Category archive: Valparaiso Crusaders

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- When you spend a few days around Bryce Drew and his Valparaiso staff, it is obvious that these coaches understand what it takes to remain relevant in what has become a highly competitive Horizon League.

But it also becomes clear that Valpo is at a decided disadvantage.

The image of Bryce Drew making the iconic 3-pointer to beat Ole Miss at the buzzer in the 1998 NCAA tournament is everywhere in the building. And Homer Drew always kept the Crusaders in the mix.

But over the years, Valpo has had to take chances with international players and transfers to stay competitive with Butler, Cleveland State, Detroit, Wright State and Milwaukee. (For what it's worth, the Valparaiso staff is confident a new threat has emerged at Loyola, with its new arena alongside Lake Michigan.)

Bryce DrewMatthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBryce Drew led Valpo to the Sweet 16 in 1998. He'll now try to do the same as head coach.

Well, the Crusaders that will be seen Monday night at Arizona in the season opener (ESPNU, 9 ET) are a shell of what Drew had originally planned.

The most talented player on the team isn't eligible. Jamaican native Vashil Fernandez stands 6-foot-10 and weighs 220. He is long and can affect the game in a major way, but no one around the program knows if and when he'll be eligible. In addition, Ben Boggs is a transfer from Virginia Tech who isn't eligible until December, and Indiana transfer Bobby Capobianco, a big body who will do well in the Horizon, isn't eligible until 2012-13.

Valpo has a rich history. At one point the Crusaders had what was dubbed the World's Tallest Team in 1944, although no one is quite sure just how tall that team was at the time. Larry Bird played in the gym when he was with Indiana State. So, too, did George Mikan.

Athletic director Mark LaBarbera was once at NC State and envisions turning the Athletics-Recreation Center into a mini-Cameron. But to accomplish that feat there needs to be influx of money and fans, particularly younger ones. A new video scoreboard was put in for this season and that's a start to upgrade the facility. But it does have the look of a glorified high school gym. In one sense that's appealing, but today's recruits are enamored by and expect modern amenities.

The staff is a tight group of young coaches who have a strong connection to the game. Bryce Drew was an NBA player. Roger Powell Jr. was on the 2005 national championship runner-up at Illinois. Jake Diebler plaed at Valpo and has basketball bloodlines with his brother Jon, who finished up his career at Ohio State. Luke Gore was a former Valpo grinder, making multiple trips to postseason tournaments. Will Phipps just arrived from Georgia Tech's staff.

The Drew family name is so strong here, and as Homer and Janet Drew battle cancer, Bryce is beginning his own new venture as head coach. He has tremendous support, but there has to be plenty of patience.

Drew wants to push the ball more often, but doesn't have the numbers or the quickness. If he gets Fernandez, he would have the post play to change up everything on offense. For now, he'll hope Ryan Broekhoff, Kevin Van Wijk and Richie Edwards find consistency and the Crusaders stay afloat.

This will be a work in progress, but there is plenty of hope if Valparaiso is willing to make the commitment. It remains to be seen whether there is overall financial support to stay in the hunt in what has suddenly become a formidable Horizon League.

Valpo's chief rival is in-state opponent Butler, but the Bulldogs are simply on another level at this point. Butler has Indianapolis, Hinkle Fieldhouse, plenty of money and a national recognition after two straight national title game appearances. No doubt, the gap has grown between the two programs.

It's up to the new staff to narrow it.

Butler lost its exhibition opener Wednesday night 53-50 to Northern State.

But that won't change the opinion of Detroit's Ray McCallum or most of the coaches in the Horizon League.

The Titans may have the most talent, but the Bulldogs are still the pick to win the conference.

"They've gone to the national championship game two straight seasons,'' said Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew, who is entering his first year as head coach after serving as a Valpo assistant. "It's hard not to pick them to win the league. They still have some of the best talent in the league.''

The common theme among the league's coaches is that if Detroit senior center Eli Holman is playing, the Titans can dethrone Butler.

But he won't be playing -- at least for the immediate future. McCallum said Wednesday night that Holman is still not with the team after being removed from all team-related activities in late September. The Varsity News reported on Sept. 28 that Holman assaulted a student in mid-September. Holman led the team in rebounding (9.8 ppg) and was third in scoring (11.8) last season. Take Holman, a former Indiana recruit for Kelvin Sampson, out of the lineup, and the Titans remain formidable. But they lose their inside presence.

