“A new era.” It’s a phrase which gets thrown around a lot in the world of athletics. But for the Valparaiso University men’s basketball team, a new era truly begins this season, as first-year head coach Matt Lottich prepares to lead the Crusaders into the 2016-17 campaign – a season which begins Saturday night with an exhibition game at the ARC versus Hillsdale at 7:30 p.m.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, the head coach of the Crusaders will not sport the last name Drew, as Bryce Drew departed for Vanderbilt in early April. The Drew family – father Homer and sons Scott and Bryce – combined for 515 victories over 28 seasons at Valparaiso, including 14 postseason appearances.
But Lottich enters the 2016-17 season well-positioned to continue the Crusaders’ standard of excellence. The Stanford graduate has spent the last three years on the Valpo sidelines as an assistant coach, helping Valpo to 78 victories in that span. The Crusaders have enjoyed the two winningest seasons in program history in Lottich’s three years at Valpo, including last season’s record-setting 30-win campaign which culminated with an appearance in the NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden.
Lottich has plenty of weapons at his disposal for his first season at the helm, highlighted by the return of senior forward Alec Peters. Peters earned AP Honorable Mention All-American accolades last season, leading the Crusaders with averages of 18.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and has earned preseason All-America nods from a number of publications this fall.
Peters declared for the 2016 NBA Draft on Apr. 7 and went through the draft process before withdrawing in late May. He also attended the Nike Skills Academy in Los Angeles July 25-27 and was praised by multiple national media members as one of the camp’s top performers. Entering his final year at Valpo, Peters already ranks fourth in Crusader history in scoring (1,682 points) and seventh in rebounding (704 rebounds).
Peters is one of two returning starters for Valpo in 2016-17, as junior guard Tevonn Walker returns from the starting five as well. Walker, a Horizon League All-Freshman Team selection in 2014-15, was plagued by injuries last year, but still appeared in 31 games and made 26 starts. The Crusaders’ starting two-guard averaged 8.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in 2015-16 and ranked third on the team in assists.
Other key returning players from last year’s rotation include senior forward Jubril Adekoya (18.5 minutes/game, 6.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 58.1% 3PT%) and senior guard Shane Hammink (22.1 minutes/game, 8.9 ppg, 50% FG%, 61 assists). Both Adekoya and Hammink are expected to assume larger roles this season for the Crusaders.
The main questions entering 2016-17 for the Crusaders exist at either end of the position spectrum. At point guard, Keith Carter’s appeal for a final season of eligibility was denied, leaving a vacancy at that spot. Potential options to fill that position include redshirt junior Lexus Williams – who was an All-Freshman Team choice in 2013-14 – junior Max Joseph, or freshman Micah Bradford – who comes to Valpo as a top-20 recruit from his class in the state of Illinois.
Meanwhile, at center, Vashil Fernandez’s illustrious Valpo career has finally come to a close following program records for single-season and career blocked shots totals, one national and two Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year awards, and three degrees from Valparaiso University. The 7’2” Derrik Smits – who redshirted last season due to injury but was an Indiana All-Star the previous year at Zionsville H.S. – and the 6’11” Jaume Sorolla – a native of Tortosa, Spain who averaged nearly 18 minutes per game this summer in helping Spain to win the 2016 FIBA U20 European Championship – will battle it out to be the man in the middle for the Crusaders this season.
The season opens with Saturday’s exhibition game at the ARC, while the regular season begins on Friday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. versus Southern Utah – complete with a pregame ceremony to raise the Horizon League regular season title and NIT finalist banners. Valpo’s non-league slate includes eight home games and road contests against a pair of the nation’s top teams in Kentucky and Oregon. The Horizon League schedule gets underway on Dec. 30, and leads up to the Horizon League Championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit Mar. 3-7.