The way last season ended, a heartbreaking loss to Maryland in the NCAA Tournament which went down to the last second, left a sour taste in the mouths of the players on the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team. The players were chomping at the bit to get right back on the court, and had their appetite whetted with a summer foreign tour to Canada. But tomorrow, the Crusaders get to unleash that aggression as the 2015-16 season opens with an exhibition game against Indianapolis.
The plaudits have been flying in fast and furious as the season approaches, as the Crusaders were tabbed overwhelming Horizon League preseason favorites last month. Nationally, Valpo has been gaining plenty of recognition as well, including earning five points in the Associated Press preseason top-25 poll. Both Ken Pomeroy and CBS Sports have Valpo among the top-45 teams in the nation entering the season, and amongst their peers, the Crusaders have earned plenty of acclaim, as they were tabbed the #1 team in CBS Sports’ Cinderella Watch and also earned the top spot on NBC Sports’ list of top mid-majors.
And it’s easy to see why the preseason buzz is surrounding the Crusader program. In the days of the one-and-done superstars and senior-laden mid-major squads making Cinderella runs in the NCAA Tournament, Valpo is a rare breed indeed – a team that won 28 games last season, and yet returns nearly 99% of its scoring and rebounding from that squad for the 2015-16 campaign. The depth and breadth of talent on the Crusader squad is among the best the program has ever seen, as can be seen by the preseason All-Horizon League teams, which consisted of 40% Valpo players.
Leading the way is junior Alec Peters, who enters the 2015-16 season as Valpo’s top weapon offensively, a preseason First Team All-League honoree and a member of the preseason watch list for the Karl Malone Award, presented to the nation’s top power forward. The 6’9” forward was a First Team All-Horizon League and NABC First Team All-District 12 selection last year, pacing the Crusaders with 16.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore last year. Peters, who ranked third in the league in 3-point percentage (46.6%), fourth in scoring and sixth in rebounding, became the first player in Valpo history to score 1,000 points by the end of his sophomore season.
The final piece of the Crusaders’ roster puzzle was put into place this summer. Center Vashil Fernandez was granted a fourth season of athletic eligibility by the NCAA after originally being penalized one year when he first enrolled at Valparaiso. Fernandez, a preseason Second Team All-League choice this year, was named the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year in 2014-15, setting Valpo’s single-season record for blocked shots (98) and helping to anchor a defense which ranked sixth nationally in field goal percentage defense and 17th in scoring defense. Fernandez averaged 2.9 blocked shots per game, good for 11th in the nation, while he ranked sixth among all Division I players in block percentage.
The duo of Fernandez and Peters has plenty of help returning as well, however, as the Crusaders lost just one player from last season’s Horizon League champions. Also back for the 2015-16 campaign are six other rotation regulars, including a pair of preseason Second Team All-League honorees in 6’3” senior guard Darien Walker – who averaged 10.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last year and was a finalist for the Riley Wallace Award) – and 6’2” sophomore guard Tevonn Walker – who averaged 10.3 points per game last year, tallied a team-best 37 steals and was an All-Freshman Team honoree.
Also back are a pair of point guard options in 6’1” senior Keith Carter, who averaged 8.4 points and a team-high 3.7 assists per game and was the team’s starting point guard before suffering an injury at the start of Horizon League play, and 6’8” junior E. Victor Nickerson, who started 17 games at point guard and averaged better than six points per contest. 6’4” junior guard Nick Davidson and 6’1” sophomore guard Max Joseph return as well in the backcourt, while in the frontcourt, the Horizon League reigning Sixth Man of the Year returns in the form of 6’7” junior forward Jubril Adekoya and 6’8” sophomore forward David Skara is back for his second season as well.
Despite all the returning weapons at his disposal, head coach Bryce Drew will not lack for opportunities to slot new faces into positions on the court for the Crusaders. 6’0” sophomore guard Lexus Williams – a Horizon League All-Newcomer Team choice in 2013-14 - is expected to return to the court after sitting out last season with a knee injury. 6’7” junior guard Shane Hammink, an LSU transfer who has played for the Netherlands senior national team and scored in double figures in all five of Valpo’s games in Canada, is eligible this season after transferring and sitting out last year, while 6’7” sophomore forward Chandler Levingston Simon is eligible as well this year after transferring from UMKC. Meanwhile, Valpo adds one freshman in the form of 7’1” center Derrik Smits, an Indiana All-Star at Zionsville H.S. and son of former NBA star Rik Smits.
With so much talent returning and so much potential joining the squad, it’s no wonder that Drew, who was named Horizon League Coach of the Year for a second time last season, set up a challenging non-league schedule to test this year’s team. Within the first two weeks of the regular season alone, Valpo will host MAAC favorite Iona, travel to Atlantic 10 second choice Rhode Island and fly out to the west coast for games at Oregon and Oregon State, both of whom are picked among the upper half of the Pac-12. A home-and-home series against defending OVC champion Belmont highlights the December slate as well, prepping the Crusaders for the always-rugged journey through the Horizon League schedule.
All the pieces are in place for a magical season on Union Street. Tuesday, the journey begins.