"Eli is still away from the team right now, and he's trying to work his way back,'' McCallum said.

But Detroit has the best backcourt in the conference: sophomore Ray McCallum Jr. (13.5 ppg, 4.9 apg, preseason player of the year), senior Chase Simon (13.5 ppg) and junior Jason Calliste (8.6 ppg). Add senior forward Nick Minnerath (11.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) -- whom McCallum Sr. said will be a superb power forward who can knock down 3s -- to the mix, and the Travis Leslie-like Doug Anderson at small forward, and the Titans have a good squad. McCallum is already calling Anderson a human highlight film for his dunks.

"They're still pretty good without him, but they're not the same force inside without Eli,'' said Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter.

"I think Detroit can [knock off Butler],'' said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters. "Detroit has three of the top five players in the league. It surprised me that they weren't picked No. 1. Butler has been good for so long, and they lost the player who was the best player, in my estimation, the past four years and that's Matt Howard. [Detroit] has a very good point guard in McCallum, great size and great length. Minnerath may be the best 4-man in the league. I won't be surprised if he's leading them in scoring. They're on the verge, but they haven't completed the task. They've got the veterans now.''

McCallum isn't sold yet.

Detroit finished tied for the fifth-best record in the Horizon last season at 10-8, three games behind the three-team tie for first -- Milwaukee, Butler and Cleveland State. The Titans were one game above .500 overall at 17-16. McCallum was quick to point out that in his team's combined eight games against the four league schools that finished ahead of Detroit (including second-place Valparaiso), the Titans won only one game -- Cleveland State at home in early February.

But Detroit was picked to finish second to Butler in the preseason poll, losing out by 15 points. The Titans did receive 19 first-place votes to Butler's 28 in a vote from the conference's coaches, media and sports information directors.

The Titans had three of the five players on the preseason first team: McCallum, Holman and Simon. Butler had none.

"I'm not falling for it,'' McCallum Sr. said. "We're just crawling along from going 10th to seventh to fifth. We're getting closer, but we'll see. We haven't done it yet. We haven't done it yet. It's time for us to step up with Cleveland State, Butler, Milwaukee and Valparaiso.''

Butler has its own identity. The Bulldogs will grind out games and have a defensive mindset, and they never seem to beat themselves. They are a bear to play in nonconference and can hang with any team in the country.

Detroit must become relevant in November and December to chase Butler in February and March.

"Butler knows who they are,'' McCallum said. "[Coach] Brad [Stevens] has the program to the point where they've lost key players, and they just fill in the blanks and then they're household names. Nothing fazes them. They just go out and play the same way every night.''

McCallum isn't worried about rebounding or scoring, but consistent defense is a concern. The Titans will shoot more 3s without Holman, McCallum said, but they have to figure out who they are from the outset. Butler knows. Detroit must figure it out in order to get through a decent nonconference schedule that has the Titans playing at Notre Dame, hosting St. John's and Mississippi State, and visiting Alabama and Akron.

Jeter said Butler has always had the mindset that it can play with any team in the country. Where the Bulldogs have struggled, according to Jeter, is when the competition is mediocre.

"It seems like there is a big weight off of them, and they play a lot differently once they get to the [NCAA] tournament,'' Jeter said. "You see it when they've had to play a team like Old Dominion or Murray State early in the tournament.''

Milwaukee swept the Bulldogs during the regular season, but couldn't beat Butler when the game mattered most -- at home in the Horizon League tournament title game with the NCAA automatic berth on the line. Detroit needs to adopt that mindset of finishing off Butler when the games count.

"Butler deserves the limelight; they've earned it,'' Jeter said. "But there are teams in this league that have pushed them.''

To Stevens' credit, he has constantly mentioned how tough it is to win on the road in the Horizon League. Butler has consistently been the hunted team and easily the biggest game on the road in the league, whether it's at Youngstown State or UIC. Detroit won't get that same rep this season, even with a potential first-place team. But the Titans have to approach every game like they are the team to beat.

"We've got 11 postseason teams on our schedule, with no easy games on our schedule,'' McCallum said. "We'll be in a position to win some of those games. But we've got to approach it that we've got to win the Horizon League tournament. To go to the Big Dance, we've gone out and scheduled up this year. Hopefully it will work out for us.''