Patrons of the Valparaiso men’s basketball program bowed their heads in quiet reverence after the Crusaders 90-74 win over Detroit two Sundays ago, the hushed atmosphere in stark contrast to the raucous, boisterous nature of the crowd during the game.
Seniors made final speeches to their families, friends and fans after which head coach Bryce Drew lead the crowd of a thousand or so people in a group prayer.
“What we do on senior night is the seniors speak and we pray for the seniors before they go,” Drew said in an interview with TSFJ.
In a world where players can be penalized for expressing their religious beliefs too publicly, the community around Valparaiso University has found a unique way to celebrate its religion within the athletic community.
“We are a faith-based school and it’s a great privilege to be able to express my faith with our team here,” said Drew.
Assistant coach Matt Lottich echoes that sentiment and adds that the Drew family has made Valpo a very special place that develops upstanding young men, both on and off the court.
“It is a Lutheran school and I think that he’s kind of just continued on the leadership that his dad and his brother have had,” Lottich added, “but God still remains the center of the Valparaiso men’s basketball team, there is no doubt about it.”
“Faith is a big part of our program. Kids that come here, they are going to be developed in a way that doesn’t only involve basketball – we are going to make sure they do well with schoolwork, we are going to make sure they graduate and hopefully we are going to teach them how to be a man, how to be successful in this world. Really, if you look around there’s not a lot of men, in society as a whole that are living up to the responsibilities that I think men are called to do. So we try to instill that into our players.”
The Crusaders have been keeping the NCAA tournament dream alive all season long, all the while compiling a very compelling resume. They are 26-5 entering the Horizon League tournament, making them just one of 10 teams in the nation with 26 or more victories.
Their RPI rank is 17th and their strength of schedule ranks them 45th in the nation. They have a 5-2 record in the seven non-league games against top-110 teams and they boast a 12-4 record in true road games, which ties them for second-most true road wins in the NCAA. And they took care of business in their league, setting a new Horizon League record for scoring margin within league-only games (+14.7) and winning 13 games by double figures.
When a team has done everything it can to prove itself to the committee, keeping the faith becomes an important element in the program’s approach – especially when heading into a conference tournament where there is a secured bid on the line.
“For us I think we are definitely a bubble team,” said Lottich. “Going in to the Horizon League tournament, it would be great to have a secured spot, I mean it’s the NCAA tournament, but I don’t think that’s the case for us.”
Valpo does boast one of the nation’s top defenses, something they plan to stick with as they navigate their way through the conference tournament. “Defense has been a staple of our team all year and so we know if we want to win games it’s going to have to be on the defensive end, “ quipped coach Drew.
Particularly when it comes to stopping Oakland’s Kay Felder, the Horizon Player of the Year, who has garnered national attention for his ability to score in spectacular fashion.
“He’s a tremendous player,” assistant coach Luke Gore said of Felder. “He’s going to get a lot of shots off, it’s going to be about how difficult a shot can you make him shoot. And he’s a tremendous passer, too, so I mean he’s a handful but luckily we have probably the best defensive point guard in the league in Keith Carter and having him is just special, the things he can do.”
Coach Drew agreed, adding that when it comes to Felder, it’s more about limiting the damage.
“Well you are not really going to stop him – he’s going to score, he’s extremely talented,” added Drew. “But you know hopefully he’s not his making his shots – all his shots – like the ones he makes in other games.”
Luckily, it’s nothing the Crusaders haven’t seen before – they swept second-place Oakland this season, handling the Grizzlies with a 17-point win on the road.
“This isn’t the first time we have played all these teams, if we haven’t figured them out by now I don’t know if we are ever going to,” joked coach Gore.
Valpo is set to face Green Bay Monday night – a team they have beaten twice already in conference play. But even with that game on their immediate horizon, everyone around the Crusaders program can’t help but glance ahead hopefully to Selection Sunday. And while many teams across the nation are doing the same thing, Valparaiso utilizes its special brand of basketball to keep the faith.
“To be honest, I mean everybody thinks about it but our focus right now is that game on Monday and hopefully we play well and get to play on Tuesday,” said coach Gore.
“But every college kid, every coach whether they are the one seed or the ten seed in their tournament, is thinking about how they can possibly get to the NCAA tournament. All the teams in our league, you know they all think they have a chance to get to the NCAA tournament and they all think about it.”
Meanwhile, every coach is trying to find a way to motivate their team, keeping them focused while attempting not to put too much pressure on the games at hand. The Valparaiso coaching staff believes in the balance they have struck.
“The way I look at it is that I’m really excited to play in the Horizon League tournament – I don’t really see it as pressure, I see it as opportunity,” said coach Lottich. “I think that we have a great group of guys, we have a great group of senior leadership and I really like our chances going in because I know these guys are hungry and they all want it – they don’t want to settle for anything but the NCAA tournament.”
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.