May 17, 2011. That was the day Homer Drew announced that his 22nd season as head coach of the Valparaiso men’s basketball program had been his final season at the helm.
After a brief intermission, Homer’s son, Bryce Drew, was introduced as the 21st head coach in program history. During his remarks, Bryce Drew jokingly thanked his dad for leaving at least one more thing that could be accomplished – the ability to win a Horizon League championship.
Homer Drew’s final team in 2010-11 won 23 games and came as close as the Crusaders had been since joining the Horizon League to winning the league title, finishing the regular season just one game out of a share of the regular season championship.
Little did Bryce Drew know at the time he made those comments that less than four years later, he would have led Valparaiso on one of the more impressive stretches in Horizon League history. The Crusaders are just the fourth program in league history to win at least three regular season titles in a four-year stretch, joining Xavier, Butler and Milwaukee.
2011-12 – The Beginning
Bryce Drew’s first team was one which entered the season with low expectations. The Crusaders lost their top two scorers from the previous year and returned less than 40% of their scoring. Accordingly, Valparaiso was picked just fifth in the Horizon League preseason poll and earned no first-place votes.
But a pair of juniors would step up into leadership roles to lead the way for Valpo in Drew’s first season. Ryan Broekhoff emerged as a superstar, going from a Second Team All-League pick in the preseason to the Horizon League Player of the Year by year’s end. Meanwhile, Kevin Van Wijk went from scoring just over five points per game in 2010-11 to a 14 ppg scorer in 2011-12 and developed into one of the league’s prominent post players, also earning First Team All-League accolades.
The Horizon League slate started with a monumental win for Valpo, with the Crusaders going to Indianapolis in early December and beating Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time since 1988. But the momentum wouldn’t carry over for the Crusaders through a nearly four-week break from league play, as Valpo would drop two of its next four league games and exit a January 8 contest at Wright State just 3-2 in Horizon League action.
But with a balanced Horizon League, the Crusaders were still just one game back of first place in the standings and took full advantage, winning eight of their next nine games. A win February 9 at Cleveland State – Valpo’s first at CSU since joining the league - capped the stretch, completed a season sweep of CSU and moved the Crusaders ahead of the Vikings in the league standings, with a two-game lead on the rest of the field.
Valpo would drop its next game at Youngstown State, but rebounded with a home win over UIC on February 14 to set itself up for a chance to clinch its first Horizon League title against Loyola one week later. It took five minutes longer than the team and fans might have liked, but the Crusaders got the job done against the Ramblers, as a 66-62 overtime victory secured the league crown. Valpo finished out the regular season with a decisive win over Butler, as the Crusaders closed the Horizon League with a 14-4 record, winning the league title by two games in Bryce Drew’s first season at the helm.
2012-13 – Redemption
While Bryce Drew’s first season at the helm resulted in a Horizon League regular season championship, there was a sour taste in the Crusaders’ mouths entering the 2012-13 season. Detroit downed Valpo by 20 points at the Athletics-Recreation Center in the tournament title game to deny the Crusaders a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
With six seniors leading the way, including All-League selections in Broekhoff and Van Wijk, Valpo was the nation’s most experienced team heading into the 2012-13 campaign, and expectations were high. The tables were turned from the previous season, as after being picked fifth in 2011-12, the Crusaders were a near-unanimous favorite to repeat as league champions in 2012-13, receiving 40 of 44 first-place votes.
Valpo found out quickly, however, that being the hunted was a much more different task than being the hunter. In the Crusaders’ very first league game at the ARC against Loyola on January 2, they came out flat and suffered the consequences, falling 63-54 to the Ramblers. The lesson was learned swiftly though, as Valpo rebounded with six consecutive victories, including comebacks from 11 points down with three minutes to play at Detroit and seven points down with seven minutes remaining against Wright State.
The Crusaders’ winning streak came to an end at the hands of Youngstown State on January 30, but Valpo still closed the first half of league play all alone atop the standings. Two straight wins by at least 25 points followed, sparking a four-game winning streak, and even following a home loss to Detroit, Valpo still maintained a one-game lead atop the loss column in the league standings.
