While missing the NCAA Tournament last year, Valparaiso had arguably one of the best seasons in school history by going 30-7 overall and 16-2 in the Horizon League. The Crusaders suffered a loss to Green Bay in the Horizon League Conference Tournament semifinals which ultimately landed them a spot in the NIT. While it wasn’t the NCAA tournament, the Crusaders were relentless in the NIT. Valpo was able to knock off Texas Southern in the first round, and then went onto beat Florida State, St. Mary’s and BYU before eventually falling to a very solid George Washington team in the tournament final. While two very important players to last year’s squad, guard Keith Carter and center Vashil Fernandez, are graduated, this team still returns many key pieces along with a new coach that will make them a mid-major team to watch this season.
1. Alec Peters
The 6-foot-9 senior forward from Washington, Illinois came to Valparaiso as a freshman and no one was very familiar with him. Before committing to Valpo and then head coach Bryce Drew, Peters held offers from schools such as Butler, Illinois State, Boston College, and St. Louis. Now the former non-ranked recruit is considered one of the top players in the college basketball and will most likely hear his name called in the 2017 NBA Draft. As a junior, Peters averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds per game. While he isn’t the most athletic player on the court, he’s considered a matchup nightmare for defenses. With his length and size, Peters is labeled as one of the toughest players to guard in college basketball because of his ability to shoot consistently from 3 and is one of the most efficient players from inside the arc. Peters is the man at Valpo this year and could very well be the main reason his team makes it to the NCAA Tournament this March.
A common theme we’ve seen in college basketball recently is the importance of the freshman. Valparaiso has four freshman who will come in and make an impact right away. With the graduation of Keith Carter, the starting point guard position is up for grabs. The favorite to fill this void is freshman Micah Bradford. Bradford, a 5-11 guard from Bourbonnais, Illinois, is known for his quickness and scoring ability along with his 3 point shooting. Bradford’s ability to shoot the ball give this Valparaiso offense another threat from the outside which they often lacked last year when Alec Peters wasn’t hitting his shots. John Kiser, a 6-foot-5 wing, is considered a steal for Valpo. His high basketball IQ and motor along with his passing ability could be the ticket for him to be able crack the rotation and serve as an energy guy off the bench. With the departure of 6-foot-11 Fernandez, Valpo adds two more big men to the frontcourt. 6-foot-11 freshman Jaume Sorolla and 7-foot-2 redshirt freshman Derrik Smits will give this team much needed depth at the 4 and 5 positions. Smits, son of former NBA player Rik Smits, will likely make the biggest impact out of these two. The Zionsville, Indiana product tore two ligaments in his ankle last year during a early season game and was granted a redshirt. After his surgery, Smits added 20 pounds of muscle to his already large frame and has improved on his finishing inside and his midrange jumper.
While Peters will be the guy for Valpo this year. The Crusaders still have plenty of upperclassmen returning that will look to take on a bigger role this season. Senior Shane Hammink and junior Tevonn Walker both have multiple years under their belt at Valpo and will take on a new role this year as leaders alongside Peters. Hammink, who averaged 8.9 points as a junior last year, is a 6-foot-7 guard is a tall physical guard who has the ability to back down smaller defenders inside the paint and can dribble past taller defenders. Walker put up similar numbers last year by averaging 8.8 points per game and in moments showed he could be one of the top guards in the Horizon League. Along with Walker and Hammnik, junior guard Lexus Williams returns. After averaging 6.5 points and 2.4 assists in his freshman year, Williams sat out the 2014-15 season after tearing his ACL and managed to sit out most of the 2015-16 season with the same injury. While Williams may not be able to be the type of player he was before the injury, he will provide the Crusaders with experience at the point guard position and can teach freshman point guard Micah Bradford the ropes.
4. New Coach
After putting Valparaiso Basketball back on the map, Bryce Drew decided his next head coaching position would be at Vanderbilt. During his five years as head coach at Valparaiso, Drew helped lead his team to two NCAA Tournament berths and four Horizon League regular season championships. A day after it was announced that Drew took the job at Vandy, assistant coach Matt Lottich was named the 22nd Head Coach in Valparaiso Basketball history. After arriving to Valpo in the summer of 2013, the 33 year old Lottich has been on the bench for one NCAA Tournament appearance and two regular season conference championships. As a player, Lottich was a physical hard working player who never took off a possession and that translates over to his coaching style. Shortly after being promoted, Lottich hit the recruiting trail and was already putting the team through workouts like he’s been in charge for years.
5. Non-Conference Schedule
Coach Lottich and his team will have one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country to open up the year. In their first game, the Crusaders will travel to Eugene to play the USA Today Preseason No. 5 ranked Oregon Ducks. Ten days later, the Rhode Island Rams come to the ARC to battle Valpo. Ranked No. 24 in the USA Today Preseason Poll, the Rams are expected to be one of the top mid-major teams in the country this year with the contributions of star point guard E.C. Matthews who will be a tough test for the Valpo backcourt. Just before conference play begins, Valparaiso will head down to Lexington, Kentucky to play Coach Cal and the Kentucky Wildcats. Playing against the No. 4, 5 and 24th ranked teams in the country will provide this talented Valpo team with tough games before Horizon League play begins. These games will help Coach Lottich and his team prepare for conference play and give them a good idea in what they need to do in order to clinch a berth to the NCAA Tournament and be able make a run.