpo’s six freshmen will all have ample opportunity to earn significant playing time and become integral parts during the 2008-09 campaign.
Guard Erik Buggs comes to Valpo from Memphis, Tenn., where he played his senior year at Mitchell H.S. after earning three letters at White Station H.S. A McDonald’s All-American nominee, Buggs earned All-State honors as a senior while leading Mitchell to a berth in the state championship game.
Guard Andrew Ferry walks on to the Crusader team this year after a successful prep career at Milwaukee Lutheran H.S. in Milwaukee, Wis. Ferry helped the Red Knights to regional championships in 2006 and 2007, and set school records for 3-pointers in a game and in a season as a senior.
Guard De’Andre Haskins played his prep basketball at La Lumiere [Ind.] School, over 2,000 miles from his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. Haskins averaged 27.5 points per game as a senior after averaging 31 points and 12 rebounds per game during his junior year.
Guard Logan Jones starred at Madison H.S. in Madison, Ind., where he earned All-State honors three times. Jones, who played on the Indiana Junior All-Stars team in the summer of 2007, closed his career fifth in Madison history in scoring and helped the Cubs to back-to-back regional finals.
Guard Nick Shelton joins the Crusaders as a walk-on after playing his high school basketball at Frankenmuth H.S. in Frankenmuth, Mich. Shelton helped the Eagles to a school-record 23 wins during his senior year and a berth in the state quarterfinals while earning Honorable Mention All-Area honors.
Forward Cameron Witt continues Valpo’s international recruiting pipeline, joining the Crusaders from Launceston, Tasmania, Australia. A member of the Australian U-20 national team, Witt was named Tasmanian Player of the Year in 2007.
A game Dec. 20 at the United Center in Chicago, Ill. against unanimous preseason #1/1 North Carolina highlights the Valparaiso men’s basketball schedule for the 2008-09 campaign.
The game against the Tar Heels, which will be televised nationally on ESPNU, represents the third time in the last seven seasons that Valpo has played a game at the United Center. The Crusaders took on #6 Notre Dame at Chicago’s premier facility on Jan. 4, 2003, and hosted #10 Duke at the United Center on Dec. 4, 2004.
The Crusaders kick off the regular season at the Athletics-Recreation Center on Saturday, Nov. 15 against Marian, and follow three days later with a home contest against Conference USA foe UCF. Valpo then travels to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam Nov. 21-24, where they will play three games in four days. The Crusaders will face San Diego, which advanced to the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament, in the opener, with either Iona or #25/21 Wisconsin waiting for the second game. The other side of the tournament bracket is comprised of #2/2 UConn, LaSalle, Miami (Fla.) and Southern Miss.
The Horizon League schedule again opens with a pair of games in early December. The Crusaders will get their longest road trip of the league slate out of the way immediately, traveling to Cleveland State Dec. 2 and facing Youngstown State Dec. 4. Valpo returns home for a Dec. 10 game against IPFW before heading back on the road to play Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 13.
A return game at UCF is scheduled for Dec. 22, to be followed six days later by a game at Purdue, which won its first round NCAA Tournament game last year, on the Big Ten Network. The 2008 calendar closes with a game at the ARC Dec. 30 versus North Park.
The league’s double round robin slate picks up in 2009, as the Crusaders host Butler on Jan. 3 at the ARC. Valpo’s matchup in Indianapolis against the Bulldogs on Jan. 30 will be showcased live to a national audience on ESPNU. The regular season will close with three straight home games, with Youngstown State coming to town on Saturday, Feb. 28 on Senior Night. The Horizon League Championships will be held March 3-10 on campus sites, and the champion will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The transition into the Horizon League for the Crusaders has been completed. If Valpo’s youngsters can step up and fill in voids alongside the experienced trio of seniors starters, the Crusaders will be well on their way to duplicating the success of their initial season of Horizon League play.