A win at Loyola set the Crusaders up for a chance to secure their second straight regular season title against Youngstown State on Senior Night, and the group of six seniors made sure they would earn a second straight ring, downing the Penguins 73-64. Valpo then went into Green Bay to close out the regular season and clinched a second consecutive outright title with a 75-56 victory, finishing the league slate at 13-3.
This time, the run would not come up short of the ultimate goal, either. Despite trailing in the waning seconds of the league tournament semifinal against Green Bay, Broekhoff connected on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for a thrilling 70-69 win to send the Crusaders to the title game. Then, three nights later, tournament MVP Erik Buggs scored a career-high 22 points and Valpo rallied from down six points with 5:37 to play for a 62-54 win over Wright State, winning its first league tournament championship and returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
2014-15 - The New Era
After a fourth-place finish in the 2013-14 regular season, Drew welcomed back just seven letterwinners from that year’s team in 2014-15, including less than 50% of their scoring from the previous season. Sophomore Alec Peters was a preseason First Team All-League selection, but with just two seniors on the roster – a roster which ranks 266th in the nation in experience - and five players seeing their first action as Crusaders, expectations were tempered, with most believing the best was to come in 2015-16 and beyond. Accordingly, Valpo was selected fourth in the Horizon League preseason poll, receiving no first-place votes.
The notion that this year might become something special started in the pre-league slate. Valpo would drop its second game of the season at Missouri, and also fell at home to New Mexico, but other than that, suffered no defeats. Included in the wins in the non-league schedule, which the Crusaders finished with a 13-2 record, was a 72-66 win at Eastern Kentucky, delivering the Colonels their first home loss outside conference play in 26 games, and an emphatic 93-58 win over a Murray State squad which is now ranked among the nation’s top-25 teams and has not lost since.
A one-two punch at the start of the Horizon League schedule seemed like it might knock Valpo back down to earth, though. First, the Crusaders opened league play at Oakland and suffered an 89-75 overtime loss. Then, two days later in a home win over Youngstown State, junior Keith Carter suffered a dislocated toe late in the victory. For a Valpo squad already playing without incumbent starting point guard Lexus Williams due to an offseason knee injury, the loss of Carter left the Crusaders down to their third and fourth options at the point, in the form of junior E. Victor Nickerson, himself coming off double hip surgery, and freshman Max Joseph.
Nickerson and Joseph, along with the rest of the Crusaders, stepped up to the task, however, winning the next four games, including three by double figures. A loss at Green Bay by one point in a game where Valpo had two shots in the final minute to take the lead didn’t slow the team down, as three days later, the Crusaders returned home and beat Milwaukee by 25 points.
Then, the young Valpo squad showed it could handle late-game pressure. After winning 15 of their first 19 games by double figures, the Crusaders won six consecutive games by single digits. A home win over Green Bay on February 13 moved Valpo into sole possession of first place in the league standings, and then the Crusaders rallied from halftime deficits for wins at Milwaukee and over Wright State – their first halftime deficits in over six weeks – to move one game away from winning the regular season title.
The first time would not be the charm this year for Valpo, as the Crusaders let their first chance to win the championship slip away last Wednesday night at Detroit in a 63-60 loss. But Valpo was not to be denied, traveling to Cleveland State two nights later to face a rested Vikings team. With everything on the line, the Crusaders put together one of their best all-around efforts of the year, stifling Cleveland State defensively and getting a dagger of a shot on a four-point play from Peters with 1:11 to play in a 56-53 victory to finish Horizon League play at 13-3.
What’s to come in the Horizon League Championship and beyond is still up in the air. What we know is this: this year’s squad – a team which many thought its best chances to contend would be in the coming years – finished the season with the league’s Coach of the Year (Drew – his second honor, 2011-12), Defensive Player of the Year (Vashil Fernandez) and Sixth Man of the Year (Jubril Adekoya), as well as a First Team All-League honoree (Peters) and an All-Freshman Team selection (Tevonn Walker).
Xavier won six Horizon League regular season titles in an eight-year span from 1987-95. Butler won four consecutive championships from 1999-2003 and five more titles from 2006-11, while Milwaukee captured three straight crowns from 2003-06. Valparaiso has now joined that group as the only programs in league history to win at least three regular season championships in a four-year span, led to all three titles by Bryce Drew. A coach who joked at his introductory press conference about being thankful there was at least one thing left to accomplish, now has accomplished it three times over.