The mantra “Forever Champions” rings especially true for the Valparaiso University men’s basketball program. The Crusaders have maintained a standard of success matched by few mid-major programs, racking up league championships and postseason appearances year after year.
The hallmark of the Crusaders over the years has been their ability to reload following the graduation of some of the program’s all-time greats.
Bryce Drew goes to the NBA after winning back-to-back Mid-Con Player of the Year awards? Valpo wins the Mid-Con regular season and tournament titles the next season.
2002 Mid-Con Player of the Year Lubos Barton departs? The Crusaders capture the Mid-Con regular season title in 2002-03.
Three-time First Team All-Conference honoree Raitis Grafs closes out his Crusader career? Valpo earns conference regular season and tournament titles and returns to the NCAA Tournament in 2004.
2012 Horizon League Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff graduates in 2013 after leading the program back to the NCAA Tournament? The Crusaders continue their streak of postseason appearances the next season – a streak which now stands at seven straight years.
So with the challenge sitting in front of the Crusaders of having to replace 60% of last year’s scoring – including All-American and NBA draft pick Alec Peters, as well as a pair of overseas professionals in Shane Hammink and Jubril Adekoya – while simultaneously handling the program’s move into the Missouri Valley Conference, the blueprint is there from the past how to maintain that level of success.
And the good news for head coach Matt Lottich and the Crusaders is that they boast one of the deepest rosters of talent in the program’s recent history. There might be a lot of unfamiliar, young faces, but the talent level is there to allow Valpo to once again reload as it looks to make an impact in its first year in The Valley.
A pair of teammates dating back to their prep and AAU days, Tevonn Walker and Max Joseph are the lone seniors on this year’s Crusader squad.
Walker is coming off of a junior campaign where he was named to the Horizon League All-Defensive Team. Valpo’s leading returning scorer, he averaged 11.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in 2016-17 and enters his senior season just eight points shy of 1,000 for his career. Meanwhile, Joseph averaged 5.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game and played 22 minutes per contest as a junior. Within Horizon League play, he averaged 1.1 steals/game, good for 12th in the league.
READY TO GO
Redshirt junior Joe Burton and redshirt sophomore Bakari Evelyn bided their time last season, sitting out due to NCAA transfer regulations. Both are ready and raring to go in 2017-18 and look to immediately make an impact on the court for the Crusaders, as both Burton and Evelyn started Valpo’s pair of exhibition games.
Burton came to Valpo after spending two seasons at Oklahoma State. The lone member of the Crusaders’ class of 2018, he averaged just shy of five points per game for the Cowboys in 2015-16 as a sophomore and hit at nearly a 40% clip from 3-point range. Evelyn played for one season at Nebraska, appearing in 18 games for the Cornhuskers.
EXPERIENCE UNDER THEIR BELTS
Four sophomores are back in 2017-18 for their second season of action with the Crusaders – a quartet who all saw significant action in their first year on the court.
Both halves of Valpo’s duo at the center position - Derrik Smits and Jaume Sorolla - return this year after combining to average 11.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game within Horizon League play last season as freshmen.
Micah Bradford looks to contribute to the Crusader backcourt after playing 14 minutes per game and averaging four points per game as a freshman, while swingman John Kiser - who was a walk-on last season - earned a scholarship for this year after working his rotation into the Crusaders’ rotation in the late stages of last year.
THE NEW GUYS
Four newcomers enter their first year with the Crusaders in 2017-18, all of whom showed the ability within Valpo’s exhibition games to contribute immediately on the floor.
Sophomore Markus Golder comes to Valpo with three seasons of eligibility after playing last year at North Idaho College, where he averaged nearly 19 points and seven rebounds per game in leading the team to a 25-5 record.
A trio of true freshmen - two local and one international - join the program this season as well. Forward Parker Hazen, a graduate of Columbia City H.S., and forward Mileek McMillan, who comes to Valpo from Merrillville H.S., both signed their NLIs with Valpo during the early signing period last fall and look to share time at the power forward spot this year. Meanwhile, Marten Linssen - a post player from Dusseldorf, Germany who played for the German u18 team at the 2016 u18 European Championships - committed to Valpo in May.